Mountaintop Graces


Mountaintop views are well worth a hike. Slogging up a mountain trail, wrestling with a backpack (usually the size of a small child), surviving on peanuts and Gatorade is all worth it once you get to the top. From up there the various elements of the world seem to come together in harmony. For this reason, spiritual writers often use the term “mountaintop experiences” when referring to privileged moments of prayer. These are moments of clarity and insight where the various strands of life seem to come together. They are moments of profound peace and faith, in which God’s presence is felt tangibly. If a retreat or a season like Lent can be compared to a hike, then these spiritual elevations are like mountaintop views for the soul.

In our gospel this weekend, Jesus leads Peter, James and John on a mountaintop experience. They literally climb Mount Tabor where Jesus is transfigured before them. There they see his glory: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” Moses and Elijah show up, representing the Law and the prophets. With Jesus, Moses and Elijah before them, it is as though, in a moment, all of salvation history is revealed to them. Finally, a voice speaks from a cloud, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Talk about a mountaintop experience. Peter, understandably, doesn’t want to leave: “Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He wants this experience to last forever. He never wants to go down.

In the spiritual life, it is common to attach a lot of importance to moments of intense consolation or dramatic insight. Many associate these times and feelings with holiness itself, as though these are the things for which we are to strive. They imagine the saint as one who swings from mountaintop to mountaintop. But this is not what the saints actually teach us.

By word and example our holy role models insist that God works most profoundly in the little things, in the day-to-day, and even in suffering. God instills virtues more effectively in the desert than upon a mountain. On the mountaintop, Peter “hardly knew what to say.” Coming down from there, he is mostly confused. On the other hand, painfully facing the reality of his triple denial of the Lord, he makes great strides in love: “Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17). In the spiritual life, we have to remember that Jesus’ invitation “follow me,” is not an invitation to Mount Tabor, but Mount Calvary. That is where the saints set up their tents.