Two years ago, as part of my stay in Israel, I had the opportunity to stand atop Mt. Tabor, the location where today’s gospel passage takes place. This was literally to be a “high point’ of our day as we began our return from the shores of Galilee to Jerusalem. We were told, on a clear day, we would be able to see for miles. . . . perhaps even beyond the borders of Israel and into Lebanon to our North and Syria to the west. Unfortunately, the day was cold and damp with intermittent rain and a strong wind. The view from the observation deck was obstructed by clouds, and with the wind so strong, we preferred the warmth of the Church over the dampness of the mountain top. Needless to say, this was not the “high” point of the trip it was meant to be.
Luckily for me, like many of us, this was not my first time atop a mountain. In my hometown of Simsbury, Connecticut, there is Simsbury Mountain. It’s truly more of a big hill than a mountain; “souring” maybe five hundred feet above the Farmington Valley, the summit is easily reached by foot. The effect however is still as exhilarating as if being atop one of the many Adirondack peaks. From the top of Simsbury Mountain, on a clear day, one can see for miles, to the west, downtown Hartford, and to the north, Springfield, Massachusetts.
Many times, during the years I lived in Simsbury, and on occasion after Maureen and I had moved away, I walked the trail from it’s base to its peak. As I think back over those experiences I can remember appreciating a sense of leaving all the cares and concerns of life at the base. All I needed to focus on for a few brief hours was following the trail and enjoying the natural beauty that surrounded me.
The second thing I appreciated with each trip was the sense of perspective gained from the top looking down. It is hard to comprehend how vast God’s creation is from the lower vantage point of the valley. But when standing on the peak, looking out as far as the eye can see, you can experience how small we are in comparison to the vastness of creation and even to the creator itself. The only other time I have encountered such an experience was while sitting in the very back of the darkened Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. While there, preparing for a midnight Eucharist, I watched a sole individual ascend the steps to the high altar some 400 feet away and thought how small we truly are in relationship to God.
It is with these experiences that I approach today’s gospel.
I can’t imagine what Peter, James and John thought when Jesus invited them to take a hike up Mt. Tabor. This endeavor was no small feat. I can imagine the hike took a few hours along a steep and narrow path. Despite the physical effort it took to ascend the mountain, I suspect it felt good to leave the crowds,that seemed to appear wherever Jesus was, behind along with the ongoing worries of feeding and caring for the crowds while Jesus spoke. It must have also felt good to know they did not have to spend the day in any of the near by towns or villages trying avoid conflicts with the local rabbis. I can only imagine that this opportunity to walk with Jesus was perceived by Peter, James and John as a carefree moment in time that offered some rare, small group time with Jesus.
Little did they know or even expect what lay ahead. Never in their wildest imaginations did they ever expect by days end they would be in the physical presence of both Moses and Elijah, the great prophets of Israel.
Is it any wonder they wanted to build shelters and stay for a while. Here, they had it all, no responsibilities, clarity, and an opportunity to be among the greatest figures of Jewish history. What on earth could beat this experience down below? In the valley was a return to the mundane, to the ongoing conflicts of following Jesus and the responsibility of every day life.
One of the criticisms of modern day American spiritual life is that we expect every spiritual experience to be mountain top experiences. Somehow we expect that every time we walk into the doors of worship, we will leave having experienced that tingle up the spine, a sense of connection and exhilaration that will somehow carry us through the week in the same way Peter, John and James experienced their encounter with the transfigured Jesus, a top Mt. Tabor. But sadly, great spiritual highs are not sustainable long term. While they may bring you into church and keep you coming back for a few weeks, the truth be told, familiarity breeds contempt, and like those who are chemically dependent for their highs, like any other drugs, after the initial high, the body and the soul requires more and more in order to experience the same sense of satisfaction.
The medieval mystic writers, who enjoyed ecstatic experiences of the divine, soon found themselves struggling through the dark night as they waited to experience God anew.
Life itself cannot be sustained on most mountain tops in the same way as our spiritual lives cannot be lived in the ecstatic. Both can only be fully lived and sustained in the valleys below. Peter, James and John, along with Jesus had to descend the mountain and begin their journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. And, so do we, this week we leave behind the revelations of Epiphany and face the hard realities of our faith as we again come to terms with the cross, and the tomb.
Very recently I met a person at Pine Grove who somehow knew I was a priest. While working out on the bikes he began telling me about his struggles with Christ. It was not the usual complaints I often hear in regards to the Church, but true spiritual struggles around trusting in Christ. Like so many of us, he was convinced that conversion is supposed to lead to a life without anxiety, of letting Jesus take charge of all our worries, so we can go on and live free of burdens and concerns. Somehow for him, accepting a life with Christ was akin to pressing the easy button at Staples.
Conversion does not lead to Hakuna Matata, a life with no worries, but simply leads us back into our regular lives with transformed hearts. The disciples, despite their faith and loyalty to Jesus still had to endure the conflicts of the Temple establishment and the Roman Government. They still had to figure out ways to feed and clothe themselves. Paul, after his encounter with the Risen Christ, found life harder, not easier as he endured punishment and imprisonment for spreading the Gospel. Life pre and post conversion or mountain top experience is rarely any less difficult.
But there is a difference, Peter, John and James, after they descended the mountain, returned to the valley with new knowledge, new confidence and a fuller understanding of who Jesus is. For us today, no matter what hardships life can throw at us, we can approach them assured that these issues are but temporary blips in the greater scheme of God’s time. That no matter what we face, there is truly light, hope and new life on the other side of the issue. And most importantly, no matter where our journey takes us, we never walk alone, for God is present, companioning us all along the way.
Yes, mountain top experiences are wonderful, they give us perspective, clarity and a time of release from the burdens of life. But they are only worthwhile if they give us confidence to continue our journey below. . . even when that journey leads us directly to the cross itself.
This week I invite you to comment on the mountain experiences you have had with God, where did it take place, what did you experience and what did you learn from the experience? Fr. Craig+