What is it about mountains that invoke a spiritual or religious response from us as human beings? Maybe the thinness of the air, the lack of oxygen, or the exhaustion when we finally reach the top?
Scripture gives us stories of literal mountain top experiences that color our expectations for what it means to encounter the divine - Abraham and Isaac climbing together in an act of extreme devotion to God and experiencing the mercy of God at its apex. Moses climbing Mt. Sinai again and again to commune with God and to better understand not just the essential laws for the life of the community, but the rhythms and cycles of what their covenantal life together will be like in the Promised Land. Jesus climbing to the top of a mountain not to receive, but to give a new interpretation and understanding of those laws shaping our communal life together as Christians through the Sermon on the Mount.
I have had my fair share of mountain top experiences, both literal and spiritual.
Climbing the mountains in Western North Carolina with my former youth from Indiana who made it a tradition to climb together early in the morning and then share affirmations on the mountain top at the end of a Montreat Youth Conference. Climbing the mountain we now claim as Mt. Sinai with Joshua and Owen during our last days in Egypt, watching the sun rise over the vast chains of mountains in the desert there, and experience a diverse and international group of pilgrims praying their unique prayers at the top.
This past week we spent our vacation at the base of the Rocky Mountains and went into the National Park each day to climb this mountain or that mountain - all reasonable morning hikes. On one day, we drove to the top of the mountains on Trail Ridge Road that cuts right through Rocky Mountain National Park peaking at an elevation of 12,000 feet - a literal arctic tundra in northern Colorado.
We, of course, visited the ranger station and gift shop at the top, and chatted with one of the rangers about what short hikes we could do while we were at the top and about the recent snowstorm that made the road impassible. As we walked onto a short trail through the snow and frozen ground, Owen remarked that it must be a strange job to drive to the top of a mountain and talk with thousands of visitors who pass through the center every day - like an environmental guru waiting at the peak for travelers to come seeking knowledge and insight.
It is interesting to imagine what it would be like to staff other people’s mountain top experiences.
My greatest insight from a week of mountain climbing came from the time spent at the bottom of the mountains. We stayed just outside the park, in full view of the snow-topped mountain range. I found myself late every afternoon sitting and simply meditating on the mountains, remembering what it was like to be on top of them and giving thanks for their ancient and imposing beauty.
We recognize that many of us will not have the privilege to live our lives on the top of a mountain, whether literally or figuratively. Life is a continually ascending and descending in our religious experiences. But sitting each day in the shadow of the mountains made me wonder how we can find better ways to continue to connect with and draw inspiration from those brief moments when we have been on the mountain - meditating on the scripture or hymns that remind us of our mountain top experiences, bringing images back with us from our spiritual mountain tops and keeping them in places that call to mind our moments on the mountain. Telling the stories from our mountain tops with others, sharing the insights we have learned and intentionally seeking out stories from others about their time on the mountain.
The words of Psalm 121 came to my mind each afternoon gazing upon the mountains, and they are what I expect will be transporting me back there over the next several months.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.