Mountains as Teachers

(The Nationalist, February 2006)


In the tradition of many peoples, mountains have spiritual significance:

  • Croagh Patrick: each year, on the last Sunday of July, some 30,000 people climb it; it was the place where Saint Patrick went to pray during a difficult period in his mission.
  • Mount Brandon in Kerry is a place of pilgrimage.
  • In Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi received the stigmata on Mount Alvernia.
  • In Kenya, Ol Doinyo Lengai is called by the Masai ‘the Mountain of God’.
  • In the South Island of New Zealand, Tapuaenuku means ‘the footsteps of the rainbow God’. And the mountain range called the Remarkables, with Lake Te Anau at their foot, makes a great case for the reality of God.

In the Bible:

God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac ‘on a mountain I will point out to you’.

  • Horeb, or Sinai, is the mountain of God, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
  • Mount Carmel is the mountain of the prophet Elijah, where he experienced God, not in fire or in an earthquake, but in the sound of a gentle breeze.
  • Mount Calvary is the hill of our redemption.

Mountains are symbols of strength, solidity and permanence. They open us to a sense of mystery; we feel humble in their presence; they are greater than we, and quiet in their strength. Every mountain has only one summit, but many routes to get there. All of them involve effort and perseverance. The view from the top is different from the view from the bottom. And yet, what we call a mountain, perhaps God calls an atom.

On a mountain, our daily preoccupations are cut down to size. We leave them behind as we climb. We return from the top, not as conquerors, but refreshed and grateful. Being up a mountain gives us a new perspective. It may open our mind, helping us, for example, to see that we trip over mole-hills, not mountains.

The Gospel describes Jesus taking Peter and James and John with him, and leading them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. A quiet place, a sacred space, to confront their fears. In prayer we are alone by ourselves. Sometimes we fear that: a boy told me he could not take silence, he needed noise of some kind. He was saying that he was running away from himself.

Jesus and the disciples had an experience of God of a kind which language is inadequate to describe. But they heard the essential message, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him’. After their experience on the mountain, ‘there was no one with them any more but only Jesus’ – and that was enough.


For those in a hurry: ‘The soul is not a thing; it is a quality of living’. (Tony Baggot SJ, Journey into Self: Journey into God, p.101)