I’m scared of heights. When I have to climb a ladder, I prefer not to go past the seventh or eighth step. Some of my most dreadful nightmares have been of clinging to a way too small surface that’s way too high off the ground. And even though it was more a matter of coercive peer pressure than personal courage, taking the elevator up the fifty-two stories of the Prudential Tower in Boston remains one of my greater feats of valour.
But this all changes when it comes to mountaintops. I’m actually quite excited to be really high up when there’s a mountain under my feet.
And I’m not the only one to feel this way. To some degree, we’re all drawn to mountains. When we see them, our eyes strain forward, taking them in, instinctively searching out their top. The higher they go, the more they interest us. Whether we summit them or not, we all wonder what it would be like to stand upon their peak. We hike them, cable-car them, build paths and roads and even cog railways on them, construct monasteries on top of them.
But why exactly do they attract us?
Some might say that we seek to conquer them, that we see in them a challenge which man feels obliged to answer. But if indeed mountains extend to us a sort of challenge, it is surely a benign challenge, an invitational one. For, when we arrive at their tops, we never look down on them, gloating over the mound we have scaled. We always look out. We extend our gaze out from the mountain so that we might see what it sees. We climb them to share in their view, and they beckon us to participate in the wonder they behold.
When we behold this view, we always find something of what we were looking for. Perched upon them, we cannot help but feel tiny, and we discover the world around us is vast. It is in this state that we are most at home, where we begin to become what we are. For we are indeed tiny creatures, held in existence by our Creator’s Word. And when we really know this littleness, all of our selfish worries and gripings become lost in the splendor of God’s reality. It then becomes possible to surrender to that reality, to lose ourselves in God’s grandeur—and this is our delight.
Meanwhile, the bigger we make ourselves, the more wretched we become. This is what happens when we seek to scale mountains of our own making. And indeed, we are always constructing towers of Babel, where our respective selves become our only reference points, where we strive to conquer the reality within which we find ourselves. It is in this sense that Satan leads us up the mountain of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, inviting us to ascend not for the sake of discovering our finitude, but to seek domination.
But we only find ourselves by losing ourselves, and we most readily lose ourselves by coming to the Lord’s mountain. This is the mountain of which Isaiah spoke, and it is indeed the “highest of the mountains” (Is 2:2), and all nations will indeed stream towards it. For like the mountains here on earth, God beckons to us, that we might see what he sees. And when we see what he sees, we will rejoice in being “little ones” who have been raised to such heights. For what he sees is nothing less than the Word, through whom and in whom all things are.