I came here to study hard things – rock mountain and salt sea – and to temper my spirit on their edges. “Teach me thy ways, O Lord” is, like all prayers, a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend. These mountains — Mount Baker and the Sisters and Shuksan, the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on the peninsula — are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world…. That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them, as Chesterton said of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious by their very visibility and absence of secrecy.
Dearest monks and artists,
I can remember so clearly that crisp day while I was on retreat at the Columbia River Gorge which marks the border between Oregon and Washington States. Mount Hood appeared brilliant against the pale blue sky where the day before it had been shrouded in mist. I was filled with awe and felt connected to the wonder this sight must have inspired in native peoples walking this land long ago, and why this mountain would have been considered sacred. Mountains have always been places of theophany – an encounter with holiness – such as Moses at Mount Sinai where he received God’s laws and saw God’s face. Mount Tabor in Israel is where Jesus became transfigured before his disciples. The Northwest is dotted with these reminders of the majestic nature of the divine. Mount Rainier and Mount Baker hover magically above the Northwest landscape and evoke a sense of awe those days they are not hidden by our typically grey skies. The days they are revealed are treasured among those who pay attention.
There are more references to mountains and hills in the Bible than to any other geographical feature. Noah’s ark came to rest on a mountain; God tested Abraham on a mountain, Moses receives the Ten Commandments on a mountain. Jesus goes to a mountain to pray, Mount of Olives, before his crucifixion on a hill. Mountains stretch our imaginations upward in celebration of a transcendent God who creates with such glory and majesty.
In the fifth century, St. Patrick went up the sacred mountain, now called Croagh Patrick and fasted at the summit for forty days. It is now known as Ireland’s pilgrimage mountain because more than a million people each year come to climb it and connect with the longing for God that carried St Patrick to its summit. This mountain had already been sacred to ancient Celtic people who celebrated the harvest festival at this site. The Celts call the places where heaven and earth meet “thin places.”
The metaphor of ascent — climbing the holy mountain – is a dominant one in spiritual language. There is great challenge in rising higher and higher as the air for breath grows thinner and colder. Climbing mountains is a physical and spiritual goal. There is something about the image of ascension, reaching the highest peaks, and then taking in the perspective. We speak of “mountaintop experiences” as those which move us to awe and wonder, memorable moments where we transcended our narrow daily concerns.
As a child, my family would go to the Tyrolean mountains in my father’s native Austria. I remember with such fondness the preparation of gear, putting on the proper socks and boots, packing a rucksack with lunch and drink, and carrying my hiking stick. At each summit we reached, a new medallion would be attached to it. I loved the collection that spanned my stick and indicated those places to which I had taken the difficult journey. And as I savored the journey upon my return, I saw in my heart a swelling up that mirrored this grand mountain. I discovered a powerful rising of hope within me, even larger than any earthly mountain. A world where we stand in awe of a great and sacred power pulsing through the world, made visible in grand and sacred.
Consider placing a stone on your altar from the geology of where you live. Spend some time in prayer connecting with this stone as symbol for what endures. In these difficult days of pandemic, how might you root yourself more deeply with Earth to find your place of centering and resilience? Remember a time when your heart felt full of hope and perspective. You might remove your shoes and stand on the soil to acknowledge it, like Moses, as holy ground.
To help provide you with some steady ground during this Advent season we are offering you, dear dancing monks, a weekly contemplative prayer service on Mondays. Find out more here. If you want an even deeper dive into the holy birthing Advent calls us to, join us for our online retreat which starts today.
And last, but not least, if you are looking for some Christmas gifts for yourself or loved ones, stop by this post where we have links to support Abbey artists. Kreg Yingst who is creating a series of Mary icons for us is having a sale on his beautiful prints of 20% off until December 3rd. David Hollington is making prints available of his wonderful saint and animal prints. And we are offering signed copies of my two poetry collections plus a chance to order more of our dancing monk icon card sets.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE