Down the Mountain… Now What? – The Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel
February 14, 2021
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 14, 2021. Click above to listen along.
About 20 years ago I was given a little gem of a book titled The Holy Man by Susan Trott. It’s the story of a wise and gentle monk who lives in a hermitage near the top of a mountain and the pilgrims who seek him out as knowledge of his presence spreads throughout the world. It’s also about the relationship between a teacher and his disciples and the way they come to see the holy in others and then in themselves.
Trott’s story begins with the pilgrims walking single file from the village below… up a winding and rocky trail in hopes of speaking to the holy man. Each pilgrim has a different need…a different request. Yet the particular charm of this book is in the diverse characters making the pilgrimage up the mountain. For they could well be any one of us.
I’d like to begin by reading a bit of the first chapter: He lived in a two-story, whitewashed wooden building built on a rock foundation. It was plain, rugged, and square with a peaked roof. There was no ornament – no cross on the roof, no Star of David over the door, no stone Buddha in the garden. No garden for that matter. It was a no-frills hermitage for all travelers.
It faced east and was a few hundred yards from the actual mountain peak. Above treeline, there were marvelous boulders strewn about, shaped by time and cataclysm, finished by rain, snow, and wind.
At the base of one boulder was a small pond, the source of which was an underground spring, which provided pure water for the hermitage.
Flamboyant birds and flowers adorned the gray rocks, and the sky was an unstained canvas for clouds and flyways.
When the door of the hermitage was opened wide, the next pilgrim in line, waiting beyond the gate, would be summoned forth by a man in a wheat-colored robe…a small, nondescript-looking person.
“Yes?” he would ask when the pilgrim reached the threshold.
“I have come to see the holy man.”
“Follow me, please.”
He or she would follow the small man through the house, along a hallway with doorways open to various rooms into which the pilgrim would peek hastily, but the monk ahead was moving so very quickly through the house that the pilgrim couldn’t linger but literally had to rush after him.
In no time at all they had passed through the entire first floor of the house and were at a large door similar to the one the pilgrim had entered. It was the back door. The monk opened it wide and said, “Goodbye.”
“But I have come to see the holy man!” said the visitor plaintively.
And the man replied, “You have seen me. If you look at everyone as holy, you will find the happiness you seek.” And the next thing the pilgrim knew he would be outside, the door solidly closed behind him.
What I love about this book is that these pilgrims are good people simply wanting to be better people. It’s not difficult to imagine their confusion and weariness after being quickly escorted through the house and sent on their way, generally without much fuss. As the pilgrims reflect on their brief visit with the holy man, they begin to come to a greater understanding of what had just taken place. Answers to life’s great questions can often occur in quiet and unassuming ways.
I am reminded of this little book whenever we hear the account of the Transfiguration…and of the imagery of Peter, James, and John as they followed Jesus up a high mountain to pray. The disciples had no idea of the new perspective they were about to be given. It surely had to have been a difficult climb and they likely traveled in silence behind their beloved friend and teacher as they neared the summit. But they couldn’t have anticipated the life-transforming event that was about to occur. Jesus, the man they had been travelling with for close to three years, would soon be revealed to them in a new light…as God’s beloved Son, both fully human and fully divine. Seeing Jesus transfigured before their eyes surrounded by the ancient prophets Moses and Elijah and hearing the voice of the Almighty surely changed everything for the disciples.
And then this transformative experience was over.
When the disciples found themselves alone again with Jesus, they began their trek down the mountain. I sometimes wonder what they might have talked about. Mark’s gospel says that Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone of their mountaintop experience and what had just taken place. But didn’t they ask where they were going next? Jesus set his face to Jerusalem but didn’t they wonder what that meant for them?
And it was similar for the pilgrims in Trott’s book. Their understanding of their brief but somewhat mundane encounter with the holy would also unfold slowly. There was no dramatic and life-altering mountaintop experience for them. Rather their revelation evolved quietly and thoughtfully. The holy man had opened the door wide to them without any hesitation. That alone was unexpected and so unlike the harsh and very often uncaring world from which the modern-day pilgrims came. It was apparent that the hermitage was a place where there were no locks, no bars, no bolts, no barriers to keep anyone out. Each seeker was welcomed in with a simple but powerful question – “how may I help you?”
Both of these passages, each in their own way, set the foundation for the mission that the disciples and the pilgrims were called to undertake once they returned to their respective valleys below.
The disciples were called to make God’s redeeming love known to the world…to carry God’s message of redemption and salvation and reconciliation wherever they were called. They likely were unsure and fearful of all that was ahead for Jesus and for them. Despite their unease, following Jesus be would be their mission.
And the pilgrims, with the help of the unassuming holy man, came to understand that the challenges and sufferings in and around them might at times seem unsurmountable…but their struggles might be alleviated through the sacred practices of reflection, prayer, and compassion. In seeing the holy in all people, the pilgrims would learn that they could love freely and without fear. And, at the same time, they might help in the healing of others while they themselves were being healed. This would be their mission.
Mountaintop experiences are precious gifts from God. We never know when our eyes and hearts may be fully opened and we are brought closer to the divine. Still, eventually, we must descend down the mountain and be brought back into the hurting world from which we came. And it is there where we find our mission…in the valleys of life where people are suffering.
Listen to how one pilgrim is changed after meeting the holy man: He tried to remember what the holy man looked like and couldn’t, because he hadn’t even looked at him. There was nothing unique or special about him in appearance. His voice was not of deep resonance…his words were brief and direct. Sadly, he wouldn’t recognize him if the same man opened the door next year. But the change in the pilgrim in the future would be that he would be courteous and respectful to whosoever came to his door. In fact, he would be gracious and loving to everyone from now on, imagining that everyone was the holy man…that everyone had holiness in him. Yes, that would be very hard. Still he would try. Because what he had learned at the hermitage on the mountain was that everyone indeed had holiness in them…and it was a huge, staggering, wonderful lesson. And it meant that he himself was a holy person too.
In the years to come, sometimes the man’s face would flash upon his inward eye and he would feel a catch in his throat, the pricking rush of tears to his eyes at the sight of the beloved and sacred visage. As the years went by, he felt more and more moved by his visit to the holy man which had informed, enriched, and brought his life to completeness from that day forward.
May it be for all of us as well.