Friday, December 14, 2012

three mountains

 (I'm living pretty much full time back with the community at Big Sur now, traveling a lot less. Though I usually only attend to this blog when I am on the road, I am teaching and preaching a lot down here, so every now and then if something really seems interesting I'll try to add it here.

Amid ten thousand streams up among
thousands of clouds, a man of idleness

wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs.

In the whirl of springs and autumns,
to inhabit this calm, no tangles of dust:

it’s sheer joy depending on nothing,
still as an autumn river’s quiet water.
                                                         Han Shan

Last week Wednesday was the feast of Saint Sabas. I had to preach. I didn’t know anything about him, and since it was Advent I could have skipped talking about him completely, but when I was with the Poor Clares the day before I saw an article on him in the little book they had left out for me to read up on Saint Barbara, who they were celebrating that day. And something in Sabas’ story caught my attention. Similar to Romuald, it was after a family feud about some property he got disgusted with the world and ran off to join a monastery. This is 5th century Palestine, by the way. At still a very young age (18?), he then went to join another monastery under a great master named Euthymius, but then when Euthymius died Sabas took off again, this time to live in a cave on a mountain, at the foot of which lay a brook. As often happens, a group of disciples formed around him, enough to coax him out of his cave and off of his mountain, and he founded a monastery. He acquiesced to being ordained a priest as well and was named the patriarch of all the monks of Palestine.

I was struck by all those little details––the mountain, the cave, the brook.

The reason why it struck me especially was that the scriptures that we read for the Wednesday of the 1st week of Advent (which was his feast day) also mentioned mountains––Isaiah 25:  On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich foods and choice wines…; and then Jesus climbing a mountain near the Sea of Galilee in Matthew 15, and the crowds followed him, and he healed and fed them. So we had three mountains: Sabas’ mountain of solitude, Isaiah’s mountain of prophetic vision, and Jesus’ mountain of healing and feeding.

It’s notable how often the mountain, like the desert or other forms of solitude, appears as a significant locus for people on a spiritual quest, from Moses and Elijah, the Taoist and Buddhist hermit mountain poets of China, Muhammad on Mount Hira, the sadhus trekking to Mount Kailasha in the Himalayas. And here we have St. Sabas in that lineage as well. Our friend Chris Lorenc is a lover of the mountain poets of ancient China, and he’s given me two collections of them. That I quoted above was from Han Shan––“Stone House”:

Amid ten thousand streams up among
thousands of clouds, a man of idleness

wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs…

Sounds beautiful! You can almost feel your blood pressure go down as you read it!

But, I wonder, is this the end? Or is this the beginning?

Sometimes this mountain becomes the place of vision, as it appears so many times in the prophecy of Isaiah, the mountain of the Lord’s house that shall be raised above the hills: the mountain to which every nation shall come streaming; where swords will be beat into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, and the boots of tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for fire; the mountain where anyone from any nation who calls the name of God comes, the mountain where God says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” So, perhaps the mountain of solitude can become the mountain of vision.

But then in Jesus it takes one more step as well. Either we see him coming down Mount Tabor, after appearing with the other mountain dwellers, Moses and Elijah, and healing someone as his first act after his Transfiguration. Or else we have him in Matthew 15, calling everybody else up there with them––not just the pure and elite, but the lame and the blind, the deformed and the mute, too––; and not just feeding them the rarified pure air of the lofty visions and prophecies, but instead coming down to earth by bringing his teaching down to earth, and feeding them actual edible food, loaves and fishes. Solitude and vision has given birth to compassion. There is a Tibetan saying that after the monk’s solitary retreat he “comes back to the world with bliss-bestowing hands.” That could refer to the trip from my cell to the refectory as much as great missionary work. It was that way for Sabas, whose solitude eventually gave birth to community, as it was for Benedict, as it was for Romuald, whose solitudes gave birth to communities of mutual love, schools of the Lord’s service, movements. They were all leery of what John Cassian called the pax perniciosa–the pernicious peace (ouch!); they heeded St. Basil’s warning when he asked, “Whose feet are you going to wash, hermit?”

So, maybe the mountain of what the yoga tradition calls kaivalya––which my Sanskrit dictionary defines as “aloofness, aloneness, isolation… the state of liberation”––has to give birth to the mountain of vision, an inclusive vision that is not anti-world; and then that mountain of prophetic vision needs to give way to the mountain of compassion so that it becomes incarnate, in imitation of Jesus. It would be well for us to reflect on our mountains, the personal mountain that we’re climbing as well as our communal mountain, and hope that our mountains of solitude and liberation will give birth to wider vision, and our vision would resolve itself in compassion.