Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Mountain

He was dreaming of food when he was awakened by the terrifying and beatific presence of God.  He would remember this detail later, wishing he had been dreaming of something more profound.  But he was dreaming of a delicious cut of lamb, lavishly seasoned and roasted to perfection.

Jesus had asked these three friends to climb a mountain with him. They had come here to pray.  Peter, recently so renamed, understood why the other two had been asked to come.  John, though young, was intelligent and quiet, asking questions and pondering them with furrowed brow.  His brother James was a natural leader, an initiative taker.  He imagined that these two would be the ones at this saviour’s side when the revolution came, when this Christ he had so recently confessed finally became the King.  

Peter, however, only felt awkward when asked to take charge.  He stammered when he spoke in front of people, and usually knew that what he had to say probably wasn’t of much worth.  So confident when in command of a two-man fishing boat, his heart raced like a rabbit at the thought of leading anything beyond a fishing expedition.  He admitted few fears, but this fear was vast and wide, and covered the expanse of his internal landscape.

Even the climb seemed to underscore his unworthiness.  The brothers were always several paces ahead of the lumbering, breathless Peter.  Even James, who was not exactly a thin young man, darted easily up the path.  But Peter indeed was the Boulder, and it was a difficult thing to push a boulder uphill.  The trees lining the trail became crutches as he slowly pulled himself up the ascent.  He was quietly grateful, if more than a little embarrassed, that Jesus chose to walk beside him at his own pace.  

“You can go on ahead,” Peter had said.  “I’ll catch up.”

“I don’t mind,” Jesus smiled.  “I want to walk with you.”

It took a full day to reach the summit, and by the time they had arrived, Peter’s lungs were gulping for life at the thin air.  They had come here to pray, and his first gasping prayer was perhaps his most earnest: “Oh God…  Oh... Lord…  Oh God…”  

He collapsed onto a rock in the shade of a spruce, hands on his knees, trying to catch his illusive breath while the brothers took in the impressive panorama.  Jesus came and stood next to him, then squatted on his haunches beside him.

“How are you?” Jesus asked.

Peter looked at him with kind but sardonic eyes.  “It’s a lovely mountain,” he said.  “Thanks for inviting me.”  He attempted a smile.

Jesus put a hand on his shoulder.  “I’m glad you’re here.”

When Peter had at last found his breath, he stood and walked with Jesus to the vista point where James and John stood.   He drew a deep breath.  He had never before been up this high, and the crisp air of autumn, though thin, felt good in his nostrils.   He imagined that maybe this was what Adam’s first breath from the mouth of God felt like.

The four of them stood in silence, and took in the view of the outlying countryside. Here and there, mottled among the towns, they saw small wooden shelters in place for this week of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.  Peter thought of his people, in ages past, led by Moses through the wilderness, their shelters set beside a mountain not unlike this one.  He wondered about Moses, and about his own ascent of this mountain.  I hope he was in better shape than I am.

Here they stood and recited the psalms together.  More precisely, Jesus and James and John recited the psalms.  Peter recited what he could remember, letting the other three fill in the gaps.  He was never good at memorization.  But he prayed just the same.

“From the rising of the sun to its setting, let the name of the Lord be praised,” they chanted.

He liked that line, for the same sun burned quietly at the edge of the western horizon.

Peter slept deeply that night, and dreamt of food.


The light was everywhere.  

Peter awoke with that cold first breath of Adam.  His heart was racing, and all he could see was light.  Light beyond light.  A spectrum of colours and hues which he knew should be beyond his vision.  It was all around, penetrating and giving a quality of phosphorescence to even the motes of dust in the air before him.  

His first thought was that he had awakened within another dream, but with the light came a solidity of form that betrayed any illusion of a dream.  He looked around him, and saw James and John sitting upright from their mats, looking as confused and alarmed as he himself was.  There was a place within him that felt relieved at that.

The light had a source, and his eyes quickly found it.  His eyes did not adjust to this new sense of sight so much as his mind did.  When it did, he saw with more clarity than he ever had or ever would again.  And what his eyes then beheld was something he would never thereafter be able to adequately describe.  There was Jesus, the Christ he had confessed just days before, standing within what seemed to be a softly glowing ring, an emerald rainbow.  Jesus, the one who had forever changed the fisherman with the giving of a new name, the one who walked so patiently with him up this mountain, shining with light as if he were the sun itself.  His robes were white, whiter than any cloth Peter had ever seen.  Whiter than any soap could ever bleach ‘em, Peter thought distantly.

Peter fell upon his hands, and seemed to feel the earth humming beneath him.  No, not humming.  Trembling.  Alive.  Quaking as he himself was, as a man before unspeakable holiness.  He had felt some taste of this before, that day on the beach, when this same Christ had held him and let him weep.  Now, the earth itself seemed to shake before this man.

There were two others in the center of the virescent ring, and Peter knew without question precisely who they were.  It was proclaimed from their very spirits and even in the solidity of their form, forms as tangible as his own and perhaps more intrinsically real.  Moses stood on the Messiah’s left, his hand in subservience but tenderness upon the Christ’s arm.  Elijah stood to his right, as fierce and focused, and as familiar to Peter’s eyes, as John the Baptizer.  Peter could hear the three speaking together, and he discerned such words as “paschal sacrifice,” and “exodus.”

And suddenly Peter felt himself overcome with longing and joy and tears.  The fear which made his heart race had become the thrill of seeing something indescribably, wonderfully good, and it seemed to him that it should go on forever.  His soul cried out for this to be eternal, for his soul saw something here of Sinai, of Mamre, of Eden.

The shelters of wood and cloth came to his mind, with images of a holy mountain and announcements about deliverance and a kingdom of priests, and he saw those two figures turning as if to leave, as if being relieved of a long-borne duty.  But he wanted them to stay.  To remain here with them forever.  Before he knew he was talking aloud, he heard himself speaking.

“My rabbi… My Lord…  It’s good that we’re here!  If you want, I’ll make three shelters!  I can make one for you!  And one for Moses, and one for Eli…”  And here his voice faltered into a whisper.  “...jah.”

Another light came.  His hands, his whole body, quavered with the earth beneath him as this mantle of light descended from the very fabric of the sky.  It seemed to be a cloud made of light, and it surrounded them completely.  I’m inside of lightning, he thought, and he tried to shield his eyes.  With the cloud came a voice.  It met his ears with the resonance of thunder and the timbre of song.  He wept at the sound of it, though he knew not why.  But he remembered Moses again.  He remembered his receiving of the law upon the mountain.

The voice, so unlike anything he had heard before, encompassed all the sounds of the natural earth, and spoke as the blast of a thousand shofars, but also as a whisper in his ear.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Peter now fell prostrate, splayed upon the ground and weeping.  He could hear James to his right and John to his left, shivering and whimpering.  All of this, he knew, was beyond what any human should ever have seen, and he wept with joy and fear upon the trembling earth.

A hand touched his shoulder, and there was only silence.

A voice, soft and human, spoke above him.

“Rise, and do not be afraid.”

Peter, his face smeared with tears and dust, lifted his eyes, and saw only Jesus.