Mountains figure both prominently and metaphorically in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible – frequently shown as places of prayer and of solitude but perhaps most often, depicted as places of encounter with God. And so in this sense, the Biblical mountain is something of a motif for meeting the Lord in a particular way.
In Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament, we find Israel encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, while Moses is summoned to it’s peak by the Lord. God gives instruction to Moses, who is to inform the people to prepare themselves – “Have them sanctify themselves.. for on the third day, the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in front of all the people.” He duly does so, wreathing Sinai in fire and smoke, inviting Moses to ascend and then giving him – and, through him, all the people – the Ten Commandments. (cf. Exodus 19)
Later on, in the first book of the Kings, Israel is again summoned to a mountain together with all the prophets – Mount Carmel on this occasion. There, Elijah rebuked the people for following a false god, Baal, and he called them back to the worship of the Lord. To give gravitas to his point, he builds an altar and offers a holocaust to the Lord, Who then sends down fire to consume the offering. We read – “seeing this, all the people fell prostrate and and said ‘The Lord is God! The Lord is God!’.” (1 Kings 18:39)
Mountain tops are special places, then, in the Old Testament – places where the Lord is met by His people and His prophets; and places where He communicates to them something of His divinity and His law.
In the New Testament, mountains have lost nothing of their power as places of encounter and as moments of reminder of the divinity of God.
Saint Luke’s Gospel tells us the story of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, His time of preparation, during which He is tempted by the Devil. Part of this temptation occurs on a mountain top, where the Devil shows the Lord “all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant”, offering them to Christ if only the Lord will worship the Devil (Lk.4:5).
Luke also provides us with his account of the Transfiguration – “He took Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray. While He was praying, His face changed in appearance and His clothing became dazzling white” (Lk.9:28-29).
The story of the Law being given to the people at Mount Sinai finds a powerful echo in Saint Matthew’s Gospel – “When He saw the crowds, He went up the mountain and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. He began to teach them..” (Mt.5:1-2). Reflecting back the same theme of teaching the people how to live their lives as God wills us to, Jesus presents His followers with His blueprint for a good life – the Beatitudes. So powerful and so famous is this particular text that we now refer to it as ‘the Sermon on the Mount’.
And so we see God communicating with His people, the people encountering their God, the Lord tempted and triumphing, and the Lord teaching His followers – all on mountains.
For us today, living so long after these events have taken place, we can sometimes sometimes fail to be awed by the accounts we read of them; and we can fail to perceive the mountains within our own lives, where we – like the people of Israel and the disciples of Christ – are called to stop for a moment and to simply listen to the Lord.
We may never visit Sinai, Mount Ararat, Jerusalem or the Mount of Olives, or any of the other Biblical places we read of – but still, there are ‘mountain-top moments’ in the lives of every single one of us. Or rather – such moments are offered to us; it is for us to decide whether or not we wish to encounter the Lord within them.
Prayer is such a moment. In prayer, the soul has the chance to soar like an eagle up the mountain, to the moment of encounter with God – and it is every bit as real as the encounter between Moses and the Almighty. Similarly, prayer offers that moment of stillness where we can simply place ourselves at the feet of the Master and listen to Him speak gently of the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers.
Prayer is also the moment when that other form of encounter can occur – the moment in which we listen to the voice of the Lord as it is inscribed upon our hearts, and which we call our conscience. In prayer, the voice of our conscience reminds us of those moments in which we have failed to be worthy disciples of Christ, when we have not kept His commands and the Law of God; and in that same moment, we can follow Christ by rejecting self-will and “all the kingdoms of the world”, and renewing our choice for the will of God and to follow Him.
In the same way that we ascend a mountain, so we must descend from it. In other words, whatever we have learned there, whatever we have resolved to do or not do, to start or to stop, to take hold of or to let go of – we must then take those lessons with us into every other part of our lives. For no-one can remain on that mountain top. It’s lessons are not for that moment and that place alone, but for every moment, for every place.
In the account of the Transfiguration, the Apostles present with the Lord witness His divine countenance ablaze with a heavenly illumination; I like to think that on coming down from that mountain, the Apostles carried something of the reflection of that divine light with them and were themselves transfigured by it in some way.
In the image at the top of this page, I stood on a mountain top and watched as the very first rays of the light of dawn touched the sky in the far distance; within minutes, the shrouded mountain and the dark valley beneath were gently flooded with that light, which transformed the whole landscape. Though long ago now, that beautiful morning light has never really left me and I carry it with me still.