Climb every mountain

Who may ascent the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
(Psalm 24)

Fr Noel O'Neil

Come the weekend, Americans have their baseball and football, Australians have their cricket and Australian Rules, and the Irish have their GAA and rugby. Come the weekend, what is the most popular 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 colourful parka matched with pants, heavy woollen 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).

My regular climb would be Mudeong Mountain, which is here in Kwangju City where I live. A forty minute ride on city bus No 1187 (that is the height of the mountain) brings you to the bus park where you are welcomed by hundreds of other hikers all equally clad in colourful, high-tech athletic gear. You notice different groups clustering together as they gather around their leader and listen to his instructions. You are also likely to see that lovely sight of a 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 the toddler on their dad’s shoulder 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 keen on getting an opportunity to practice their English.

Fr Noel O’Neill with a group of hikers. Photo: © Fr Noel O’Neill
For Koreans, mountains are not just a place to hike in but a place regarded as “holy ground”. According to Korean myth, Dangun, who founded the nation’s first kingdom in 2337BC, 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 midst of the mountains. Some of them date 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 small 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 odour 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 rosey 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 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” and “holy ground”. Rightly so. For there you really feel the presence of God in the beauty of nature.

Columban Fr Noel O’Neill is from Limerick City and has been working in South Korea since his ordination in 1957. He founded the Rainbow Community which provides services. 

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