Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
When trying to describe a profound spiritual experience, we often use the phrase “mountain top” to evoke that feeling of arrival, clarity of vision, and sense of coherence to our lives that can be hidden from us in the valleys of daily existence. From a mountaintop, we also see our destination, where, in the language of faith, God is calling us to go.
In this last reflection in a series, Living A Called Life, I invite you to remember your mountaintop experiences. They are gifts of grace, although often hard won, in that it takes effort to climb a mountain. Once there, we are touched by a power and presence that gives meaning to all that has gone before and all that will come afterwards. We sometimes long for such clarity and imagine it to be like a lightning bolt from the sky, an outward sign to help us overcome our inner uncertainty. Yet in the long arch of our lives, those mountaintop moments, are, in fact, the culmination or resting points in a long process of revelation and response.
This Sunday in church, we’ll consider together one of Jesus’ mountaintop experiences. He went up to the mountain to pray, the story goes, and in his prayers he was given the gift of an encounter with the greatest of prophets and the voice of God speaking in a cloud. But Jesus was always going up mountains, or into the wilderness, or to a synagogue to pray. It was, as the scriptures tell us, his custom. He prayed; he waited; he listened. Not all of his prayer was rewarded with dramatic assurance; we know that he spent many a long and lonely night, as we all do. The moments of insight and direction that he did receive were preceded and followed by many small steps of persevering faithfulness.
Years ago, a colleague told me of the mountaintop moment that came to him when he received a call to serve as director of a residential home for troubled adolescents. He said, “I have been preparing all of my life for this job.” It struck me as an extraordinary and enviable statement, and a transforming moment if there ever was one, reconciling his past and preparing him for the future.
But one thing we know about such moments is that they end. Invariably something happens on the way down the mountain to call into question everything about our experience.
Once, when struggling to make a decision of real consequence, I went for a swim at a nearby recreation center. Somewhere in that timeless zone of swimming laps and praying for clarity, clarity came with a rush of euphoria. I knew exactly what I was to do and why. I remember feeling so relieved to have reached a decision, knowing in my bones that it was right. But no sooner had I stepped out of the pool and dried myself off when all my uncertainty came rushing back. It took every ounce of faith to stay with the decision I had made. This memory remains a touchstone for me; every time I have a similar experience of insight followed by doubt, I remind myself to hold steady, not let the forces of ambiguity blow my life off course, and to trust whatever glimpses of direction I have received.
So it is for all of us: we come down mountain, get hit with reality, take a deep breath, and go on. Life looks pretty much the same on the way down as it did on the way up, and maybe that’s the point. After Jesus comes down from the mountain, he sets his face toward Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. On the journey, he does what he did before: heals the sick, feeds the hungry, preaches good news to the poor. He did his day job, and so do we.
The sweet, rare moments of clarity and affirmation are wonderful when they come, but where life gets interesting is what happen next, when we re-enter the world as it is and do our best to live according to the clarity we received. As the Haitians say, what lies beyond one mountain is another mountain. How we walk the path between them is most important, giving thanks for the sweet moments of illumination when they’re given us, but remembering how we live both before and after is what matters most.