I’ve lost count of the number of storms we have encountered over the past few months, but as Storm Diane raged recently, my thoughts drifted back exactly 36 years to a storm I experienced on a mountaintop in Italy that was the closest thing I have come to feeling I was in the presence of El Shaddai – one of the names given to the God of Israel - usually translated as God Almighty, but which can also be understood as the God of the Mountain.
After my final profession of vows as a Passionist in September 1982, I travelled to Rome to study pastoral theology at the Gregorian University before returning to Glasgow for priestly ordination the following June. As a prior step I was to be ordained a transitional deacon in our Passionist Monastery of Saints John and Paul in Rome, in December 1982. Towards the end of November that year I had taken and passed my faculty exams at St. John Lateran and I was to make a retreat in preparation for my diaconate ordination.
I knew I would never get an opportunity like this again, so I asked the rector of Saints John and Paul if I could make my retreat in the Passionist monastery on Monte Argentario, the first ever retreat established by St. Paul of the Cross, set on a mountaintop, and named after the Presentation of Our Lady, a feast of Mary that was close to the heart of our founder. I was readily given permission and so, almost immediately after my faculty exams, I made my way to the coast, north-west of Rome, and ascended the mountain to the Retreat.
On the fourth day of the retreat, I had been praying and reflecting on the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham ascends the mountain with his son, thinking that he was to sacrifice his only son to God, only for God to stay his hand at the last minute. The reflection was intended to instil in me a sense that ordination meant putting God and God’s purposes before all else, and making God, in obedience to His word, my ultimate concern.
As I stepped out on to the mountain after evening meal that night, into the darkness, an almighty storm was raging, torrential rain, a mighty wind, thunder and lightning – the works. And even though one of my favourite scripture texts, from the 1st Book of the Kings, is where Elijah goes out on the mountain and does not experience God in any of these things, but rather in a gentle breeze, still I felt there was something of the divine presence that night.
Further up the mountain there was some kind of electrical power installation that was set in the form of a cross. It was discretely lit up at night, but when, every now and again, there was a flash of lightning, it lit up all the more. It was all very dramatic. I know it sounds mad, and it was mad, but I felt compelled to walk up the mountain towards the cross. I was well wrapped up and the mountain path was good underfoot, although steep and winding, and I had to walk against a mighty wind, Passionist habit flapping against my legs, two steps forward, one step back, but eventually I reached the cross. I stood there for a while thinking of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah; Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments; Elijah experiencing God in the gentle breeze, also on Mount Sinai; Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor; Jesus carrying his cross up Mount Calvary to be Crucified, and finally the Ascension of Jesus from Mount Olivet.
Like the disciples coming down from Tabor, I eventually, and a little reluctantly, descended into ordinary life, which is where God must be encountered most of all, but I knew I had experienced something I would never forget, something, the power of which, seems to touch me again and again, whenever there is a storm, or whenever I ascend a mountain to pray.
During those days, Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and He spent all night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12)