Coming Down the Mountain

“Mountaintop spiritualilty has perhaps been one of the most destructive things in my spiritual life.”

The words were really out before I had a thought about them. They emerged in a morning devotion with a group of people high up (ironically) in the Guatemalan hills, at a morning devotion time before we went out to build houses.

For me, it was a typically melodramatic overstatement, but in this case it was also pretty true.

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

I am certainly no mountain climber, but I’d spent a season reading and learning a lot about climbing Mount Everest through books like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and a Discover Channel series called, “Beyond the Limit”, about a professional guide at Everest who helped people with their final ascent.

It is an absolutely brutal and a very real you-can-really-die-in-an-instance type of experience. The altitude and brutal conditions take a horrendous toll on your body, making taking even ONE step an excruciating experience. Some people end up being able to put one foot in front of the other about once every thirty minutes. In the last couple of ascents (it takes many days to get from “base camp” at Everest up to the top), the oxygen is so thin that your body is literally incapable of getting enough nourishment, so it begins to essentially “eat itself.” The caloric requirement is so huge, that your body goes into hunger mode, and starts devouring muscle protein in order to survive.

Every move, every stop must be highly scheduled and coordinated or you will literally die on the mountain (many bodies are left frozen on the mountain; you can see them as you climb).

All for thirty minutes.

Due to oxygen requirements (and the schedule that keeps you alive), you can only spend about 30 minutes at the top of Everest.

Now, that thirty minutes may be wonderful; the experience is absolutely magical and unmatched; the time there may even be transformative; but it does not last.

You have to descend.

THAT, essentially, is how I lived my spiritual life for decades: a quest to get from “mountaintop” to “mountaintop”, fixing on spiritual highs like a drug. I would climb the mountain, dwell in the heights for a time, and descend like Moses, full of optimism and reflecting the Glory of God.

But it always faded. It always does.

And so I’d climb again.

And again.

And again.

Is this what Jesus meant by a stream of living water, welling up inside me to eternal life?

This didn’t feel like abundant life to me; it felt like experience addiction.

Lately I have decided to “come down the mountain”, and approach my spiritual life with a different metaphor.

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

The desert is not like the mountain. Where the mountain apexes into a specific peak, the desert drones on and on in a sort of monotony. There is a definite sameness to the landscape (though it’s certainly no less dangerous than climbing; the desert can just as easily kill you with thirst or a rattlesnake).

The desert leaves you alone with yourself. It forces you to face our most difficult challenge: OURSELVES.

On the surface, the desert is the same, day after day, but if you look more closely and have eyes to see and ears to hear, you can encounter amazing life and variety.

But it’s not easy.

You have to be attentive.

You have to watch and listen.

You have to be silent.

For me, this is the way I have to live in order to stay sane in this world. Mountaintop spirituality was simply turning me into a “religion junky”, and the fix NEVER seemed to hang around long enough. The desert, on the other hand, is a consistent, day-to-day walk that continually forces me to find beauty in the apparent normalcy of my life. It makes me work out my salvation in a very consistent, low key manner.

I don’t think it’s any accident that after the “light show” of Mount Sinai took place in the midst of Israel’s long desert experience. It’s as if God wanted to emphasize the fact that the occasional mountain may show up (though you may not even get to ascend; you may just get to watch Moses walk up), MOST—if not ALL—of your life is going to be spent walking through the desert. You have to get the desert right in order to keep the mountain in perspective.

Keep on walking.
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Perry and Jane’s gets it… (WARNING: If you know Jane’s Addiction, you know that this video is probably, well, CRAZY, and even a bit NSFW)

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