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Mountains Motivate the Ascent of the Spiritual Life

September 13, 2021


In days to come

the mountain of the Lord’s house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be raised up above the hills.

Peoples shall stream to it,

and many nations shall come and say:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways

and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Micah 4:1-2)


Over the summer, I hiked the Polish Tatra Mountains, the same mountains John Paul II used to trod, and while doing so, it occurred to me that in a secular age that has stripped landscapes bare of all spiritual significance, we need to spend more time hiking, mountaineering, or just appreciating mountains as a means of recovering our sense of spiritual topography so necessary for cultivating a life of faith. Mountains, like Gothic cathedrals, have a way of forcing an elevated, thus heavenly perspective, allowing for the full embrace of mountains and mountain climbing as a metaphor for the spiritual life. This may be an effective way of encountering Scripture and poking holes in what McGill University professor Charles Taylor has called “the buffered self,” in order to open people up to their true end and ultimate goal: relationship with and in God. 

Mountains play a theophanic role in the Bible. Mountains are where important things happen, particularly theophanies, manifestations, or appearances of God. According to Jewish scholar Jon Levenson, mountains function in the Bible like an archetype, a mold into which new experiences could be fit hundreds of years after the original event. Think of Abraham, Noah, Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah and the various mountains associated with them: Mt. Zion, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Tabor, Mt. of Olives, Mt. Hor, Mt. Moriah, Mt. Ararat, Mt. Nebo, and Mt. Carmel. All of these figures had a transformative encounter with the untamed, transcendent God on a mountaintop. Whether it was a vision, a covenant promise, a transfigurationencounters with God happened in landscapes that were not domesticated. Such landscapesdangerous and surprisingsignified the dangerous and surprising God. 

But this God is not uncivilized. YHWH’s home is identified as Mt. Sinai, and he eventually makes Mt. Zion his city upon a hill. The mountain as a spiritual motif permeates the New Testament from the Gospels to the final vision in the book of Revelation. The Gospels often speak of Jesus going “up on the mountain by himself to pray,” and there are numerous important events occurring on mountain peaks: the Transfiguration, with two other mountain prophets, Moses and Elijah; the Beatitudes; and the events of the Paschal Mystery. Near the end of the book of Revelation, John is taken up in a vision to a great mountain to behold the New Jerusalem, which descends clothed in the glory of God. Likely the “glory of the Lord” is the shekinah (divine presence) that descended in the Holy of Holies on the ark of the covenant. Here the shekinah (the glory cloud) clothing the New Jerusalem anticipates the whole cosmos as a temple, a place of divine dwelling, coinherence, or communio. On the top of the mountain is the New Garden, the New Temple, or more precisely, the Church where the New Adam dwells anew with God. And the whole of the Christian spiritual life is ordered to that end, entering the temple on the mountain top. 

Something similar can be found in the history of religions. In almost every culture close to mountains, they are associated with the divine, and mountain climbing is a metaphor of the spiritual quest. Comparative religion scholars have collected numerous examples of the sacrality of mountains. Mountains were often perceived as the place where heaven and earth touch, the place of divine dwelling, the cosmic mountain as sacred center, and the place of divine revelation and vision. Perhaps this is the intuition behind the building of temples in unthinkable, impossible-seeming elevations.  

Mystics of all traditions have grasped the importance of mountains and mountain climbing as a metaphor for the spiritual life, and I think mountain climbing can be read as a spiritual exercise, the ascent to God. John Paul II certainly saw his hikes this way. St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic about whom John Paul II wrote his theology dissertation, titled his spiritual masterpiece The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. St. John Climacus, who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries, was a monk from St. Catherine Monastery, which is located at the foot of what might be Mt. Sinai, and he wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, comparing the spiritual life to ascending steps. St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses focuses on Moses’ ascent of Mt. Sinai. More on this later, but even poets such as Dante found spiritual meaning in mountains. Dante describes the road to paradiso and the beatific vision as being attained by way of a mountainous climb (purgatorio). At the top of Mt. Ventoux, Petrarch read the part in St. Augustine’s Confessions quoting St. Paul about putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, and encouraged those willing to risk their lives climbing mountains to strive for the  higher peaks of the human spirit. This is all to say that the mountain has played an important role as an image of spiritual striving. 

