Yesterday, my husband climbed Cascade Mountain – elevation 10,900 feet. I stayed home with the kids, which was a good thing since the hike turned out to be “pretty brutal.” Ken had to scale the mountain from the south end (on the far right in the picture) and hike across the ridgeline to the summit (towards the left). From the top he called on his cell phone, and the kids and I stood in the front yard facing Cascade talking to him. It was quite a surreal moment, I must say.
I’m glad we live next to Cascade Mountain because without it, I would be forever getting lost. It is my personal, million-ton compass. I know it always stands due East, and the rest is easy to figure out from there. Several years ago, when we were searching for a house to buy, “living within sight of Cascade” was seriously on my list of qualifications. Right below “not living next to a meth lab like we used to,” which is obviously the subject of another post just as soon as I can find a painting about meth labs. Anyway, I have lived in various other flatter places – Spain, California, Arizona, Central Pennsylvania – and never could find my way around. Oh sure, I tried maps and using buildings and tall people as landmarks, but there’s just no substitute for a monstrous heap of immovable granite to point you in the right direction.
I talked about sacred archetypes in one of my classes last week, so I’m still thinking about mountains in terms of their spiritual presence. The thing with mountains is that they seem closer to God and the divine realm. We assume God dwells above us – not around us, not within us – and that the mountains provide us a point of connection to him. The original “stairway to heaven,” they bridge the gap between earth and sky. In scriptural accounts, mountains are for holy conversations, sermons, transfigurations, even scenes of atonement.
My favorite painting of mountains is this one by Caspar David Friedrich. It’s a crucifixion painting, actually, but also a landscape. It would almost form a cliché – the last dying rays of the sun set behind a rocky peak topped with fir trees – if it weren’t for the miniature figure of Christ hanging on the thin spire of a cross. When Friedrich painted the scene in 1808, some criticized it because, oddly, for an altarpiece, it lacked the essential ingredients: the blood and nails, the two flanking crosses, and the mourning Marys. Defending himself against sacrilege, Friedrich wrote this interpretation of the scene:
Jesus Christ, nailed to the tree, is turned here towards the sinking sun, the image of the eternal life-giving father. With Jesus’ teaching an old world died. . . . The sun sank and the earth was no longer able to grasp the departing light. There shines forth in the gold of the evening light the purest, noblest metal of the Savior’s figure on the cross, which thus reflects on earth in a softened glow. The cross stands erected on a rock, unshakably firm like our faith in Jesus Christ. The fir trees stand around the cross, evergreen enduring through all ages, like the hopes of man in Him, the Crucified.
If you see mountains as symbolic bridges between heaven and earth, this painting extends the metaphor by perching Christ’s silhouette at the peak as a kind of final span. The beam of his cross neatly fits just below the bank of clouds whose shape echoes that of the mountain below. It strikes me suddenly that there’s another meaning for the word cross – as in the verb, to cross.
Some mountains are revered as the dwelling place of gods, others worshipped as gods themselves. My religion doesn’t allow for this kind of pantheism, but that’s fine by me since I don’t really have the desire to bow down to the East in my front yard. Someone might see me. And I’m grateful that Cascade doesn’t rumble with thunder and burning bushes when God has something to say to me. On the other hand, maybe I would do a better job of listening if it did.
Tags: mountain, art, religion, God