I have wanted to write and recommend this book for well over a month now, but the words never seemed to come to me when I sat down to write. This book has become one of those cornerstone books for me, one that has literary and figuratively changed my life. It has helped spell out in words much of what I want in terms of my relationship with God, and what God wants with me. It has also described to some degree parts of my journey so far, and sheds light, be it figuratively, on what is ahead of me. It scares and thrills me at the same time.
The book is Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. It is an allegory of the spiritual journey towards God. An allegory, in case you forgot the word from English class, is were everything in the story is a symbol for something. In the case of this book, the symbols are obvious in the names of the characters, but the descriptions of the scenery, sounds, and smells are also important. There are also many references to scripture, especially to the book of Songs of Solomon (also known as the Canticles). The book is easy to read and flows along at a good pace. The story is rich in symbolism, all grounded on solid scripture and the foundations of the Christian faith.
The title of the book comes from scripture, Habakkuk 3:19—
The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hind’s feet, and he will make me walk upon mine high places.
Note: A hind is a female red deer, just as a hart is a male red deer. The scripture reference is used to symbolize how deer are sure-footed as they bound and leap with ease among the rocks and crags on the high places of the mountains.
The main character is named Much Afraid. She is a member of the Fearing clan who lives in the Valley of Humiliation. Much Afraid is a cripple in that her feet were “so crooked that they often caused her to limp and stumble as she went about her work” for the Chief Shepherd. The Chief Shepherd lived and worked for the king of the High Places, the tops of beautiful snow capped mountains that could be seen from the valley. The Shepherd seemed to travel with much ease and speed between the High Places and the valley.
Most people of the valley, and especially her family, did not like the Shepherd and his workers tending to the king’s flocks. It was a particular embarrassment for them that one of their own worked for him. As a result, the family tried their best to have Much Afraid marry her cousin named Craven Fear. Much Afraid of course did not like her cousin and was “overwhelmed with horror at the mere idea” of marrying him.
When Much Afraid told the Chief Shepherd of her family’s plans, it should be no surprise to hear his first words were, “Don’t be afraid”. Much Afraid laments to the Shepherd her wish to escape the valley and her family and go to the High Places. The Shepherd had been waiting to hear these words from her and offered to lead her to the High Places.
The Shepherd then planted the Seed of Love in Much Afraid’s heart. At the end of the journey, the Love planted in her heart will have bloomed and she could enter the High Places. No one without the blossom of Love in their heart may enter the High Places. The Shepherd also promised Much Afraid that she will be given feet like hind’s feet so that she will be able to walk with him. He will give her a new name and she will be made perfect.
They met a couple days later at the bottom of the foothills to the mountains of the High Places. There, the Shepherd introduced Much Afraid to her two traveling companions that he chose specially for her, Suffering and Sorrow. She looked in fright at her two traveling companions. They were strange and quiet, and spoke a dialect of the mountain people she did not understand. She almost recoiled in horror when the Shepherd told her that there would be times when she would reach her hands out to take hold of the hands of Suffering and Sorrow for help.
The Shepherd traveled with Much Afraid and her two companions for a ways, but had to depart. He told her that he would always be there, as if he was invisible, and all she had to do was call out his name and he would come bounding to where ever she was.
In the foothills, the path become steep at times. Much Afraid had to climb over rocks and boulders. The going was painfully slow at times. Her crippled feet hindered her progress. She would stumble and fall and scrape her knees. Suffering and Sorrow would reach out their hands to help, but most of the time Much Afraid toughed it out on her own. As time went on, she grew stronger, and her pace quickened a little. She did not mind it so much because she could see that she was climbing toward the High Places, even though progress was slow and they were still very far off.
Her family was outraged to discover that she had gone off with the Chief Shepherd to the High Places. They decided to send their good-looking cousin Pride after her. If he couldn’t get her to come back, no one could. He caught up with her one day in the foothills. He said things to her that made her start to doubt the promises of the Shepherd. Like he will abandon you high in the mountains; you will never make it; you are being foolish; come back to the valley with me. At one point, she even took a hold of Pride’s hand and was about to take a step down toward the valley. But instead she called out to the Shepherd and he immediately appeared from around the corner. He drove off Pride and gently chastised Much Afraid for if she had been holding the hands of Suffering and Sorrow, she would not have had another hand to hold on to Pride. For a ways after that, Much Afraid’s legs hurt and progress was very slow. A setback of sorts, but she kept on with the journey and painfully she regained her strength and pace.
Eventually the path appears to lead away from the High Places and go down into the desert. After traveling through the desert for a while, they travel along the Shores of Loneliness. The path finally turns back to where they can see the High Places again. When they get back to the mountains, they climb the Precipice of Injury, travel through the Forest of Danger and Tribulation, the Mist, and the Valley of Loss.
Mean while, Much Afraid’s family decided to send Craven Fear and her cousins Bitterness, Resentment, and Self-Pity (a particularly sly person) to go look for Pride. He had too much pride to return to the clan and tell them that he had failed. They catch up with Much Afraid and have a big conformation. She knew better this time and immediately called for the Shepherd’s help. From that point on, they heckled her from behind rocks and trees as she made her way along the path.
There is still much more symbolism in the story, especially with flowers and water. There are some very beautiful prayers and references to scripture. There were than a few scenes where I had to just put the book down, and pray like Much Afraid did, often with tears in my eyes because I so empathized with her.
As I said above, this book has changed my life. Thomas Green, in When the Well Runs Dry, says that this book describes well in story and allegory much what St. John of the Cross says about the dark night, what St. Teresa of Avila describes in The Interior Castle, and Thomas Merton describes about the desert in New Seeds for Contemplation.
This book has given me words and imagery—a metaphor—to express much of what I have and am going through. I know this is just only a story of words and symbols. They are like signs pointing to the truth. The trick now is not to get too attached to the signs and symbols, and remember to look to where they point. And when I do, I am overwhelmed and awed at it all.
Note: There is a sequel to Hind’s Feet on High Places called Mountain of Spices where Much Afraid, having been to the High Places and made perfect with a new name, returns to the Valley of Humiliation to bring hope and love to her hopeless clan members.