Mountains of the Mind
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
22 February 2009, 10:30 (1 before Lent)
I've just finished reading Robert Macfarlane's book 'Mountains of the Mind', described by Jeremy Paxman as 'the most exhilarating history of mountaineering'. Actually it's far more than this, it's a history of the human fascination with mountains.
I'm going to read you quite a long quotation from the very end of the book, which summarises a lot of what he explores in the preceding pages. And I'm starting with this, because our gospel reading today is the story of the Transfiguration, which happened, if most of the expert biblical commentators are to be believed, 9,000 feet up a mountain – on Mount Hermon, to be precise.
"Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. Mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.
"Mountains also reshape our understandings of ourselves, of our own interior landscapes. The remoteness of the mountain world - its harshnesses and its beauties - can provide us with a valuable perspective down on to the most familiar and best charted regions of our lives. It can subtly reorient us and readjust the points from which we take our bearings. In their vastness and in their intricacy, mountains stretch out the individual mind and compress it simultaneously; they make it aware of its own immeasurable acreage and reach and, at the same time, of its own smallness.
"Ultimately and most importantly, mountains quicken our sense of wonder. The true blessing of mountains is not that they provide a challenge or a contest, something to be overcome and dominated (although this is how many people have approached them). It is that they offer something gentler and infinitely more powerful: they make us ready to credit marvels.... Being in the mountains reignites our astonishment at the simplest transactions of the physical world: a snowflake a millionth of an ounce in weight falling on to one's outstretched palm, water patiently carving a runnel in the face of granite, the apparently motiveless shift of a stone in a scree-filled gully. To put a hand down and feel the ridges and scores in a rock where a glacier has passed, to hear how a hillside comes alive with moving water after a rain shower, to see late summer light filling miles of landscape like an inexhaustible liquid - none of these is a trivial experience. Mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives."
You do not have to be a mountaineer to know what Macfarlane is talking about. And although most of the mountains I have climbed are of the UK variety, and qualify as little more than big hills, I can identify with his description of what happens to you at the top of a mountain. Quite simply, and far beyond the literal meaning of the words, when you are up a mountain you see things differently.
Throughout most of human history and across very different cultures, mountains have been regarded in two ways above all others – they have been viewed as permanent, and they have been seen as holy places.
Science, especially Geology, has exploded the first of these as a myth. We now know that mountains are far from permanent; given enough time, they are as much on the move as we understand the shifting continents to be. The discovery of sea fossils just below the summit of Everest is all the proof you could need – even the highest mountains were once on the floor of the sea!
But if we now know that mountains are on the move just like everything else in our mobile world, they still retain their reputation as holy places. This seems to be because they change our perception of reality and our own existence.
Did you notice Macfarlane’s description of the way in which a mountain compresses your mind and stretches it at the same time, humbles you and yet somehow enlarges you in the same moment? It’s something akin to what happens when you experience a supreme piece of art.
Little wonder that mountains figure so strongly in the pages of Holy Scripture, because they have this capacity to change your perspective on the world and make you see things in a different way, which is such a fundamental aspect of what the Bible is trying to do with us. From Mount Zion to Mount Sinai, Mount Hermon to the Mount of Olives, from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Sermon on the Mount, the landscape of the Bible is filled with mountains.
It sometimes takes going to new and different places to see God in a new and different way. If our life is filled with too much of the familiar or routine it can limit our understanding and experience of God.
It was the Victorians who developed the idea of self-development through danger, and then linked this to mountaineering and polar exploration. If you want to grow as a person, our 19th century forebears suggested, place yourself at risk and see how it changes you.
That may be a step too far for some of us, but perhaps if we want to enlarge our understanding of God we may need, occasionally at least, to seek out mountains.
In the middle of January Archbishop John Sentamu gave a speech at the Smith Institute in London. It was a Big Vision speech, it identified the challenges facing British Society and offered a map to navigate our way through them. In one startling part of his speech, and maybe only an African could have got away with saying this, Sentamu said that our vision for Britain had narrowed following the collapse of the British Empire, because, whatever else it did, the Empire made us think big, beyond our horizons, and now we had become introspective and largely concerned purely with ourselves.
60 years ago our forebears had a Big Vision for Britain - exemplified in the creation of the welfare state and the NHS, and we led the world in social regeneration. Where is the Big Vision now?
I've been captivated by Barack Obama's book 'The Audacity of Hope', in which he talks of America in a similar vein, and argues that politics has become petty and taken its eye off the Big Vision that created all that is best about America.
This question has been bugging me for a long time. Where is the Big Vision now? In politics, literature, art, religion, education, the Church. Our horizons have become so small. So petty.
And I've come to think that Big Visions need High Mountains. Maybe the real message of the Transfiguration is not to allow your imagination to be dulled, your vision to be veiled, your understanding to be limited, your expectation of God to be diminished. Think Big.
I do not know where your High Mountains might be. They may be real ones, and you find that a walk in the hills helps you to see God, the world, yourself, your neighbour differently. Or your mountains may be different. Books can be mountains of the mind, journeys of discovery across new and fascinating landscapes. A careful, rather than a cursory read of a decent newspaper can be a mountaineering expedition, giving you a fresh insight into the world we inhabit. Prayer, practised regularly, and given proper time and space, is compared in the psalms to a traveller walking up a hill. It lifts you above the everyday and the humdrum, takes you to a different place. Or your High Mountain may be the companionship of special people, every conversation an adventure.
Standing on top of a mountain is beautiful - but also dangerous, breathtaking, frightening, awe-inspiring. All of these things should be present in a relationship with God, at least from time to time.
During this coming week, as you go about your daily business, try to find your own holy place where Christ is transfigured for you, a sacred space where the landscape of your normal life is transformed, and the world looks different. For so much of being a Christian is about seeing things differently, about having open minds and open eyes to see a greater reality, and then living in the light of the new landscapes we've been privileged to glimpse through the spiritual mist.