Since my trip to the Tatra mountains, I have been pondering the importance of recovering this significance, tapping into the resonance spiritual topography continues to have among outdoorsy types. Religious or not, such people would be attracted to the adventure of the spiritual life put in the language of a mountaineer. These people already know that mountains are numinous, and most of them take on great risks to behold the transcendent vision from the top. Outside the liturgy as an act of love, the mountain view might be their closest anticipation of the beatific vision. And I bet that this might be one of the more intense religious experiences of their lives. So evangelists should take note and make use of the mountain and mountain climbing as metaphors for the spiritual life. It’s an old tactic used in almost every religious tradition, especially by mystics in the Church. 

Bishop Barron’s own three paths to holiness can also be translated in these terms. Call it the paths to holiness, according to a Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. John Paul II, experienced mountaineers. Substitute (1) Finding the Center, (2) Knowing You’re A Sinner, and (3) Realizing Your Life Is Not About You with (1) Fixing one’s gaze on the peak, (2) Beholding the whole and embarking on the ascent, and (3) Making the descent.

I thought of this as I made my way up to the “Crown of the Polish Mountains.” It was an arduous journey, and I never fully made it up to the top. But the journey illuminated for me the stages of spiritual progression and the difficulties faced along the way. Looking up at the peak, I could make out very small mountaineers slowly ascending to the Crown. Just as the more heroic examples of Christian lives inspire us, their audacity gave me hope that I could make it to the summit. At different parts of the journey, I met people who were too exhausted or afraid to continue on, but a word of encouragement along with needed rest helped them rise again. Some mountaineers who already reached the summit passed as they made their descent. They spoke of wondrous beauty seen from the top. Thankfully, they also offered some advice, like spiritual guides pointing out certain obstacles along the way. 

Some people were ill-prepared for the climb. I was one of them. My shoes did not have enough traction, and I was slipping on the mountain snow. Prudence dictated that I not go any farther. Yet the vision I was affordedeven failing to reach the topwas still worth the climb. In a word, I experienced something holy on the mountain, and I was eager to share this experience with others. After a rather long descent back to the city of Zakopane, I shared the story of my journey and its spiritual significance with my family and friends over a bowl of hearty Polish soup. They told me that next time they would eagerly join me, but upon seeing my horrible sunburn they would make sure to be better prepared. 

In the book of Exodus, Moses is called to lead the Israelites from Egypt to Mt. Sinai where Moses is led up the holy mountain to establish a covenant and be the mediator between the Lord and his people, the Israelites. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses opens the spiritual sense of this episode of Moses on the mountain. Gregory identifies the mountain as “the mountain of divine knowledge” upon which Moses hears the trumpet blast that ultimately sounds in the Gospel, proclaiming the mystery of the Incarnation. Moses must enter the darkness to be purified to better “slip in where God is.” Upon the mountaintop, he beholds a vision of the heavenly tabernacle, which Gregory says would be “Christ who is the power and wisdom of God.” Moses must descend and construct the earthly tabernacle in imitation of the heavenly tabernacle, anticipating the heavenly Jerusalem at the end of time. It is a vision in which the whole cosmos will be a temple and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), dwelling with his creation. We must descend the mountain to proclaim this vision to all the nations, telling them: 

Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord, 

To the house of the God of Jacob; 

So that He may teach us about His ways, 

And that we may walk in His paths. (Isa. 2:3) 

The view from the mountaintop motivates our ascent from darkness to light, despite the numerous obstacles along the way. Beholding the human landscape below, the mountain helps us see that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, a communion that gathers all nations and people together as one in the Lord. It is there that we feel obliged to go down (like Christ) so as to draw the others up, where they too can delight in such a happy vision of heaven and earth united. 

Sadly, I did not see it this time around, but I hope I will during my next visit to the Polish Tatras. Curious about what is at the top, I looked up a picture and what I found was a cross where the vertical and horizontal meet, the union of heaven and earth. Strange, I thought, but very fitting. Such is the symbolism at hand. Let’s just pray we have the eyes to see it.