On the mountain top – by Mary Doleman

In this week’s readings, we have two mountaintop experiences. Moses goes up
the mountain to talk with God, and Jesus goes up a mountain with some of his
disciples to have his glory revealed before them.
I’ve been on some mountain tops in my life, and so I understand what it means.
Whether it’s a few hundred or a few thousand feet above the surrounding
landscape, you can see a lot more from up there than you can from below. It’s
like a living map, and you can see how everything relates to everything else –
other peaks, lakes and rivers, and roads and towns. I can use this metaphor to
describe less literal peak experiences. Getting close to retirement and seeing my
years of work from a new perspective. Seeing my children reaching milestones,
like graduation, that seemed impossibly far off while we were driving them places
and trying to make sure they did their homework.
But, of course, these scriptural passages are talking about spiritual mountain tops.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a spiritual mountain top. Foothills,
maybe. But the kind of experience the mystics describe, of seeing, for just a
moment, how everything fits together, no. That’s never happened to me, and I
don’t know if it ever will. There aren’t any trail signs marked “Enlightenment 5.2
So, how do I talk about something I’ve never experienced, and might not ever
experience? I can only talk about what I think the path might be like. I started by
thinking about literal mountain climbing as a metaphor (switchbacks being a
particularly tempting analogy), but that began to seem pretty forced. I realized
that there is a very important difference between spiritual mountain tops and
other kinds of mountain top experiences. I don’t think I can get there by the
orderly, step wise, goal driven process. If I’m going to hike to some peak, whether
it’s Wildcat Peak in Tilden Park or a 9,000-foot mountain in the Sierras, I prepare
by training, I make sure I have the right shoes and other equipment and supplies.
I find the trail, maybe carry a map. And I make a commitment to reach the top,
which helps to keep me going up all those switchbacks and rocky places. Goals are
good – they keep us moving when we might want to give up. They’re helpful in
school, at work, even in parenting.

Spiritual development comes from a different kind of preparation. We can pray
and meditate. We can read the words of spiritual guides, starting, for Christians,
with Jesus, but maybe there are other teachers who speak to us, as well.
All of us here have done those things, and all of us know that Jesus’s lessons all
come down to love. We’ve talked about that a lot. In these reflections, in our
discussions in various small groups. We’ve talked about how hard it is to love
everyone. Larry talked about that just last week, so I’m not going to go there
again right now.
We might have a sort of goal of becoming more loving, and praying or meditating
every day. But we don’t really know where that will lead us, or when. We want
to be able to keep going, even when it doesn’t seem as if we’re going anywhere.
We have to accept that we will fail, again and again, to do what we know is right.
The path has to be its own reward. I feel better when I act more loving, even if it
isn’t always instinctive If I approach prayer not as a religious obligation, but as a
chance to spend some time with God, I find it both more comfortable and more
comforting. Even if we never reach a mountain top where everything is suddenly
clear, I think there will be a lot of rewards along the way. To get back to the trail
metaphor, walk for the sake of walking, and take note of all the things you see as
you go.