“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Matthew 17:1-2
I have always been fascinated by mountains. Where I grew up in Chautauqua County, we didn’t have many mountains, but south of us in Pennsylvania there were many. While going to college in South Carolina, I remember driving often to the top of nearby Paris Mountain to unwind and think, but also to clear my mind. It was later as an adult but I found myself thinking about climbing mountains. In the 1970s, my brother-in-law gave me a book called “Ascent” which was a story of Willi Unsoeld, who was one of the first Americans to reach the top of Mount Everest in 1963. And he did it by climbing up the more difficult West face which had never been done. Among other things, Willie had been a minister in United Church of Christ who spent summers climbing the Teton Mountains where he worked as a guide. It was a fascinating book for me to read, even though the accomplishment cost Willie nine of his toes! Later he died teaching students how to climb Mt. Rainer in the winter.
I found myself envying Ed Kilgore, the sportscaster with Channel 2 news, who I believe last November Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. I thought to myself, “Ed is in his 60s so why can’t I?” But last year I confess I finally climbed two of the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. The first one I climbed with my son in June and when we got to the top a thick cloud came in and we could see very little. My son was happy because he said he never liked heights anyway! But there in the heavy cloud near the top sat a woman in meditation; it was beautiful.
In September I went with two veterans of mountain climbing who had climbed all 46 of the high peaks of the Adirondacks. We had a wonderful clear day when we climbed 3 hours to reach the top of Giant Mountain. It was an exhilarating experience. I found out that when people reach the top of mountains, some weep; some sit in meditation, around various altars which have been built and left at the top of mountains.
In religious traditions mountains have played an important part. It was atop a mountain Noah’s ark finally settled after that epic flood in the ancient allegory. It was on a mountain Moses was transformed and given his call. Later on the mountain Moses was given the 10 Commandments and when he descended to the people, his face shone like the sun! And it was from Mount Nebo that Moses got his first view of the “Promised Land” and later went to die. It was on a mountain Elijah took refuge in his confusion and dismay yet finally heard the still small voice of hope. It was on a mountain Jesus gave the sermon, on a mountain he was transfigured, and from a mountain he finally ascended.
Similarly on a mountain in Sri Lanka the Buddha was also transformed into light. It was on a mountain in Egypt over 12,000 years ago Horus the ancient Egyptian God man, was transfigured in a very similar way as we read in the story of Jesus. It is a story repeated many times in the countries of the area we now call the “Middle East.”
What do these stories mean, and how might they apply to our lives? For one, mountains in ancient times represented the entry into death, which we call life, and later symbolize the return to the life of oneness. The mountain was seen as a symbol of this earth and of our time of walking upon it. Mountains were also used as places to return for vision, for prayer, or for what we might call today “retreats”.
During the 1980s while I was studying at San Francisco Theological Seminary, itself located in mountains along the Pacific coast, about one third of the students were Koreans. One day we were talking about how we received our calls to become ministers. I will never forget their stories. They described how if they showed interest or signs of wanting to be a minister of God, they would be taken to a mountain where they would stay two months with a recognized teacher of God. If after two months on the mountain they still felt their call was genuine, then they would be encouraged to continue on in their studies. They chided most of us Americans as receiving our calls on the basis of how many exams we passed in our academic careers. Surely they oversimplified, but I think they had a point. It was years after I received what I thought to be a call to minister that I even discovered the practice of a retreat for contemplation and prayer.
I believe as is often said that we manifest what we are think. If we think thoughts of hope, love and beauty, these will be expressed in our countenance and in our facial features. Just as what we eat forms much of the way our body looks and functions, so how we think expresses itself through the way we look and act. There was a woman in our former congregation who once said, “By the time you reach age 40 you have earned the face that you show!” I think I know what she meant.
If we dwell mostly on our fears and hatreds and judgments on others, these will show in our disposition and on our faces. Likewise if we think mainly positive thoughts of love, kindness and hope it will radiate on our countenances and faces. While in India I noticed how they studied faces, especially strangers. I met a man once with whom I talked briefly and then he asked, “Are you a teacher or a minister?” I asked him why he selected those two and he answered, “By the look on your face and in your eyes.” I also noticed how many of the teachers or gurus would have pictures and paintings in their small huts of people they admired. One teacher had his mother’s face over the place where he sat to eat. These were images of love they pondered often, hoping to become more and more as that admired one.
If you take little time to be alone in reflection and meditation, I would encourage you to begin a more intentional practice. It can immensely enrich your life and have a positive effect on those around you. You can begin by just sitting alone in some corner of your house for a few minutes each day. It may only be 5 minutes to begin with or could be 20 or 30 minutes. You could plan a retreat to climb a mountain or stay in a cabin in the woods for a few days.
In the 1950s Thomas Merton was given permission to live in a Hermitage as part of the Trappist Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky. In 1958, after being there for weeks, he went into the city of Louisville. There on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets, in the very center the shopping district, he wrote “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I love all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. I had the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate. If only everybody could realize this!”
Yes awareness or repentance changes our countenance as it changes the thinking that often permeates our minds. These can come as an initial burst of deep joy and peace. Over a course of time this can be lost but regular withdrawals to places of prayer and retreat can enrich and renew it. What I often believe harms relationships in couples is a lack of time taken to spend time together. Couples can feel so close and so in love when they marry but in time find themselves drifting further and further apart. It can destroy the marriage relationship. What I often suggest is that they take another honeymoon together. Or just spend time each day or each week alone with each other. Likewise if we spend very little time in prayer or meditation with the Unknown, we will feel quite apart from the one we name God or Spirit.
The experience of being on a mountain in prayer and having faces shine like the sun is a metaphor of our glorious end as Beings of Light as God’s children. It takes planning and it takes some effort to climb these mountains but it’s worth it in the end!
As I planned to climb Giant Mountain last autumn, I often entertained doubts about doing it. I wondered about the time taken away from family for such an effort. I wondered how I would get along with my two experienced climbers, if I could keep up with them. I wondered if I even had the physical ability to climb the mountain. I wondered if the heights would be too scary for me with a sense of danger. But I went. We started early one morning in late September climbing quietly together. We stopped often to rest and drink water. The climb was steeper than I had anticipated as it went on for a mile and one half with a steeper incline than I had expected. It took us three hours to finish the 3000 foot climb to the top of Giant Mountain which stood at 4600 feet. When I made the last steep climb coming out into the clearing on the rock overlooking the valley below, viewing 39 of the 46 high peaks on that brilliant day, I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know whether to scream in delight or just weep in release. My friend told me that on each mountain he always sits in silence and meditates at the top. I thought to myself, “What a wonderful and fitting thing to do!”
Come let us join together in climbing the mountains of Transfiguration. There we will be assured that we too are the Sons and Daughters of God, and God is well pleased with us. There we will experience those times when the earthly body seemingly dissolves once again into the particles of light joining us with the Eternal Light! And as we return again to this earth of death and darkness, we will walk with a little more spring in our step, a little more brightness in our eyes, a little more forgiveness in our heart, and with a little more smiling on our faces. Amen.
Shared by Rev. David G Persons with the folks at First Presbyterian Church in West Seneca, March 6, 2011, Transfiguration Sunday.