Archive for February, 2014

February 19, 2014

What One Finds in Arayat

Mountains, in Biblical imagery, constitute one of the few places where sacrality happens, where God meets His creation in a face-to-face encounter. One can remember Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, or Moses’ encounter with a burning bush, or even Jesus’ transfiguration in front of His apostles. An encounter with the incomprehensible happens on the site of the mountain: Michel de Certeau speaks of the white ecstasy – the intensity of things seen – of the vision of God. He says:

Here is what the final bedazzlement would be: an absorption of objects and subjects in the act of seeing. No violence, only the unfolding of presence. Neither fold nor hole. Nothing hidden and thus nothing visible. A light without limits, without difference; neuter, in a sense, and continuous. It is only possible to speak of it in relation to our cherished activities, which are utterly annihilated there. There is no more reading where signs are no longer removed from and deprived of what they indicate. There is no more interpretation if no secret sustains and summons it. There are no more words if no absence founds the waiting that they articulate. Our works are gently engulfed in this silent ecstasy. Without disaster and without noise, simply having become futile, our world—the immense apparatus born of our obscurities—ends.

Surely an encounter that must remain a secret. A secret without a body – precisely because it doesn’t need one. The mountain obscures its sacred ground with the beauty of creation. One is engulfed in the immensity of incomprehensibility, you are nothing in the midst of the sacred. No wonder Biblical authors would speak of the mountain as a site of glory: it is no one’s experience but yours in the face of God.

The mountain is the dwelling place of God. It is a place of purity. When one climbs a mountain, it is of paramount concern to “leave no trace behind,” to leave the place as it is. One enters into a strange place of height: the mountain is not mine, and I will also lose myself when I step on it, to challenge myself with it. In the transfiguration of Jesus, Matthew uses the Greek phrase, to describe the event, prosopon to heteron, which traditionally has been translated as “His face changed.” But one can also translate it as “His face was other-ed.” And this is the greatest risk one can take with oneself to the mountain: the possibility of being changed. In the face of the mysterium tremendum, one cannot but change. One must be prepared to be “other-ed.” Because it is the place of God; I am the visitor, the foreigner, the invader, entering a home that is not mine, that will never be mine.

But one must go down. One must struggle to go back to the flatland. I must go down because I am not God. I am not pure, nor am I the ecstasy of sight. For the Muslims, the greatest sin was to forget that one was not God. And it is the greatest sin to stay in the mountain. It is the dwelling place of God, “the playground of the gods.” Biblical narratives speak of the impossibility of seeing God, so much so that one dies at the sight of the Divine. It must remain a secret enclosed in clouds. One must go down because one is human.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons tells us that “the glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is to see God.” To climb a mountain is to see God, but what does it mean to be fully alive? It is not to reach the summit, but to go down to the struggle of existence, to the faces where God’s trace is inscribed. One brings down the trace of the mountain – God – when one goes down. Human faces become saturated with the glory of a secret when one comes down from the summit.

The mountain is a place of purity, human faces are not. One always leaves traces, like the streaks of tears that come after painful memories. Mountains teach us something: we do not belong there. It is therefore profound that we only belong to the mountain when we die there. We will never belong there so long as we are alive, because one is impure. We leave no trace in the mountain, but we always leave traces to people.

And I think that is the reason why we have to depart from the purity of the mountain. We belong to our traces – our memories – with other people. But at the same time it underscores the importance of climbing one: when one returns from the summit, one is “other-ed.” One is saturated by a sight no one else has seen, so saturated that one sees it in everything, even the imperfection of the creases on one’s face.

It is difficult to climb a mountain, but it is far more difficult to love people, to forgive people, to move on. Assuredly, it is difficult to be human. But in climbing a mountain one is granted a perspective so secret that not even Biblical authors who talked about mountains have spoken about it, to see something that one cannot share to anyone: the patience of waiting. For waiting is the solitude of being human. But waiting also connotes a sense of hope, of turning towards a light not yet perceived, just like climbing a mountain. To wait is to hold on to a trace of an impossible memory, something not-yet-there. To wait is to respond to a promise, however tiny that may be, like the stories of people who have seen the summit, like a word from a loved one.

When you climb a mountain, you learn to trust on a promise, whether it be the summit, the word of a loved one, the comfort of presence, or the promise of salvation, even if it is obscured by the clouds.

To climb a mountain is also to learn to live with the traces you leave with people, because one cannot live in the mountain, because it is too pure to leave something on, because it is not yours. To climb a mountain is to learn what is not yours, and to respect that fact and to live with it. This is the only way, in the most real sense, to move on and begin anew, or, to be more precise, as if all things were new again, even the past.

“Behold, I make all things new.”

– Rev 21:5