My friend Charlotte and I were not on a pilgrimage, and yet we we approached Ireland’s Croagh Patrick with a mix of awe and excitement. As summits go it’s only 2,500 feet high, but the history, traditions, and the setting of this so-called Holy Mountain made us want to experience it.
People have been making pilgrimages to the summit of Croagh Patrick for no less than 5,000 years, when it is believed that pagans gathered there to mark the beginning of the harvest season. And it was on the same mountaintop that, according to tradition, Saint Patrick himself fasted for 40 days in the year 441.
Now more than 1 million people a year make the climb for the adventure or the punishment of it. Some of the pilgrims walk the rocky path barefoot, and some even crawl over the sharp stones on their knees, as a form of penitence and devotion. There’s a little chapel at the summit where, on certain days, a priest hears confessions and celebrates Mass.
My friend and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and to experience this Irish tradition. Maybe we would have some kind of mystical experience. Besides that, all the guide books described the views of Clew Bay from Croagh Patrick as nothing less than magnificent. And so we began the steep ascent.
By the time we reached the top, my shirt was soaked with perspiration—and Clew Bay was nowhere to be seen. The summit was totally socked in by clouds. So limited was our visibility that it seemed as if we were actually in a cloud.
I remember this experience every year when Transfiguration Sunday rolls around, the day when we hear an expression of what happened when Jesus and his friends were on the top of a mountain, enveloped in a cloud.
The gospels say Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John up to the mountaintop to pray. That would have been just like him; he was always going off to pray, often into the mountains, usually alone. But on this day, Jesus apparently wanted some company.
And yet it seems as if Peter, James, and John are not praying so much as watching Jesus pray—or perhaps they are enjoying the magnificent view. Whatever they, the non-pray-ers, are doing, what they see is the pray-er (that would be Jesus) utterly transformed. The look on his face changed, which sounds reasonable enough if you’ve ever done any meditation or just read about how a state of deep peace can affect the body.
But then things start to get weird. First, Jesus’ clothes turn a dazzling white. Then, a couple of long-dead superstars named Moses and Elijah show up and begin talking to Jesus about his death.
The next line tells us that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, which might suggest that they were dreaming, except that the very next phrase is this: but since they had stayed awake.
Since they had stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory.
The next thing you know, Peter is talking nonsense. And then a cloud envelops them, and then there is a voice and a great epiphany: that their teacher is God’s Chosen One.
That’s the key take-away here: That Jesus is the Christ. That Jesus is God’s love revealed, God’s love poured out into the world, God’s love with skin on, God’s love right in front of us, God’s glory shining bright as the sun, God’s glorious love come to shake things up, God’s dazzling love come to set things right. And that God will go to all sorts of lengths to make this apparent, to show us the way, to make it possible for us to experience life abundant.
And now you know, if you didn’t already, where the phrase “mountaintop experience” comes from. Its common usage suggests a fleeting moment of clarity or ecstasy; a mountaintop experience often comes from an unexpected and powerful encounter with the divine or the mysterious. The feeling we get from a mountaintop experience is unlikely to last, however tightly we try to hang onto it, and it’s not something we can make happen or expect to happen again.
It’s amazing to me how quickly most of our reflections on this passage pivot from the hard-to-imagine glory of Jesus’ transfiguration to a dramatic lowering of our own expectations and a discounting of the reality of spiritual experience.
Oh, that fool Peter, we say: Offering to build shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, as if they were going to stay there, as if he could make that magic moment last, as if it really happened.
Oh, mountaintop, schmountaintop, we say: As if Jesus and the disciples don’t immediately head down the mountain and back to the real world. As if it isn’t all downhill from there, as if that isn’t a turning point in Jesus’ journey to the cross.
And we wonder why people don’t like this story!
But what if there is another way to look at it? What if there are other epiphanies to take away from it?
Peter, James, and John were weighed down with sleep. Aren’t most of us weighed down with something at one time or another?
We’re weighed down by all the evil and suffering in the world, and by the corruption and inhumanity of our government. We’re weighed down by injustice. We’re weighed down by how much we have to do. We get weighed down by our fears of what will happen and our anxieties about what could go wrong. We get weighed down by loneliness and depression, by the troubles of those we love, by poverty and illness and aging, by one thing after another.
When we’re weighed down, even the flats can feel like a mountain. Just getting through another day can feel like a challenging climb.
But with Jesus at our side, a slog can become an adventure. Something as simple as prayer or mindfulness can open our eyes and hearts: to the mysteries of this life, to the wonders that lie within us, the glory that is all around us, the encounters that would change our lives if we let them, the mountaintop experiences that are more common than we think, the shining Christ who is in every person we meet, the holiness that is everywhere and all the time and now.
Like us, Peter, James, and John were too often sleepwalking through their lives. But there on the mountaintop they somehow managed to stay awake. And since they had stayed awake, they saw the glory of Jesus, the hope of the world.
Are you awake this morning? Are you ready to follow Jesus up the mountain that is right in front of you, the challenge you keep avoiding, the fear you keep denying?
Maybe prayer is that mountain for you. Or perhaps it’s a difficult relationship. A goal you’re afraid to pursue. A decision that’s hard to make. A next step you’re afraid to take. A call you have yet to follow. A loss you’re unwilling to acknowledge.
Who knows what you might find up on the mountain? Who’s to say whom you might encounter, or what glory might be revealed?
Life is not either-or, mountaintop or valley, ecstasy or drudgery. There is ecstasy to be experienced in the daily grind as well as in the mountaintop experience. The glory that will transform us is present even in the everyday; the love that will heal us is right here, right now.
In the bright eyes of a child, at the bedside of a man in hospice care, in the hands of the faithful laid on the humble shoulders of a man separated from his family, in the dignity of work, the shared purpose of working together to make a difference, the beauty of a song, the sense of community at a church’s annual meeting, the feel of hands in the earth, a warm hug, the quiet of worship, the joy of giving, a glimmer of hope.
I could go on and on and on.
When my friend and I got to the top of Croagh Patrick, we couldn’t see the sparkling blue waters of the bay below. The chapel was closed, and it seemed there was nothing happening up there at all.
And then, as we stared into the thick gray cloud, an opening appeared, as if a window onto the heavens. Through the veiled window we could see the brightness cast by the sun and captured by the cloud. The glory was all around us.
And God’s glory is all around you and all of us—whether or not we can see it, whether or not we can feel it. Even if we can’t hold onto it or make it last, we can trust it and live as if we, too, are shining.
Are we awake to glory?