By Rev. Joan Kessler
Mountains are a most auspicious feature of our landscape. Humans have been fascinated by the majestic beauty and rugged antiquity that reminds us that the earth is a very old place. As I was considering my reflection for this Transfiguration Sunday, I googled why do humans climb mountains and the answer was painfully obvious and succinct: because it is a difficult task and humans delight in overcoming obstacles.
So, I thought about that answer and said to myself… hmm, they might have a point. There are certain people who are just drawn to experiencing wild and rugged terrains. You can’t overcome an obstacle if you aren’t prepared to climb it; to face it head on.
I spent some time this past week with the writings of American outdoor enthusiast, John Muir. Muir was born in 1838, in Scotland, and spent his adult working life in California. He was a scientist, an environmental philosopher, essayist and poet. He founded the Sierra Club and is considered one of the fathers of the US National Parks. You may have never heard of John Muir before but I suspect you are familiar with one of his most famous quotes: The mountains are calling and I must go. This quote has created a whole “mountain” industry of merchandise to buy: coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters. It’s not hard to find this quote. But what I learned this week is that its origins come from a letter a 35 year-old Muir wrote to his sister, Sarah Muir Galloway, back in early September, 1873. It captures the essence of what we commemorate today and the experience of being on a mountain. He writes:
Dear Sister Sarah:
I have just returned from the longest and hardest trip I have ever made in the mountains, having been gone over five weeks. I am weary, but resting fast; sleepy, but sleeping deep and fast; hungry, but eating much. For two weeks I explored the glaciers of the summits east of here, sleeping among the snowy mountains without blankets and but little to eat on account of its being so inaccessible. After my icy experiences it seems strange to be down in so warm and flowery a climate.
I will soon be off again, determined to use all the season in prosecuting my researches – will go next to King River a hundred miles south, and then to Lake Tahoe and adjacent mountains, and in winter work in Oakland with my pen.
The Scotch are slow, but someday I will have the results of my mount mountain studies in a form in which you will all be able to read and judge of them. In the mean time, I write occasionally for the Overland Monthly, but neither these magazine articles nor my first book will form any finished part of the scientific contribution that I hope to make…. The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.
My love to you all, David and the children and Mrs. Galloway who though shut out from sunshine yet dwells in Light. I will write again when I return from Kings River Canyon. The leaf sent me from China is for Cecelia.
Farewell with love everlasting, John Muir
Reading this beautiful and intimate letter home, one can see that the quote we have made famous in the 21st century is not about going on a mountain holiday. He wasn’t talking about leisurely hikes on lazy summer days. We heard the words of an ambitious, disciplined and goal-oriented young man. He was committed not only to capturing the wild beauty of the landscapes he visited for his readers, many who would never experience for themselves, but he made this pursuit his life’s work.
We often equate mountains with theophany – a divine presence and holy mystery that floods over us when we reach the summit of our pursuit. Sometimes, words fail to convey the experience, but we have the human need to try. There is an embodied, physicality to being in the presence that feels holy, extraordinary, and it is in the rugged landscapes, the mountains and deserts, that we feel compelled to shed all the things the hold us back from venturing outward and upward. These are never familiar places. That is the whole point.
I suppose you might hear my words this morning as metaphor; those difficult situations we inevitably encounter in our lives are like mountains, so far beyond us and out of reach. But today I really am thinking about the physical landscape as a source of spiritual inspiration. Sometimes, we have to go out into the unknown territory to experience it for ourselves, firsthand. To let all our preoccupations, our worries, the things we tell ourselves go so that we can be mindful of the present moment and learn who we are as spiritual beings.
This morning’s reading from Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration is all about Peter for me this year. He was captivated by what happened when they reached the top. The energy changed, and something spectacular happened, not just to Jesus, but to all of them, Peter, James and John too. And Peter recognizes this and he wants to capture it for all time. “Let’s just stay up here… forever… let’s build ourselves some shelters and just hang on for dear life to this mystical experience which just feels so incredibly amazing.” But that’s not how it works. It’s not up to me or to you this morning to judge or validate Peter’s experience or the writer of Matthew’s gospel of what took place two thousand years ago on that mountaintop. But for me, Peter this morning represents the extraordinary of having a theophany, of divine presence and in-dwelling that just changes you from the inside out. Or perhaps we see today, from the outside in, that our physical landscapes of mountains and the mystery they embody makes us into different human beings when we submit to the ruggedness and the opportunity to be transformed.
We celebrate God Moments every time we gather on a Sunday. A few weeks ago, we had a flash mob of blessing that didn’t leave us unaffected. We could say let’s do that every Sunday, but I hazard the guess, that the feeling generated from that impromptu offering will never be repeated. Same could be said when we share our God moments. Those who share do so to make real the experience they have had. It doesn’t need any qualifying or judgement from any of us who receive it. It is pure gift. Jesus reminds us this morning that these experiences are not to be held on to but rather expanded upon. We have to go back down the mountain and return to our everyday lives once more.
We had a meeting this past week to talk about ministry visions and priorities for our community going forward. And Fran reminded us of the importance of cultivating healthy and life-giving spiritual practices. The mountain is often associated with the practice of Equanimity. This is the ability to remain calm and centered through life’s ebbs and flows, to be like a mountain. A mountain absorbs sun and wind and rain and snow. It doesn’t matter what conditions the mountain faces, it is still a mountain. This takes work, however, by learning to not give into likes and dislikes or be ruled by overwhelming emotions. Equanimity allows us to let go of fear and anxiety, to live in the present moment and acknowledge things as they are and not be attached to outcomes. We cultivate equanimity through centering prayer and meditation and experiencing the God presence as always with you and part of you.
This week, we conclude our season of Epiphany and next week begin a creative journey through Lent. We don’t know what mountains lie ahead of us and this is a good thing. We can’t predict how Spirit will be present, but I trust that Spirit abides in the extraordinary God moments as well as the ordinariness of our everyday living. We can’t stay on the moment forever. We have work to do, people to meet, stories to share. And know this – it is good for us to be here.
Thanks be to God and Amen.