Following on from last week’s desert experiences, I was remembering this week, with Transfiguration Sunday approaching, a few of my mountaintop experiences. I used to be a keen hillwalker, not so much a mountain climber. I haven’t done much in recently, but I have certainly appreciated, down through the years, that sense of awe and wonder, and that bigger, more wholesome perspective, when things are viewed from above, rather than from below. You can get too close to stuff sometimes, and it’s good to find a way of rising upwards, physically or metaphorically, to be able to see more clearly.
Of course, on my one and only pilgrimage to the Holy Land that I mentioned last week, almost 30 years ago, there were some profound mountaintop experiences. We did, in fact, go to Mount Tabor, the scene of the Transfiguration; we also went to the Mount of Olives from where Jesus ascended, and also from where Jesus, very movingly, wept over Jerusalem. We celebrated Mass on the Mountain of the Beatitudes on which Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount and multiplied the loaves and fishes. And, of course, we stood on the hill of Calvary on which Jesus was crucified, even if it is now covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Whether or not any of these were the exact spots where these events took place didn’t really matter, there was no doubting the deeply spiritual effect they had on me.
During my trip to Botswana, where I had my Kalahari Desert experience. I also climbed the Hill of Kgale, the highest point in the country, which wasn’t too far from our novitiate house. The path up the hill was fairly non-descript and would have been very difficult to follow, except that every now and again helpful arrows had been painted on to rocks or tree stumps to guide would be climbers. Most of the ascent was through heavy growth and only at the top did the terrain open out into a beautiful vista of the surrounding land, which was as flat as a pancake save for this Hill of Kgale. I spent some time at the top of the hill, thinking and praying. There wasn’t another soul around. Like Tabor, it was good to be there. Eventually I decided to make my way back down again. By now it was about 4.00pm and I knew that at 6.00pm it would get dark and the baboons, having made their way down the hill at sunrise, would be streaming back up again at sunset. I had often watched them do this, and listened to the strange, and almost fearsome barking sound of them from a safe distance.
At some point in my descent I realised I had lost the path. At first, I didn’t panic, but when my attempts to find it again kept bringing me to dead ends, my anxiety level began to rise. I had heard that when you got lost on a mountain the best way to go is up, and so I began to create my own path towards the top again. Insects didn’t bother me, but when a few grass snakes slithered across my path I began to fear encountering something bigger and more deadly. Still I kept climbing. I then saw some weird creatures I had never come across before. They were about the size of a small dog with thick, tight, brown fur. Thankfully they scampered away from me, rather than towards me. I later discovered they were rock rabbits. At the back of my mind I’m thinking of meeting these baboons coming home for the night, and how they would take to meeting me in their path. All the unheeded warnings I’d received about how stupid it was to go climbing on my own came flooding back to me. The prayer to my guardian angel popped into mind and I prayed it fervently. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I caught sight of a white arrow. Somehow, by coincidence or providence, I had stumbled across the path again. My heart leapt with sheer relief. I took a deep breath, whispered a prayer of thanks, and painstakingly began to follow the arrows in reverse towards the bottom. Much as it was good to rise above the earth, I was never so glad to reach level ground again.
The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all. (John 3:31)