A Tale of Three Mountains
Dewa Sanzan and the Beatitudes as spiritual quest
It’s some years now since my wife and I climbed Dewa Sanzan, a range of three sacred mountains in the northwest of Japan. The full story, including my encounter with a hypnotist shaman, will have to wait for another post. Today we’ll have to make do with a quick scramble up each slope as a prelude to the the spiritually higher peaks I want us to ascend today, in preparation for this Sunday’s gospel reading of the Beatitudes.
Red Torii mark the base of the two-thousand steps up Haguro-san, the first of the three mountains. It is said that these vermilion gates were ancient fertility symbols and passage through them marks a spiritual rebirth. If so, then our birth that day was into a gloomy if beautiful world. The mist made everything grey, and as we climbed through the dense forest, past the little shrines and statues that lined the path, it turned to thick fog. Strains of ethereal gagaku music told us that we were near the top. Within the shrine, barely visible through the mist, a yamabushi ascetic danced a purification rite, cutting through the billows with his sword.
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The second, brighter but still misty day took us up the second mountain, Gassan, and its broader, grassy plains, reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales. No music greeted us this time. At the summit was a smaller shrine of prefab air, made of the same corrugated metal as a Nissen hut, staffed by a single priest, who gave pilgrims a little man cut out of white paper. Washing this in the spring water there is supposed to cleanse one of the kegare or dirt of this world which clings to us.
The last mountain was the noisiest. Neither the gagaku of Haguro-san nor the silence of Gassan were enough for Yudano-san. One does not generally climb all the way up this sacred mountain. Rather, about halfway up, the chanting of a solo priest crackled through tinny speakers redolent of the muezzin’s call in a Turkish village. It welcomed us to a vast, orange boulder, down which hot water streamed. To ascend we had to take off our shoes and socks and clamber up by rope. There was no shrine, but just a small Torii, framing a view of the mountaintop itself for veneration. No photographs were allowed here. Only the naked eye was allowed to witness this final illumined vision of this natural beauty which the Shugendo ascetics count as holy.
The Beatitudes are often preached nowadays as a social programme for the resolution of this world’s ills, an unsurprising angle given the materialistic and utilitarian suppositions of modernity. Such is the preoccupation in particular of liberation theologians. Frankly, I find reading Jesus’ words as a political manifesto unconvincing and quite boring, symptomatic of our forgetfulness of the transcendental horizon, of the glories beyond our imagination which await us beyond this world. Older interpretations tend to hear the Beatitudes primarily as a path of spiritual ascent, the political implications of which will become clear only in the light of God’s glory.
Like Dewa-sanzan, the spiritual path of the Beatitudes traverses three mountains: Sinai, an unnamed knoll in Galilee, and Tabor. But where the Shinto mountains lead from purification to illumination, Tabor takes us further, to perfection: that is, to the beatific vision of God and life eternal.
Matthew’s placement of Christ’s most famous sermon on a “mount” is symbolic. Modern biblical scholarship and archaeology tell us that the real location was no such thing; a mound, at most. The reason the Evangelist makes a mountain of this relative molehill is to point back to where Moses received the teachings of the Law. He was taught by the Lord from the foggy depths of a luminous darkness atop Mount Sinai. Now, Jesus adopts the traditional posture of the teacher and sits, as he had in his youth sat to teach his elders in the Temple, and as both professors and bishops still occupy their chairs and seats today. He then “opens his mouth” and speaks: the apparent tautology translates a Hebrew phrase indicating that something important is about to be said, which again points us back to the Old Testament.
So what does he teach? In a word, “happiness.” In traditional English translations, each clause of the Beatitudes begins with “blessed,” but the word can equally be rendered “happy,” as it often is in more recent versions. So, the Lord wants His disciples to be happy. Happiness is the aim of the spiritual life. But His prescription for happiness is quite different from that of a modern self-help manual.
Unhappiness and its remedies
“Happy are those who get rich quick” is something I imagine people have always thought, though few ages have expressed it quite so baldly and crassly as ours. That is the first expectation Our Lord knocks down. He calls instead for poverty - poverty, that is, of spirit. The immediate step in His spiritual programme is to cultivate an indifference to the wealth of this world, a spiritual, inner poverty which cares nothing for the things which moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal (Mt 6:19). It is not a political counsel to abandon money, but to be free from the desire for it, the love of money which is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). Instead, we are to turn our eyes from the things of this world that we can see and grasp, to the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor 4:18). These are the lasting treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Happy are those who never cry” is the next modern maxim to fall, and with it the habit of “celebrating the lives” of our beloved dead rather than grieving at our loss. On the contrary, death is never to be celebrated, but to be mourned; and it awaits us all. The memento mori, the perpetual reminder of our own mortality, has fallen out of favour in nations rich enough to prolong life at all costs, as though this world were all there is. The refusal to mourn, the optimistic and obstinate idiocy that tells us death is something that happens only to other people (especially to poorer people), that technological advances will be enough to pay the ferryman, constitutes a wilful refusal to acknowledge the most basic and fundamental fact of life: that it ends. When we really know this — which is to say, when we really follow the old Greek maxim and know ourselves – the only really human response is to weep. Even Our Lord wept at Lazarus’ tomb. And such tears are a sign of wisdom, for in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow (Eccl 1:18). Their wisdom lies in repentance, and also their healing power, for it is only with death before our eyes that we can really be convinced to turn from our wickedness and live anew. Several Eastern Orthodox spiritual masters teach that tears are a gift from God, to be welcomed in prayer.
