In the last ten years or so, I have become a fan of the New York Times columnist and NPR/PBS radio and television personality David Brooks. In some significant ways, my becoming a fan has been quite unlikely. I am a pretty liberal Catholic, and pretty liberal as well in my politics. Brooks for many years claimed to be a secular, atheistic Jew, and is a protégé of the very politically conservative Catholic William F. Buckley. But over the years Brooks’s intelligence, thoughtfulness, integrity, and basic moral sense has won me over-as he, on the other hand, has become more and more centrist in his politics and has journeyed to a deep and humble faith. I might not agree with everything he says or writes, but I do look forward to Friday nights on the PBS Newshour, and reading his column whenever I get the chance.
A few months ago, Brooks published a new book that I bought right away and have read with deep interest and amazement. It is entitled The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (Random House, 2019). It is both an autobiographical work and an invitation to live a deeper life of vocation, commitment, faith, and community.
The premise of the book is simple. There are two mountains we can climb in life. The first mountain is the mountain of self-identity, success, and career. The second is the mountain of humanity, morality, and relationship. The first mountain is for ourselves. The second mountain is where we give ourselves away. As Brooks puts it: “If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution….On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless” (xvi). You begin to climb the second mountain, perhaps, when you realize that the first mountain of riches, success, and fame is not all that it is cracked up to be. You realize this in a sense of emptiness having once reached the top, or when a personal or family tragedy knocks you off the summit and drags you into the valley. To climb the second mountain is not necessarily to completely reject the first mountain, but the first, you realize, is not where you find real life and real joy.
Our readings today, I think, call us to climb that second mountain. When all is said and done, the preacher Qoheleth tells us, life is empty (all is vanity) if we just are about acquiring things: “For what profit comes to someone from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which she or he has labored under the sun?” If we are mired in “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry,” Paul says, we really betray our Baptism, and so our deeper self. Baptism calls us to climb the second mountain, to seek what is “above.” It calls us beyond the “old self” to the “new self”: the self of sharing, the self of relationship, the self of giving oneself away, the self that gives oneself to Christ, and his vision.
Paul’s talk of “above” and “earthly” might not be the best way to put it today, but the point is clear — we discover the true value and beauty of this world when we recognize its ultimate relativity. “Take care to guard against all greed,” Jesus warns, “for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Life is more than building barns in which to store our accomplishments. We need to work to be “rich in what matters to God.”
I’ve often thought that a wonderful image of God is a mountain climbing guide who challenges us, cajoles us, persuades us to go beyond what we often feel content within our lives. It is an image of God that goes well with the image of Christianity as an adventure, an exciting, mind-expanding, self-expanding journey that leads us places that we never thought we could go, or to places we never even thought existed. It is an image of God that is quite demanding, calling us sometimes to leave what is comfortable behind, but only for our own good and growth. God’s Word today, embodied especially in Jesus, is that mountain climbing guide, calling us to the joy, the exhilaration, the thrill of climbing the second mountain, of being enriched by the climb itself, and being amazed at the view from the top.