Years ago, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, a priest who was visiting Saint Benedict Center began his sermon on the feast with the words “God loves mountains!” He then preached a tour de force on the place of mountains in salvation history, elucidating the spiritual life in mountainous terms as he generously employed the allegorical and tropological senses of Holy Scripture. August 6 has not been the same for me since.
I propose here first to consider a nearby mountain and its spiritual significance in a way similar to our priest-visitor’s sermon. Next, I would like to summarize very briefly some of the prominent mountains of sacred history. (Elsewhere, I have considered the august mystery of the Transfiguration, albeit in terms of its other liturgical manifestation, the Second Sunday of Quadragesima. Elsewhere, too, we have considered the relation of the Battle of Belgrade to the ranking of the feast.)
The mountain in question is Mount Monadnock. It is not part of a chain, but stands alone; in fact, its name, derived from the Abenaki language, means “mountain that stands alone.” It even lends its name to a distinct category of mountain fitting that description, which is also called an “inselberg,” or isolated mountain. It also lends its name to the larger geographical area of New Hampshire of which our little Richmond is a part, the Monadnock Region. Readers may view a lovely photograph of the mountain in Fall; but, as it is reputed to be the most hiked mountain in the world (perhaps not entirely accurately), there are numerous pictures of it on the Internet.
The New England litterateurs Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, and H.P. Lovecraft (yes, the horror writer) are among the many poets that have hymned the beauty of Monadnock, the rocky summit of which is said to be the only place where one can see all six New England states. According to the New Hampshire Parks and Recreation web site, the mountain “was designated a National Natural Landmark” in 1987. At 3,165 feet, it is not impressively high; it is dwarfed by New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, which is almost twice as high, at 6,288 feet. But, for all that, it is taller than Mount Tabor (1,886 feet), the location of the Transfiguration.
On a personal note, being a native New Orleanian, I am no judge of mountain heights; anything higher than Monkey Hill is “impressively high” for me.
Interest in our local mountain is largely due to the fact that the “Mount Monadnock Group” is the collective name of our new scouting troops at Saint Benedict Center, affiliated with the Federation of North-American Explorers. We chose the name for several reasons. For starters, it is a mountain, and “God loves mountains.” In Scripture, mountains and hills are places to meet God, to contemplate. “Exalt ye the Lord our God, and adore at his holy mountain: for the Lord our God is holy” says the Psalmist (Ps. 98:9). As he begins each Mass, a traditional Roman priest utters the words, “Send forth thy light and thy truth: they have conducted me, and brought me unto thy holy hill (montem sanctum tuum), and into thy tabernacles” (Ps. 42:3). In Carmelite fashion, Saint John of the Cross describes the spiritual life as the Ascent of Mount Carmel. Founders of religious orders associated with mountains would include Saint Francis (Mount Alverna, where he received the Stigmata) and the Seven Holy Founders of the Order of Servites (Mount Senario).
Marian devotees, click here to read a portion of St. Gregory the Great’s exposition of I Kings, where the Blessed Virgin Mary is compared to Mount Ephraim. (Start at “Fourth Lesson.”)
Monadnock, being local to us, is something that our young Explorers can explore. Being outdoors and learning from the book of nature is what scouting is all about, and the Explorers have supernaturalized this theme to turn it into an exploration of our way to the Trinity. Because of its name and the kind of mountain it is (one that “stands alone”), we can use it to impress upon our youth the idea that, although men are called to live in society and form communities, at times, one needs to “stand alone” before God in prayer, and in fidelity to his informed conscience, for we will each be judged alone in our particular judgment. Also, at times we will have to resist what is popular and “stand alone” morally from the crowd. It helps if we have, like Monadnock, that face of strong New Hampshire granite to withstand the attack of those who hate us for standing apart from them. As God told Ezechiel (3:9), “I have made thy face like an adamant and like flint: fear them not, neither be thou dismayed at their presence: for they are a provoking house.”
