Mountains to Try Our Souls

The author in the North Cascades, August 2018.

For once I stood
In the white windy presence of eternity.

–– Eunice Tietjens, “The Most-Sacred Mountain”

 

For most of European history, people found little pleasure in mountain landscapes. Mountains were a nuisance––obstacles to travel and economically unproductive. And they had little value as scenery. Their artless, irregular shapes disturbed classical ideals of order. Christians of the Middle Ages would allegorize the chaos of wild wastes and broken stones as the unsightly rubbish of a fallen world––the postlapsarian antithesis of Eden’s gentle and harmonious garden. As late as the eighteenth century, travelers crossing the Alps drew the curtains of their carriages to prevent any upsetting glimpses of geological chaos.

Yet the theological mind has long been lured by the sacredness of mountains––the places where earth dares to reach for heaven, and the solidity of matter converses with clouds. Their alien, forbidding environment evokes the mysterium tremendum, that dangerous energy “beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.” [i]

Dante and Virgil as the foot of Mount Purgatory (after a 14th century illumination)

Dante’s Purgatorio provides the supreme western model of physical ascent as transformative spiritual pilgrimage. Its seven-story mountain offers neither picturesque scenery nor recreational adventure. It’s no place for the casual or careless visitor. It exists only as a rigorous ordeal of purgation and rebirth. Such mountains are best avoided unless you want to change your life.

In contrast, Dante’s Italian contemporary, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) left us a rare record of medieval mountain walking as an appreciative outing unburdened by excessive meaning. When he ascended Provence’s Mount Ventoux in the spring of 1336, he became “the first to climb a mountain for its own sake, and to enjoy the view from the top.” [ii] That may be a slight exaggeration, but Petrarch’s enthusiastic write-up of his day-hike does feel closer to Wordsworth than to Dante. He took pleasure in the nearness of drifting clouds and the distant vistas of snowy Alps and the Mediterranean blue.

Petrarch remained medieval when he reflected on the allegorical dimensions of his walk. “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain,” he told himself, “happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life.” And when he opened the copy of Augustine’s Confessions he always carried with him, the passage that caught his eye made him worry whether he had been enjoying the creation more than its Creator. If only he had brought Mary Oliver instead!

But still, the Italian humanist couldn’t really renounce the pleasure of that walk. “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote. Centuries would pass before it became common practice to climb mountains simply because they are there, and embrace the experience as an invigorating challenge. [iii]

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Anglican theologian Thomas Burnet’s response to the Alps in 1671, we can foresee the emergence of a more modern sensibility. But it didn’t come easily. Still deeply imprinted with Europe’s cultural aversion to mountains as the “ruins of a broken earth” and “a dead heap of rubbish,” Burnet was appalled by the Alps’ “ghastliness,” disorder, deformity and lack of symmetrical balance. They threatened his understanding of God as the Great Architect whose glory shone in Creation’s meticulous design. “I was not easy,” he confessed, “till I could give my self some tolerable Account how that Confusion came in Nature.” [iv] But at the same time, he was unable to dismiss the Alps’ emotional impact.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, in her classic study of the “aesthetics of the infinite,” describes the drama of Burnet’s fierce struggle between head and heart:

“Whenever we look among his passages on wild nature, we find conflict between intellectual condemnation of asymmetry and emotional response to the attraction of the vast. . . If Burnet could not forgive Nature for her confusion, he could not deny the effect of her vastness. . . The emotions he felt among the Alps were enthusiastic, primitive, and violent and as such repellent to a disciple of Reason.” [v]

Burnet tried to resolve his inner conflict by writing The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), blaming Creation’s visual disarray on the Flood––and the human sin that caused it. The post-diluvian mess of mountains and other wastelands was therefore no failure of intelligent design. The Divine Architect was off the hook. Neat, but I suspect that the unnerving wildness of the Alps continued to haunt Burnet’s dreams.

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

By the eighteenth century, such lingering resistance to the sublime began to collapse. When poet Thomas Gray toured the Alps in 1739, he looked upon the same “magnificent rudeness” which had so disturbed Burnet, but he fell for it utterly. “You here meet with all the beauties so savage and horrid a place can present you with,” he wrote in his journal. Rocks, cascades, ancient forests “all concur to form one of the most poetical scenes imaginable.” [vi]

As if the ancient curse had been forever lifted, the mountains would become for nature lovers like John Muir an inexhaustible source of joy and blessing. “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” he wrote about his beloved Sierra in 1911, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” [vii]

But if the mountains can bring such joy, has their wild otherness been forever tamed? Those who climb say otherwise. My friend Robert Leonard Reid, an experienced mountaineer and one of my favorite writers, sees engagement with the high country as inherently spiritual:

“No sport that I know of has spawned a literature as introspective, as probing, or ultimately as religious as mountaineering. The sport causes climbers to experience unimaginable hardships and then, at the ends of their ropes, to plumb their souls for meaning. They emerge from their excursions to the edge of unknowing with insights into their spiritual natures that transcend the possibilities of mere sport. The literature is replete with tales of magic and mystery, of wild humor and terrible sadness and loss and then rebirth––all integral to the practice of climbing, all the result of protracted contact with the unseeable.” [viii]

 

Dante carried upward in a dream to Purgatory’s gate. (Gustave Dore)

I fell in love with mountains as a boy on family vacations at Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada range. There’s a 10,000’ peak above the lake, and the steep scramble to its summit was one of my favorite adventures. I’ve rambled the high country ever since, including Mt. Agazziz (13,899’), Mt. Rainier (14,411’), and Mt. Whitney (14,505’).

