“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
― John Muir
I woke up this morning thinking about our upcoming trip to Mammoth Lakes up in the High Sierras. “I’m going to a cathedral!” I thought with a mixture of anticipation and relief. For years now my family has been spending part of every summer up in the Sierras. We always go with my sister’s family and over the years we have watched our kids grow from toddlers to young adults, our activities changing to match each phase of life. We’ve moved from throwing sticks off of “Pooh’s bridge” at the foot of Rock Creek in Mosquito Flats, to hiking and playing golf. Through it all the craggy mountains of the Sierra Nevada have stood in silent witness, seemingly constant and changeless.
In much the same way that the cathedral builders sought to inspire worshipers to look to the heavens, the mountains propel your gaze upwards. Our day to day existence, living as we do in a largely urban environment, seems to constrain our vision so that much of the time we aren’t even looking at our surroundings, not with any conscious intent anyway. I know I am aware of what an effort it takes to simply stop and really look at the birds in the air, or the bougainvillea blooming in my backyard.
So when we drive up the 395 and see the mountains on the horizon, I feel an amazing combination of peace, awe and relief. A relief to finally get outside of myself, to be in the presence of something grand and eternal in a very visceral way. It reminds me that the burdens I place upon myself – as though I were carrying the weight of the world upon my own shoulders – are not really mine to carry. I am not, in fact, the center of the universe – that place belongs to someone else!
I can vividly recall where this truth was brought home to me in quiet, yet dramatic fashion. My husband Ron and I were driving from Mammoth to June Lake. My daughter, Mallory and niece, Kelsey, were in the back seat and we were listening to some praise songs – something I rarely do but since this was a Sunday I thought we should bring some “church” experience with us on our drive. As we crested a hill, the words of the song “Shout to the Lord” poured forth and at the same moment, the entire vista of valley and mountains spread before us. The sun glimmered on the horizon, and I was filled with a sense of the transcendent. It is what Carl Jung called a numinous experience – in the presence of the sacred, words fall silent. “The earth is charged with God’s grandeur,” says the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and on that long ago summer morning, so it was.
These moments are rare and fleeting, which is one reason why they are so memorable and yet they seem to be a portent of things to come. They speak of another reality beyond the one in which we live, unbounded by our senses and yet in some way intimately connected to them. In those moments it is as though our bodies are the receptacles through which the divine nature flows. Like recorded music which requires some sort of device in order to be heard, or electricity which needs a conduit in order to illuminate a room, perhaps some aspect of God’s nature is best expressed through our own physical senses – a momentary incarnation in which we are briefly privileged to participate.
In any case, like the wind, these moments of numinous experience come and go of their own volition. The best we can do is make ourselves available to the possibility. And that is what my yearly trek to the mountains does for me. Yes, it is a time to reconnect with loved ones; to watch children grow, to hike the trails and admire the views. But hopefully it is also an opportunity to come in contact with the eternal and transcendent and be reminded of the wonderful mystery that surrounds us each and every day.