Posted: Sunday 16th June 2019
Trinity Sunday 2019
Mountains have been in the news a lot recently, or rather one mountain in particular – Everest. This year an unprecedented number of people have died trying to climb it. In one sixteen-day period eleven people died trying to reach the 8,849 metre-high summit. Indian officials have denied that giving too many passes out to climbers has resulted in over- crowding causing the excessive queuing which, at that altitude, is extremely dangerous. But one photograph I saw recently showed a huge line of people queuing along the ridge to the summit as if waiting for a ride at Disney World. Mountains are not amusement parks but beautiful and dangerous places which need approaching with reverence.
The lure of mountains is understandable. The feat of endurance, the physical challenge, the change of air and the breath-taking views which give a quite literally different perspective on the world, are unrivalled. In the Bible mountains are frequently holy places of divine encounter – Moses on the Mountain received the Ten Commandments; Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor. And as the psalmist said I lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. Your eye can’t help but be drawn to their peaks.
Mountains are elevated places to which people look for inspiration and in which people find elevation themselves. They represent the out-of-reach, the potentially unassailable and, especially when the top is shrouded in cloud, the speak of beauty and mystery. I understand why people risk their lives to climb them.
Descartes, the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist wrote in the 16th Century that “we can touch a mountain, but we cannot get our hands around it”. Mountains are simultaneously right here on earth and simultaneously out of reach. So near and yet so far.
I think it was possibly seeing the Sound of Music as a child that awakened me to the magical lure of mountains (along with nuns, puppets and leiderhosen! Actually the latter was cured when a German friend of the family gave me a pair that their son refused to wear. I think the double fact that a. I was unsurprisingly the only child wearing them in Birkenhead and b. they were made of the thickest, creakiest most uncomfortable leather, combined to put me off them for life!).
But back to the mountains! And to 2008 when I climbed Kilimanjaro, three thousand metres lower than Everest at just under 6,000 metres and the toughest, most exhilarating five days of my life. At first, I was worried we weren’t going to even begin to reach the base of the mountain. Three times the Land Rover I was in blew tyres on the rough, crater-strewn tracks that counted as roads as we left the plains of the Serengeti with its giraffes and elephants behind and drove towards the beginning of the mountain trail. And from that moment on it really didn’t get any easier: even seeing the mountain ahead of us and knowing that plenty of others had climbed only gave us so much hope.
For the first few days we trudged slowly up dusty paths, clouds of dry orange dust coating every inch of us it could find, and later we would scramble over loose stone slopes. Beyond, waiting up the peak were glaciers 30 metres high, though a fraction of the size they had been ten years before due to climate change. From sea level you could glimpse the rocky mountain peak, but once on the side of it, whilst never getting our hands around it, we realised there was so much more to it than the enormous mountain we had set out to climb: To touch this mountain meant contact with soft warm dirt and sharp hard rocks and snow, scorching heat as well as the bitterest of cold.
On the final ascent it was touch and go as to whether I would actually make it. Around 50% of climbers I gather don’t manage it to the peak. A week before a Premier League footballer had been stretchered off with altitude sickness (hardly encouraging!) and several people in my party had been taken back down to base camp due to horrendous pounding headaches, as well as the bad stomachs which accompany the acute breathlessness, aching limbs and often bleeding toes from the exertion of the climb. But I made it…. and somehow at the top from I don’t know where came the effortless energy to smile the biggest of smiles for some photographs and then to sob my heart out at the enormity of the whole experience- not least that I can never fully convey just what it was like. But I made it to the top, I’d reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Even reaching the mountain summit whilst I’d certainly touched it I hadn’t got my hands round it. One person in my party had done it twice before – via different routes. There are four or five, and each year he intended to go via another route: each had the same destination Uhuru peak, but each route gave him a different perspective of the same mountain and from its different sides different countries were more clearly in view- across Kenya from one side and the whole of Tanzania stretching out on the other. But no matter which path he touched the mountain on, his hands could never contain it.
I could not have climbed it without the expert guides who knew the route like the back of their own hands, and yet even their palms could not hold it. Men and women who loved this mountain and were dependent upon it, who understood how to read the weather and carried the kit that we were not strong enough to. People who ran ahead of us to set up camp and prepare food and who trailed with the slowest making sure that no one was left behind. And there was one, whose name I do not know, who gently walked with me for the last hour in the thin golden dawn with one hand in the small of my back gently keeping me going to the place I so desperately wanted to reach and was struggling to get there on my strength alone.
And Kilimanjaro is just a mountain.
How much bigger is God, who we can touch and who touches us, but who we can never get our hands around. Whose substance, like Kilimanjaro, is more complex than we might first imagine and whose being we can only explore and encounter with the guidance of others: those who know God intimately and deeply, and who can share that knowledge and breathe the essence of God into us.
Trinity Sunday is the day when we recognise that we will never conquer God, never get our hands around him- or her ( see, we can’t even speak of God without using inadequate language), but a day on which we also celebrate that it doesn’t mean that God out of reach. Like Kilimanjaro – God is real and here- but viewed from the plain of humanity is shrouded in cloud and mystery and seems, not only unassailable but unapproachable. But thanks be to God, we can approach him through his Son who has made God known, shown us what this mountain is like – giving us a glimpse of the peak down on earth.
We have in Jesus Christ someone who knows God and who longs to be our guide; who shows us the right route to God because he alone is the way the truth and the life for those seeking directions to the summit. He truly knows God like the back of his hand, because they are one (as St John’s Gospel so vividly describes the relationship as the intertwining branches of a single vine). As the mountain guide has become one with the mountain through familiarity with it, so Christ can be familiar with his heavenly father and ours because he is one with God to begin with. They share the same substance. Christ has come to us from the peak, to lead us up there.
The Spirit of God is the energy which calls us to the Holy Mountain and which on our climb is a biting chastening wind and a soothing breeze, the sun that causes growth and life and which is a searing heart. And mediated through Christ our guide this Spirit is both within us around us: and if we are to even begin to climb this mountain we will need that Spirit of God, which as a creative father he breathed upon the waters to bring life to creation, breathed out by his Son on the early church and on us through the sacrament of baptism: without this Spirit we will surely find ourselves breathless.
But having reached the top…. What then? Is it just all down hill? Like the magi, I ‘went home by a different route’ when I descended from Kilimanjaro, but I certainly took something of the mountain-top with me.
Because on the summit very quickly the sense of achievement gave way to a devastating sense of smallness. Having gone very high I was brought down to earth by the realisation of my smallness in the cosmos and in relation to this mountain which had, of course, looked bigger the closer I had got to it; and only on it was I brought down to size as I recognised its enormity. And the words of the psalmist came to my mind
What are mortals that you, God, should be mindful of them: Mere human beings that you should seek us out?
I wasn’t brought low in a negative way- far from being depressing, this humbling knowledge or insight was awe-inspiring and uplifting: that on an 8,849 metre-tall mountain God cared about me… though I stand barely 1.7 metres tall.
This is the spiritual journey, we all take- with or without going to Africa: It’s not the physical ascent of a mountain, but the approaching of the enormity of God the Father, through the companionship of his Son and the sustenance of the Holy Spirit the summit of which is the discover that in the vastness of our world he cares for us, small as we each are. That knowledge is the destination we are all called to reach ….and from which … well, our view of the world is never again anything less than spectacular.