Climbing hills and mountains: the labouring convert.

A previous blog post looked at Petrarch’s conversion experience while ascending Mount Ventoux in Provence. While Petrarch’s account of his spiritual awakening was dominated by his reading of Augustine’s Confessions I want to take a moment to think about the mountain.

Topography and terrain occupy an important place in stories of conversion, perhaps reaching their summit(!) with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in which the hapless Christian traverses a spiritual landscape reminiscent of the mythical lands occupied by the errant knights of romance. Movement through time and space is figured by both Petrarch and Bunyan as spiritual work or labour; for Bunyan this is purely allegorical but for Petrarch figurative and literal movement are combined. This is a common trope of conversion narratives, from Tobie Matthew’s journey to Rome where he converts to Catholicism, to James Wadsworth’s recount of his escape from continental Jesuits and his eventual return to English soil and the rejected Protestantism of his father. The accounts of sailors who escaped captivity and the allures of Islam in the Levant also mirror this Odysseus-like narrative of journey, toil and return: a narrative trope often read through the lens of the Biblical story of the prodigal son.

John Donne in his Satire 3 similarly describes the ‘hard deeds’ and the ‘body’s pains’ necessary in order to reach the hill of Truth:


…on a huge hill,

Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go;

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so;

Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

To will, implies delay, therefore now do:

Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too

The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries

Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

The labour of climbing – whether it be a mountain or the metaphorical path towards God, or both – implies a material or bodily process of ascension (in both its secular and spiritual meaning).  Why is it important that the body works alongside or concurrently with the soul? Is the extended metaphor of the journey necessary to the formation of a spiritual narrative? Does the conversion narrative’s reliance upon this metaphor in some way connect the ‘genre’ to the formation of ‘literary’ narrative?

One thought on “Climbing hills and mountains: the labouring convert.

  1. This relationship between the spiritual and physical journey(s) within stories of conversion is fascinating. As you mentioned above, the narrative of James Wadsworth is typical of many conversion narratives by involving a number of voyages with a series of captures and ‘a million of dangers’. This can be seen as more complex when read in light of Augustine’s Confessions, which gives an additional perspective to these dangers. Augustine describes the emotions of a sea-voyage, explaining that: ‘the storm tosses the sailors, threatens shipwreck; all wax pale at approaching death; sky and sea are calmed, and they are exceeding joyed, as having been exceeding afraid’ (8.3.7). He summarises that ‘the very pleasures of human life men acquire by difficulties’. What is interesting to consider is whether this is the product, or the cause of conversion. Were those that experienced such journeys and experiences first-hand, more likely to get struck with spiritual clarity? Or are such narratives constructed because they more symbolically, and dramatically, portray this journey?

    There was even the expectation to experience this mental and physical voyage when there was no long- distance journey to be made. In ‘The life of the Reverend Mr. Geo. Trosse Late Minister of the Gospel in the City of Exon (1714),’ despite having an (alcohol induced) adventure of his own that involved riding back from the City, falling from his horse and being carried to bed by a Servant, it is his subsequent hallucinations, actions and conversion that are intriguing. Possibly echoing Augustine’s own conversion narrative, he describes how:

    ‘I lay my self down flat upon the Ground, and thrust in my Head there as far as I could; but because I could not fully do it, I put my Hand into the Hole, and took out Earth and Dust, and sprinkled it on my head’

    Before, he was ‘without a sense of God’, and it is perhaps through these actions that he is able to physically experience and understand his journey, through his senses. However, it is important to bear in mind that the narrative is written a number of years after the event, and at the time the author was hallucinating and out of control, therefore to what extent is it an accurate account? Or is the author adding physical actions and experiences that are expected from a conversion narrative?

    Whether a narrative construction or not, all these texts encourage a discussion of, not just the emotional, but also the physical, tactile and sensual experiences and actions often associated with conversion.

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