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Thinking Out Loud

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

by Michael Jinkins | May 29, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

Ain't No MountainThe low point in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2-9) occurs when Peter, still on the mountaintop and overwhelmed with the whole experience, says to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

The author of Mark’s Gospel then makes an editorial comment: “He did not know what to say.”

Maybe not. And not knowing what to say never kept Peter from talking anyway.

But, whether Peter’s mouth was just running while his brain was in neutral or he actually meant what he said, Peter was articulating the perspective of many people who seek in spirituality an escape from the difficulties of ordinary life, its emotional ups and downs, the trials, sufferings, and inevitable deaths. He seemed to be saying, “This is a wonderful place to be! Let’s stay here! Let’s build dwelling places for Moses, Elijah and Jesus! Let’s start a capital campaign to fund the building of the Transfiguration Center for Peak Spiritual Experiences!” This, again, is the low point in this story, at least in my view.

I think the high point in this story, incidentally, comes at the very end of the narrative: “As they were coming down the mountain, he [Jesus] ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had arisen from the dead.” Clearly, Jesus’ words on the way down from the mountain mystified Peter even more than his peak experience. You will recall, from other stories in the gospels, that Peter (as well as the other disciples) had a hard time coming to terms with the direction Jesus’ life was headed: betrayal, suffering, rejection and death.

Mark Epstein, a prolific psychotherapist whose work I have come to admire, tells the story of a client who was struggling with anger issues despite the fact that he was also deeply involved in mindfulness meditation. The client wanted all of life to remain as calm and still and peaceful as he found his periods of formal meditation. He could become very angry when others around him continued to act in ways that upset his expectations. He was even angry that his meditation didn’t finally settle his inner struggles. Epstein says that he “was not just trying to quiet his own mind, he was endeavoring to silence a chaotic early environment …. Instead of using meditation to move between states of storminess and stillness, to let go of one as the other took hold, he tried to use meditation to dominate life.” He wanted life to settle down, and get sorted out once and for all. He wanted life, other people and the various circumstances of daily living to stop being so unpredictable and uncontrollable. [Epstein, Going on Being (New York: Harmony, 2001) p. 94.]

What this client failed to understand, of course, is that mindfulness is intended to allow us to observe and acknowledge emotions and thoughts without judgement, but also without identifying with those emotions and thoughts, and without clinging compulsively to them. Prayer, meditation and contemplation are not intended to remove us from the world but to prepare us to live in it with greater freedom and compassion. In light of this case, Epstein reflects on the title of a book that Jack Kornfield published in 2000, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, describing it as “a vivid description of the challenges of incorporating a spiritual awakening into the chaos of everyday life.” (Epstein, Going on Being, 95.) Much that can be said about mindfulness meditation at this point can be said of spirituality, in general, and Christian spirituality, in particular.

One of the temptations of spirituality is to imagine that there is a time, or a quality of experience, or a place (thin, wilderness, mountaintop or retreat) that will relieve us from the burden of real life, of ordinary life back down in the valleys of existence. Even Peter wanted to stay on the mountain.

Interestingly, in the story of the Transfiguration, it is the voice of God that breaks the spell. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”

And, “what,” we may ask, “does the Son of God have to say?”

As they came down the mountain, the words of Jesus made his followers look toward his death and beyond his death to his resurrection. He reminded them that their lives were not lived on the Mount of Transfiguration. The mount was meant to prepare them to live faithfully in the world.

An authentic spiritual life does not seek to provide a substitute for the life we live in which bills come due, children get sick, the laundry needs to be done, and repairs to everything have to be made. The spiritual life is ordinary life lived in the Spirit of God, the Spirit of grace, mercy and forgiveness. The spiritual life is not and does not provide an escape from the consciousness that we disappoint ourselves and others, or that they disappoint us. Rather, it prepares us to deal with this life – our life – faithfully, offering all that we are and all that we have to the God from whom all things flow. It prepares us to deal with the realities of life, its continual change, its lack of permanence, and its persistent unsatisfactoriness. It enables us to be the human beings that God created us to be and redeemed us to become in Jesus Christ.

The spiritual life is human life lived in openness toward God’s love. It is life lived in assurance of God’s forgiveness of ourselves and of others. It is life that inspires compassion, steadiness and a willingness to remain ready to respond, but not react, to hold all things lightly and not to cling. And, for all of these reasons, it is a life that can be embraced without anxiety, because our only comfort in life and in death lies in the fact that we belong, body and soul, not to ourselves, but to God.

I’ve often wondered what thoughts must have tumbled around in Peter’s head as he came down from that mountain, literally the ultimate mountaintop experience. Whatever he was thinking about, it took some more time and some spectacular failures on his part, before he was ready to do what the voice from heaven told him to do – to listen to Jesus when Jesus talked about the things that ran counter to Peter’s hopes and desires.  

With this blog, I am drawing to a close this year’s special series on “Thin Places.” In the next academic year, beginning in September, in addition to the regular Tuesday blogs, I plan to introduce a series on Thomas Merton. I hope you will join us again there.

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