“Happy are those who assert themselves with confidence,” an attitude more typical of the West than Asia, does not feature in Jesus’ sermon. He counsels instead humility, and in particular, restraint from anger. This, like mourning, is part of the spiritual poverty with which Our Lord opened His sermon. Humility is another form of indifference, this time not to wealth or to life, but indifference to reputation and our own sense of slighted honour. For from whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? (James 4:1) Outer, political peace will come only when we have restored, at risk of a hackneyed phrase, our inner peace. Only then will we able to follow Our Lord’s next imperative, which is emphatically not:
“Happy are those who get revenge.” The desire for just desserts and reparation is not the same as to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Rather, righteousness is to follow Christ’s example, being fed with the same food, which in His own words is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work (Jn 4:34). Mercy, not violence or the threat thereof, is the hallmark of Christian justice. All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword (Mt 26:52), and swords are to be beaten into ploughshares (Isa 2:4). Our prayer to be forgiven can never be abstracted from our prayer to forgive others.
Beatific Vision is the aim of life
Spiritual poverty, cultivated indifference to wealth and property, insult and approbation, recognition of death and turning to repentance: these are markers on the way to the next Beatitude, purity of heart: the key to our happiness both in this life, and more importantly in the life beyond. For it is only there that we can receive the perfect happiness, which is to see God. Were we to see Him in this life in the fulness of His radiance, we would surely die of His glory (Jn 1:18). But through Christ, He has permitted His radiance to be glimpsed. We can start, tentatively, to peer through the cloud even now, and so become like Him: even now we, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18). When the Son finally appears, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2). It is, precisely, seeing Him that will perfect us, and bring us into the union with His Father that He enjoys, forever.
And in what does this union consist? The answer is given in the next Beatitude: peace. Not such temporary peace as the world giveth (Jn 14:27), held delicately in place by threats of mutual violence, but the peace of the Resurrected Christ, of the Eighth Day, the eternal shalom. The peace which the Church therefore marks on the first and eighth day of the week, not on the seventh day sabbath of Jewish tradition: on Sunday, the day of Resurrection. This day is meant to be a day which channels the peace of heaven into our time, through the liturgy of the Eucharist, and through our rest from commerce and committees. It is not a day for dispute and decision, but a day to form the heart as a house at rest and inner temple of the Holy Spirit; for every house divided against itself shall not stand (Mt 12:25).
To recap, then, happiness in this life consists in the spiritual poverty of indifference to worldly things, being in the world but not of it (Jn 17:16), leading to purity of heart; and in the next, to proceed from that purity of heart to the vision of God, whereby we dwell in His eternal peace as partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Such is the path that Jesus sets out in the Beatitudes. But how do we walk it?
This is where our pilgrimage takes us into the dazzling cloud on Mount Tabor. There, just before Jesus entered Jerusalem, Peter, James and John saw him transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light (Mt 17:2). Like God on Sinai, Jesus was surrounded by a bright cloud. The disciples saw the light of God’s glory shining in Christ and fell forward, prostrating, in awe. Through Christ, they partook of the divine nature, and His image within them came closer to being restored. But the cloud passed, and the glory, and Our Lord stood before them, a man. He went to death, and they betrayed His glory. It was His Resurrection that strengthened them for the final Beatitude, final at least in this life: to suffer as He suffered, for righteousness’ sake, and yet to rejoice. The Cross is the final step in poverty of spirit, and the final step to eternal happiness: indifference even to death itself, firm in the knowledge of the Resurrection.
On Tabor, Our Lord raised the Apostles’ eyes to heaven and then brought them back down to earth. So, I am going to end by bringing us from the glory of Tabor to the still lovely, but relatively speaking mundane viewpoint atop Yudano-san. There, cleansed from the dirt of the world, one is encouraged to look out through the Torii gates and see the sanctity of nature in its beauty. And this is good, I think: good, but not the best. And that is because there is a transcendent world beyond this one. If we let our eyes settle only on this world, then we are settling for second best. If, on the other hand, we see this world as a medium of God’s grace which can lift us beyond this world, then we are seeing truly. But we recognise God’s glory in the mirror, as it were, only to the extent that we know Christ.
“There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.”
S. Augustine, City of God XII, ch. xxx
To see God is the highest aim of human life and height of happiness, but it is Christ alone who can offer it. It is not a path that we can walk alone, however skilled we are in fieldcraft and map work. So, He gives us the two great Sacraments of His death and Resurrection: Baptism, in which we die to self, and the Eucharist, by which we are nourished for eternal life. With our eyes opened by His grace, we learn to see, worship and adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament, that we may be fed by Him and dwell in Him, partaking of His nature. Ordinary water, bread and wine when put to God’s purposes become the vehicles for our transfiguration and that of the entire cosmos. Indeed, this sanctification of the created order is the very purpose of God’s Church. The world is both Cross and altar.
Things of the world are evil only when humans put them to evil use, which is to say, our use rather than God’s. This is precisely what spiritual poverty warns us against. Everything that God has given us has sacramental potential, the potential to be a visible sign and channel of God’s grace. We learn to see that grace now by using what God has given us not for our own ends, but for His. The natural environment, animals, and especially our fellow humans are here not for our financial gain, but for God’s glory. It is to that glory, the glory of the Beatific Vision, that we must constantly direct our gaze. Only by keeping the transcendent horizon before our eyes can we prepare to see God face to face; and only if our hearts are trained on the next world can the political implications of the heavenly Kingdom begin to unfold into this one: a Kingdom defined not by power, possession, gain and use, but by gift, repentance, forgiveness, patience, peace and joy.
For those interested, this is the basis of my forthcoming sermon in Japanese this Sunday: the recording will be posted here.
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