The Presence of God in Nature
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? (Psalm 24)
Come the weekend, Americans have their baseball and football. Australians have their cricket and Australian rules football, and the Irish have rugby. Come the weekend, what is the most famous pastime for Koreans? Mountain hiking! Mountains are everywhere covering more than two–thirds of the country, and hiking is almost everybody's hobby. It is reported that one in three Koreans goes hiking more than once a month. For me, half a dozen hikes in the year is my limit.
What first struck me on those hikes was the need to have the right gear, otherwise you would stick out like a sore thumb. Cap-cooling yet equally heat retaining colorful parka matched with pants-heavy woolen socks covering the bottom of the legs of your pants-climbing boots-two foldable hiking sticks to assist you with your balance-and a backpack with a bottle of drinking water, a piece of fruit and gimbap (rice rolled in sheets of dried seaweed) are needed.
My regular climb would be Mudeong Mountain, which is here in Gwaangju City where I live. A forty minute ride on the city bus no. 1187 (the height of the mountain) brings you to the bus park where you are welcomed by hundreds of other hikers all equally clad in colorful, high-tech athletic gear. You notice different groups clustering together as they gather around their leader and listen to his instructions. You also find that lovely sight of father and mother with their one or two young children bracing themselves for the climb. On the way up you run into hikers of all ages, from toddlers on their dads' shoulders to the 80- and 90-year-olds who are seeking every opportunity to inform you of their age and await your compliments. As a foreigner, I am occasionally approached by a high school or a young college student who is keen in getting an opportunity to practice their English.
For Koreans mountains are not just a place to hike but are regarded as "holy ground." According to Korean myth, Dangun who founded the nation's first kingdom in 2337 B.C. was born on the Baekdu (white headed) mountain to a mother who was transformed from a bear into a woman. Korea's most famous temples are situated in the mountains where some of them go back to the seventh century about a thousand years before the arrival of Christianity. Korean literature and poetry praises the beauty of her mountains and makes reference to mountains as "sacred places."
My most memorable mountain hike was when I spent a weekend at a Buddhist temple. The monk who was our guide invited our little group to join him on a hike to the hermitage at the summit of the mountain. As we were about to start the climb the monk turned to us and said, "I request you to climb the mountain in silence and awake your senses to experience the beauty of nature all around you." I smelled the scent from the wild flowers on all sides of me and the peculiar odor coming from the trampled leaves. My ears listened to the chirping of the birds as they were accompanied with the drumming sound of a nearby waterfall. I took my red apple from my backpack and took a bite. Its juicy taste was delicious as my tongue kept kicking it around in the playground of my mouth. I felt the touch of the gentle breeze hit me slightly on my right cheek while it ignored my envious left cheek. As I passed and gazed at the hundreds of rocks above and below I wondered how many libraries we would fill if only we could interpret and write their stories.
The Korean people regard their mountains as "sacred places," as "holy ground." Rightly so. For there you really feel the presence of God in the beauty of nature.
Columban Fr. Noel O'Neill lives and works in South Korea.