It’s a different world up here. There’s a lot more weather up here than there is down below, for a start. The snow settles more readily, and stays around longer. Mountains and hilltops generally are isolated almost by definition. If people are up there it’s because they’ve chosen to be, or have to be. There’s no passing trade. That’s part of what makes this church special. It would be a great place to come to for a quiet day, for a time of recuperation, a time to change tack, to draw breath, and maybe to pray more deeply and with greater feeling than we can manage down at sea level. From the cartoon image of the holy man seated on his slab of rock somewhere in the Himalayas to the reality of pilgrim sites of many faiths in many parts of the world, mountains are held in high regard as places of prayer and stillness, places close to heaven.
Jesus regularly escaped from the busy streets and lanes where so many people wanted a part of him, to pray in the stillness of the hills. The crowds that followed him everywhere must have left him hardly able even to catch his breath, let alone pray. And he needed to pray. Think of that, by the way. If Jesus himself needed to pray, how come for many of us prayer becomes an optional extra, or the spiritual equivalent of the fire button behind the glass, to be broken into and used only in dire emergency?
Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus going up a mountain to pray, not just to take time away from the crowds, but to make himself ready for what was coming next. He had set his face towards Jerusalem, and he knew what awaited him there. His disciples didn’t. They imagined an easy victory for God’s Messiah, and thrones for everyone. But Jesus knew that the victory he would win would cost everything he had to give.
So he climbed the mountain to pray, taking with him the inner circle of his disciples, Peter, James and John. The mountain on which these events probably took place – Mount Hermon - is these days topped by church buildings, and reached via a steep and winding road. Tourists and pilgrims travel up it in Mercedes taxis driven like the wind by fiercely moustached Bedouin taxi-drivers, who hold the franchise. Having ascended that way, I have to say it lacks the spiritual impact of a gentle walk into the clouds. But there are peaceful corners in which to sit quietly and pray, once you’re there.
But when I read today’s Gospel, my imagination does not take me to the Mount Tabor I visited in the Holy Land, it takes me to Cadair Idris. One slightly snowy day in November, twenty years ago now perhaps, I took time out from a clergy retreat at Abergynolwyn to climb as far as I could up Cadair before the fading light forced me back down. That day I had the mountain to myself except for a buzzard or two; the clouds were backlit by the late autumn sun, and that great sweep of ridge above me was magnificent. It was a real spiritual high, and that’s why I can’t help but imagine Peter and the others kneeling on Welsh moor-grass and heather, as they shield their eyes from the transfigured brightness of their Lord.
“It’s good that we’re here,” says Peter. But they couldn’t stay there. They had just a momentary glimpse of glory – clouds, by the way, almost always stand for both mystery and glory in the Bible – just one moment of being almost blinded by the light. Then their blinking eyes see that their Lord the same as he was before, with robes and sandals stained with the dust and grime of the road they must rejoin. For it’s time to get on with the journey.
The disciples go with Jesus back down the hill, back into the real world. Was what they’d seen just an illusion? I prefer to think that for a moment they’d seen through the veil that mostly blinds us, a bit of the glory that’s really always there, a glimpse of their Lord as he truly and always is. Research suggests that many people, maybe even most people, are prepared to admit to having what we might call ‘spiritual experiences’: moments when everything seemed brighter, clearer, holier than normal, moments when something was suddenly understood, times when heart and soul were suddenly lifted. Often people have felt that sort of thing on a mountain, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit. But such experiences are only momentary; we can’t stay there, and we can’t live only for those extraordinary times. We can’t stay on the mountain-top, for there’s a world down there, and that’s where we’re supposed to be, that’s where we’re called to be.
Christian witness and pilgrimage may include such special experiences from time to time, but that’s not what we’re really about. What matters is the love we share along life’s dusty road, the care we offer in the muddle and grime of every day. Spiritual highs are wonderful not for themselves but because they help us get on with living and loving down at ground level. For a moment the disciples saw Jesus transfigured and talking with Elijah and Moses, the two great heroes of the faith. And they were talking about where he was going next, and what he was going there to do. The road at the bottom of the hill would take Jesus to Jerusalem, and to Calvary. And the glory Peter and the others glimpsed up there would be revealed once and for all there: on a Friday in Jerusalem, and on a different hill, as the man who had travelled there to lay down his life in love to save the world, hung and died on a cross.