Always Another Climb

Because Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of this mountaintop encounter, this story comes around in the lectionary every year around this time on Transfiguration Sunday.  It seems a bit odd to come back to it just two Sundays later on this second Sunday in Lent, but I do so for a particular reason today. Over the years, many of us likely have heard lots of sermons on this story. I don't know about your experience, but most of the sermons I have read, heard or preached on the transfiguration have taken one of two tacks.  One has been a focus on the glory itself, the mysterium tremendum at the heart of the story, as Jesus is transfigured and becomes dazzlingly radiant before Peter, James and John, as a foreshadowing of his eventual glorification as the Son of God.  Another approach, also faithful to the text, has had as its focus the valley of need that awaits Jesus and the disciples at the end of this wonderful mountaintop experience. 

But I have chosen this alternate gospel reading today because I have been struck by something different--something that comes less from the text itself than from the way the text converges with the life experiences of many people in our time.  There are many sacred texts that speak of mountains as holy spaces where one might encounter the living God, and almost all of them speak of experiences on those mountains, at those summits, and of what happens upon descent from the mountain.  But none of them speak more than a whisper about the ascent.  What about the trek up the mountain?  Exodus says the Lord summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai and Moses simply "went up." (Ex. 19:20) Luke says that Jesus took Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray. (Lk. 9:28)  Now, I've climbed mountains of varying heights and degrees of difficulty before, and I have to say that there's more to it than these texts suggest. And, indeed, if we think of the mountain as a metaphor for the human encounter with God--and Scripture offers plenty of warrant for such an understanding--the climb up the mountain in itself is a worthy metaphor for the human approach to God.

I am drawn this day to the ascent--not so much to the clouds and the light and the mystery at the summit, as central as they are, nor to the descent at the other end of the experience, as important as it is to Christian discipleship, but to the climb itself as a way of talking about our approach to the experience of God.  Robert Morris writes that the mountain ascent is:

a particularly apt symbol for the challenge of changing vistas, climates, and dangers the psyche is likely to face as our...capacity for God is stretched and strengthened. As in climbing a mountain, the conscious encounter with spiritual reality may begin easily. The unskilled mountain climber setting off into the foothills with naïve excitement at this "wonderful" experience quickly discovers, upon reaching [even] the lower slopes of the mountain, that the body has limits and the soul has fears brought out by the very climbing itself.  Both body and soul need to be challenged, stretched, and strengthened for the journey to continue.[1]

A few years back, I read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, a wonderfully funny story about the author's attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail.  Early in the book Bryson described his first day of hiking, which began on the gently sloping access trails that lead to the trailhead on Springer Mountain in north Georgia and then on toward an ultimate destination some 2,100 miles away on Mount Katahdin  in Maine.  Despite all his excitement and all his planning and all his preparation, Bryson said that first day on the trail was simply awful:

First days on hiking trips always are [he said]. I was hopelessly out of shape-- hopelessly.  The pack weighed way too much. Way too much.  I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared.  Every step was a struggle.

The hardest part [said Bryson] was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill.  The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see what's to come.  Between the curtain of trees at every side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come.  Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long.  Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs--nearly there now!--but this is a pitiless deception.  The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before.  Still you stagger on.  What else can you do?[2]

If I hadn't known Bryson was describing a hike on the Appalachian Trail, I might have thought that he was describing metaphorically the journey of human life or of human least the kinds of life and faith journeys many of us have experienced.  When we are young, our lives may seem most of the time like level paths, smooth-going with scarcely a tree root or an icy patch to trip us up.  But as we grow older and the plots and treks of our lives get more complex, our lives and our faith are more often defined by the hills we must climb, by the sweeping upslopes, the sometimes steep and rocky mountain paths, the strenuous treks we must take, fraught with perils and pitfalls.  There are times in such hikes when not only reaching our destination, but even our survival is in question.  In our advanced years, the climbs may seem relentless, wearying.  We may find it easy to ignore God in the flatlands where everything is smooth and we are betrayed by our own progress into illusions of self-sufficiency.  When the path gets steep and treacherous, in anxiety and fear we are more likely to cry out to God.  Ultimately, in those times when we do reach the summit, when we do come to the end of an arduous and frightful journey, or at least to a plateau or resting place, there...there is where we may catch a glimpse of grace and even glory...there where we may experience profound gratitude. 

It's no wonder that when one does finally reach the high ground, one wants to stay.  That was surely the case with Peter in Luke's story today.  Having reached the summit--not just the top of the mountain, but a profound experience of holiness and mystery and glory--he didn't want to leave.  He wanted to stay, to freeze the moment in time.

One scholar of Christian spirituality, John Mogabgab, understands the metaphor of the mountain in our spiritual journeys.  After all, in encounters between natural geography and human endeavor, Mogabgab asks, what is more remote, more unapproachable, and more immoveable than a mountain?

Mountains rise out of the lowlands in a massive show of power.  Ancient, solid, imposing, they permit only the most minimal human footprint.  Mountains wear a stunning succession of ecospheres, from forests and high meadows to scrub brush and sheer rock adorned with perennial snowfields. At high altitudes, air becomes as thin as a veil.  Larger mountains are a presence so prodigious they create their own weather systems.

The Bible portrays mountains as settings for God's self-disclosure.  Moses receives the Law and looks upon the Lord on Mount Sinai.  On Mount Horeb, Elijah communes with God in a mysterious silence.  From a wilderness rise, Jesus teaches the blessed ways of the kingdom. Atop [a mountain] Peter, James and John see Jesus in the fullness of his divine glory.  Mountaintops are regions in which discernment sharpens and contemplative visions crystallize, but only after the rigors of the ascent.

"When confronted with an increase in altitude," writes mountaineer Jon Krakauer, "the human body adjusts in manifold ways, from increasing respiration, to changing the pH of the blood, to radically boosting the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells--a conversion that takes weeks to complete."  The physiological changes needed to sustain life in the higher reaches of the great mountains have their spiritual counterparts in the soul's ascent to God.  Love's desire for intimate communion with the Holy One will demand adjustments to the frame of our thinking, the content of our feeling, the direction of our willing--a conversion that takes years to take hold.[3]

No wonder Peter didn't get it immediately!  It takes time, you see...a long time...maybe years...maybe a lifetime.

I can't say for certain how long it takes.  I only know that it is worth the climb, and that at the end of the path we may well see the glory of God, that we may well know God as never before.  But such a goal surely does not reduce the dangers or difficulties of the ascent.  There is so much to learn and understand about our limits, so much to grasp about proper discipline and preparation, and so much strength needed beyond our own perceived strength if we are ever to reach the summit.

The fourth-century mystic Gregory of Nyssa said, "The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb."[4]  I know first-hand that it's a difficult climb.  That much I know.  How long it will take, or what kind of effort, I don't know and can't say.  I don't know because, like most of you, I am still climbing.  And some days the ascent is treacherous and demanding, and I find myself more than a bit shaky and frightfully short of breath.

But it is worth the relentless climb; of that I am absolutely convinced.  It is worth the climb.

Go the journey with us, O God, for the path is steep and our breath is short.  Accompany us, we pray . Accompany us with your grace.  Amen.


[1] Robert Morris, "Riding the Wild Mountain Ox," Weavings, XVI: 4, July/August 2001, 7.

[2] Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 35.

[3] Mogabgab, Weavings, issue cited above, 2-3.  The citation from Krakauer is from Into Thin Air: a Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, New York, Doubleday, 1997, 90.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 58, trans, Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978, 93.