Who Shall Climb the Mountain of the Lord?

Doug McManaman
1st Sunday of Advente
Reproduced with Permission

What struck me about the first reading was the metaphor of the mountain, a metaphor found all throughout Scripture. I remember the summer I went out west for the first time, to Banff, Alberta. I was so awe struck by the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains. I actually stopped the car, and sat down nearby at the side of the road on a foldout chair, and just gazed up at the mountain for about 40 minutes - and that wasn't enough time. What a retreat that would be, to be up there all alone, overlooking the entire region, high above the earth, I thought to myself.

In Psalm 24, which is one of the psalms we pray in the breviary during the week, we read the following: "Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things. He shall receive blessing from the Lord, and justice from his saving God. Such is the generation that seeks him, that seeks the face of the God of Jacob."

Our entire life in Christ is compared to the act of climbing a mountain. One of the greatest spiritual classics of all time is The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by St. John of the Cross. The spiritual life is an ascent to the top of the Lord's mountain.

Well, it is difficult to climb a mountain; it is exhausting. We can slip and lose our foothold, in which case we slide back a few meters. But there is only one thing to do, and that is to get up and continue climbing. When we get to the top, the view will be exhilarating; it will be spectacular, and that will be the time to rest. But now we have to continue to rise above the earth.

That's what this image suggests; the spiritual life is about learning to rise above the earth. So many of the problems in the world today stem from man's inability to rise above the earth - or his unwillingness to rise; people are too immersed in the affairs of this world and in the pleasures that this world holds out to us, and people are willing to sacrifice others for these temporary joys. We take the pleasures of this world far too seriously, and we forget that everything is passing away. What happened to last year? Or the year before last? It's gone, along with all those things that delighted us, not to mention all those things that worried us back then. It is all gone; barely a memory.

God is calling us forth, to rise higher, to rise above the earth. That's not always easy to do. There's always something that ties us to the earth and that prevents us from rising, and it is always something that we love inordinately, and that can be anything from our own ego, our reputation, our own security, our own will, certain pleasures that we are unwilling to give up, anything from booze to sexual pleasure or the disordered appetite for food, or a disordered love of money, whatever the case may be.

If something is holding us down to the earth, we have to work to sever that tie. We'll never rise until we do. That's why confession is so important. But it is a matter of continuing to climb, to move more closely to the top. It is when we get to the top that we enter into the house of the Lord. The Hebrew word for family means 'house'. We're climbing to enter into that family, to be reunited to everyone we love and who loves us and who have gone before us, to be united to them all in the Lord. The joy that is in store for us when we get to the top is indescribable, but there's only one way to get there, and that is to make the trek. As we climb, the view becomes more and more beautiful, and we get glimpses of the exhilaration that is in store for us.

The point here is that we just have to make sure not to slip and fall all the way to the bottom. That can happen. It has happened, and those who have so slipped and fell became the greatest enemies of the Church; for the continued existence of the Church became a constant reminder to them of their deficiencies, and so they have chosen to hate the Church and all she stands for; but enough about these people.

If we remain on the climb, the Lord will provide others to help us. We can get so tired that we want to give up. That happens as we get older. Life gets so tiring. When we are young, the Lord calls us to exercise restraint. That's the challenge of being young - we have a tank full of octane but no steering wheel, and we find it very hard to slow down, think, and restrain ourselves, control our passions and follow the demands of reason. The challenge when we are older is the opposite. The Lord calls us to push forward; to keep walking. There are certain people in my life who are close to 80, and I often think how wonderful it is to have them in my life. I benefit so much from their wisdom, their spiritual direction, and just their presence. I realize that someday they won't be around, and that's going to be difficult. What am I going to do? I often wonder. And then I realize that soon I have to be that presence for someone else, for those the Lord puts in my life. So I have to stay around as long as the Lord wants.

For us who are up there in age, it's really about climbing that mountain of the Lord and strengthening our brothers and sisters who are climbing with us. While we grab on to the arm of another who is ahead of us, we have to reach down and pull up those who are a few steps behind us who are having a difficult time in a difficult spot where we were just a moment ago or a few years ago. We may not think our presence to these others is all that significant, but it is far more significant than we realize. People who suffer need us to be present to them. If our family has drifted away from the Church, that's fine, we just keep climbing, becoming more joyful, allowing ourselves to be strengthened by the friends God gives us, and He will give us to others as a source of strength to them. The more we suffer in life - or the more we have suffered in life - , the more effective we will be in offering others strength.

There are some people who have not suffered much, and so they have not paid the high cost of being the kind of person who can offer others anything real and meaningful. How do you help someone climb a mountain when you've never climbed yourself? You've just read about climbing; and so you have no real insights, no experience, no strategies, because you've never climbed. So if you are making your way up towards the Lord and it is painful, that is good thing, because then you will be in a position to console others, to help them along. And that's the reason we are here, to continue to grow in purity of heart, to get past desiring worthless things, and to set our minds and hearts on the very top of that mountain where there will be rest and an eternal joy of reunion and the Beatific Vision.