Some of the geographical features and lore of Monadnock translate well into spiritual parables. Its bare summit provides stunning views of the surrounding landscape. This is an allegory for the lofty Catholic perspective on life we try to instill in our youth. Another lesson comes from how that bare summit happened. As Wikipedia relates it, “Between 1810 and 1820, local farmers, who believed that wolves were denning in the blowdowns, set fire to the mountain again. The conflagration raged for weeks, destroying the topsoil and denuding the mountain above 2,000 feet (610 m).” If the wolves which destroyed the farmers livestock represent evil, then the mountain was scarred by this battle between good and evil; we must be willing to incur battle scars, too. The name Monadnock is, as I mentioned, from the Abenaki language. The Abenakis became largely Catholic due to the fruitful apostolate of the Jesuit missionary, Father Sébastien Rale. (This Abenaki connection might sound like a reach, but it is part of the local lore in these parts.)
Now, as promised, here is a small catalogue of Biblical mountains:
Mt. Ararat — Although Genesis is not explicit on the point, there is a strong tradition associating Mount Ararat with where the Ark of Noe landed after the flood. Needless to say, the mountain has great significance to Armenians. Anciently, it was their (pagan) equivalent of Olympus, where all the gods lived. It is a symbol of their nation — even thought the Turks stole it.
Mt. Sinai — This is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. According to the Catholic Enclycopedia, “Horeb and Sinai were thought synonymous by St. Jerome.” He is not the only one to think this. Some modern scholars think that Horeb was the name for the general region where Sinai was located. If Horeb and Sinai are the same, then Sinai is also where Moses encountered God in the burning bush.
Mt. Carmel — This is the place where Elias had his contest with the priests of Baal, all 450 of whom he slew (see 3 Kings, 18). It was the home of his community of prophets who are considered by Carmelite tradition to be the proto-Carmelites. The hermits of Carmel accepted the Gospel after Pentecost and the tradition of Carmelite monasticism began. Mount Carmel is a symbol of retirement and contemplation. Its Arabic name, Jabal Mar Elyas, means “Mount Saint Elias.”
Mt. Moriah — This is the mountain where the Sacrifice of Isaac took place. In Jewish tradition, it is also associated with the dream of Jacob (where he also offered sacrifice), and the threshing floor of Araunah, which David purchased and whereon he built an altar of sacrifice. Later, Solomon would build the Temple on that same spot. Hence, it is also Temple Mount.
Mt. Zion — This was the Jebusite stronghold that King David conquered. It became the site of David’s palace and therefore a symbol of the (Biblical) nation of Israel. In the New Testament, this is where the Cenacle was located, so the Last Supper took place there, as did the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. As a result, Zion also becomes a symbol of the Church, too, which would explain the reference in St. Thomas’ Eucharistic hymn, Lauda Zion (“Zion, to Thy Savior sing”). That the faithful of the Old and New Testaments could see Mount Zion as a symbol for the true religion and the true people of God is not an intrinsic contradiction; it is, rather an affirmation of the continuity of religion.
Mt. Calvary — or Golgotha (place of the skull) is the sacred spot where Jesus was crucified. It stood just outside the city. The various possible meanings of “skull place” are given in the relevant Catholic Encyclopedia article. Here at the Center, we prefer the tradition that Adam’s skull was buried there, a Jewish tradition that many Catholics have held, and that finds artistic representation in the depiction of a skull at the bottom of the Crucifix.
Mt. Olivet — Here, I will quote the Catholic Encyclopedia at length, which says that this is “the place where the fig-tree cursed by Our Lord stood (Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14; 20-21); the spot where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41); the site where He prophesied the destruction of the Temple, the ruin of the city and the end of the world (Matthew 24:1 sqq.); the Garden of Gethsemani; lastly the place where the Lord imparted His farewell blessing to the Apostles and ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-51).”
There is a tradition that Jesus will land on Mount Olivet when He returns as Judge. A reasonable thing to do, for He is God, and God loves mountains.