The mountain is one of those places where the real and the metaphorical intersect. You climb towards the summit, sometimes the switchbacks taking you back and forth, sometimes the path leading you straight up, the rocks and the dirt skating under your feet. With every step you get a little higher and the valley and the daily life that it holds moves a little further away. If you want food, you must carry it with you. If you want sunscreen, you must carry it with you. If you want a change of clothes, you must carry them with you. With the exception of the occasional ski chalet, the mountaintop is a place that Starbucks and Target have yet to conquer.
Eventually, if the mountain is tall enough, you reach what is called the tree line. This is the altitude above which the trees do not, cannot grow: the air is too thin or too cold, the birds and bugs and worms that make a forest possible too far away. Often, but not always, the tree line is also where the snow begins. Even in the summer, there it lies, white, still, dangerous, and beautiful on the rock. In a pinch, the snow can turn into water for you to drink: manna from heaven. But it can also be what sends your feet shooting out from underneath you, so that you land hard and start to slide.
On somewhere other than the mountain, this much rock and this few trees would mean that everything would be loud. The hard surface would take the sounds of cars and machinery and voices on mobile phones and slap them back at you. But on the mountain, all of that is gone. And the rock is quiet but for crunch of your boots and the panting of your breath and the lonely song of the wind.
At a certain point, the summit comes into sight. Almost there, you say, and even though your calves are burning, you push on. This is the part of the climb when you sometimes actually start exhorting your legs to lift your boots off the ground: Come on. Come on. You are almost there.
Except that you aren’t almost there. On the mountain there is an illusion whereby the peak looks to be 500 yards away and so you climb 500 yards and you discover that the peak remains 500 yards away. This experience is strange and exasperating and it repeats more than once.
You remember being a child in a car: Are we there yet? You remember that in movies and comic books and the old stories, the mountaintop is where you will find the guru or the dragon or the mysterious monastery within which Bruce Wayne will become Batman. And you understand why. The training, the discipline, the answer to the question, the thing that will change you has begun even before you reach the summit.
And then at last, you are there. The peak, the summit, the mountaintop. Way back when, before the airplane and the hot air balloon and Google earth, the summit was as high as a human being could get. Icarus and the guys who built the tower of Babel maybe got higher. But things didn’t work out well for them. For most of human history, the only solid thing that can get you this high and safely back again was put there by God.
On the mountaintop, if the day is clear and the mountain high enough, you can see.
You can see.
You can see so much and so far. Over other mountains, maybe over multiple other mountains. And down. Sometimes, impossibly, what you are looking down on are clouds – clouds being things that you always look up to see. You squint to see if angels are visible standing upon them. Down still further are the places that we call civilization.
You look at the houses, the cars, the roads. And from up here, maybe, your taxes don’t seem that important, your conflict with your coworker doesn’t seem that important, the way that the person with whom you live rolls their eyes doesn’t seem that important. In the old stories, the gods look upon from a place like this. And on the mountaintop, it makes sense that they do.
Is there clarity on this summit? Maybe even healing on this summit? Do you understand things that you didn’t or couldn’t down below? The psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of this place, of the mountaintop, when talking about certain moments of joy and connectivity.
A peak experience.
A peak experience is when you understand something about eternity, something about God. In Maslow’s words, here at the summit you are, “simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than [you ever were] before.” This too makes a kind of sense.
The mountain, the place where the real and the metaphorical meet: this is where Jesus takes his closest friends as his journey to Jerusalem and journey to the cross nears. Peter and John and James follow Jesus, breathing hard as they climb towards their moment of power and helplessness. For the three of them, this moment will look like watching Jesus as he face starts to shine, the way that Moses’ face shone when he talked to God all of those years ago. It will look like watching as Jesus’ clothes shine. In the inimitable words of the King James version:
And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
And then it will look like watching as Jesus, whose ministry in many ways has been one long conversation with Moses and Elijah, one long amplification of and argument with the two old prophets, is suddenly talking with the two men. The text doesn’t say how John and Peter and James recognise Moses and Elijah – there are no photographs of them. They just know.
And then it looks like the heavens speaking, a cloud repeating the words of Jesus’ baptism:
This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
Listen to him.
And John and James and Peter fall down then. They fall down on the mountain. Because, well, what else can they do?
But Jesus touches them. And his touch, it always brings healing.
Get up and do not be afraid.
And when they look around and Moses and Elijah are gone and the sky is quiet.
One of the things that you forget when you are climbing and even when you are at the summit is that going down, it too is a journey. By halfway down, your knees are screaming. And notwithstanding bags of ice and trips to the hot tub, it will be days before they stop telling the story of the mountain.
It is on the way back down that Jesus says to his friends, Don’t tell anyone about this until after the cross, until after the tomb, until after you see me again. And maybe, as you descend, you get why he says this. Because the mountaintop, what you see there, you can’t really tell anyone that experience to anyone, at least not in a way that makes sense. If you are to understand God’s mountain, you must climb it and see for yourself.