I am drawn to the way mountains mean. I sometimes carry a copy of Purgatorio in my backpack. It’s a perfect guide for the pilgrim who seeks “the mountain where Justice tries our souls” (Purg.iii.3).  And a holy mountain was the subject of my first film as writer/director. It was a Pilgrim’s Progress ascending through a series of obstacles, ordeals, distractions and temptations. As the climber nears the summit, a suave Satanic figure urges him to be reasonable and admit the folly of his spiritual ascent. In our disenchanted world, what does the search matter when there’s nothing really to find? [ix]

“The mountain of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb,” said Gregory of Nyssa.[x] He used the word epiktasis (“straining forward to what lies ahead”) to describe the goal of human life, in this world and the next, as the endless pursuit of God’s inexhaustible mystery. Never knowing what’s beyond us is the life of faith. It’s why we keep climbing.

When Moses summited Mount Sinai, he disappeared into the Cloud of Unknowing, the dazzling darkness of divine mystery. Whatever happened to the Hebrew prophet up there, the mountain itself became a foundational archetype for every spiritual ascent. The Arabic name for Mount Sinai is Jebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain.” Although not the tallest of the region’s peaks, its volcanic mass, “rearing its giant brow above the plain, as if in scornful contemplation of the world beneath,” proved a persuasive indicator of its biblical authenticity. [xi] Two millennia of Christian pilgrimage have further burnished its sanctity.

An English pilgrim’s description of its “savage grandeur” in 1885 speaks the language of the serious mountaineer: “The whole aspect of the surroundings impresses one with the conviction that he is here gazing on the face of Nature under one of her most savage forms, in view of which the idea of solitude, of waste, and of desolation connect with those of awe and admiration.” [xii]

There are more difficult ascents, but none more serious. St. Stephen, a 6thcentury monk at Sinai’s monastery of St. Catherine, would stand at the “Shrive Gate” where the 3000-step Stairway of Repentance began, posing to every aspiring climber the challenge of Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in God’s holy place?

You needed to make the correct response if you wanted to set foot on the holy mountain:

Those who have clean hands, and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
They shall receive blessing from the Lord,
and righteousness from the God of their salvation. [xiii]

I climbed Mt. Sinai in 1989, reciting the Jesus Prayer as my tired legs slogged up the final 750 steps: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” At the summit, I celebrated Holy Eucharist with a community of Anglican and Catholic pilgrims. I also managed to drop my binoculars off a precipitous ledge. I had to laugh at this unwilled offering to the mountain. Their untimely end seemed a fitting metaphor for the mystic’s loss of natural sight in the presence of the holy

When I climbed Mt. Whitney nine years later, there would be a sudden burst of sunshine to brighten the cloud-shadowed summit, followed quickly by lightning and snow. But Mount Sinai provided no comparable display of power and might. Whatever the mountain of God wanted to tell me, it whispered in an unknown tongue. When I returned to the world below, this is what I set down in my journal:

Egeria, that talkative 4th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, is strangely mute about her experience on Mount Sinai. “Now that we had done all we wanted,” she wrote, “and climbed the summit of the mountain of God, we began the descent.” We have to wonder: what happened to her at the top? We long for a more eloquent reporter, perhaps a John of the Cross, who could write of his own spiritual progress,

 “The steeper upward that I flew on so vertiginous a quest,
the humbler and more lowly grew my spirit,
fainting in my breast.”

And what did experience at the summit? Hmm––Egeria was right. You can’t talk about it. Whatever I felt is irrelevant. The mountain is not about me; it pays no attention to my comings and goings. And whether such sublime indifference is a matter of annihilation or splendor is the question over which faith hangs suspended. [xiv]

Perhaps silence is the best homage we can offer our holy mountains. What is most valuable can never be possessed. What is most real can never be fully seen. Louis Golding makes the point perfectly in his 1937 account, “I Stood Upon Sinai”:

“I found I had got to the top of Gebel Musa, a grand mountain commanding grand views, but not to the top of Mount Sinai. For the Holy Mountain is a spiritual, not a physical experience. Few men have ever reached the summit, and few will get there again. Perhaps it is only when the Mountain is veiled round with impenetrable cloud, that the Mountain begins to be visible at all.” [xv]

 

The author on the summit of Mount Sinai, 1989.

 

Related Post: “Every common bush afire with God”

[i]Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy(1923), 28.

[ii]Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art(1949), 23.

[iii]You can read The Ascent of Mount Ventouxhere: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/petrarch-ventoux.asp

[iv]q. in Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959/1997), 207.

[v]Ibid., 213, 215, 220.

[vi]Ibid., 356.

[vii]John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra.

[viii]Robert Leonard Reid, “The Mountain of Love and Death” in Mountains of the Great Blue Dream(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 15-16. Reid’s writing about the high country is full of wit and wonder. His latest collection of writings, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West,just came out in paperback.

[ix]Ignatz(1972) is not currently available, but I’m working on it. I took the protagonist’s name from the mouse in Krazy Kat comics, with a simultaneous nod to Ignatian spirituality and the German term for a holy fool. The blockhead game played by the man in black references Death’s chess game in Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

[x]Life of Mosesii.46, in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106.

[xi]Edward Palmer in 1871, q. in Mount Sinai, Joseph J. Hobbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 100.

[xii]Edward Hull, in Hobbs, 123-24.

[xiii]Hobbs, 234.

[xiv]Personal journal, May 12, 1989.

[xv]Geographical Magazine6 (1937), q. in Hobbs, 239-40.

“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac.

 

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration