Sunday 26 February - Sunday Before Lent - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd
ST JOHN: Sunday next before Lent; Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
My uncle, Affleck Gray, was a man who planted trees, a forester. In the years after the Second World War he was responsible for landscaping Hydro-Electric schemes all over the North of Scotland. But Affleck was also a mountaineer, a man who climbed high hills, especially the Cairngorms, in whose shadow he had been born and brought up, and which he knew like the back of his hand. So it wasn’t surprising that he was intrigued by stories about the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, a frightening phenomenon that other climbers, although not Affleck himself, claimed to have encountered on that highest mountain of the Cairngorms. Uncanny experiences on Ben MacDhui had been recorded over the years by several experienced climbers, including some otherwise sober and sensible scientists. These included hearing ghostly music, or voices, or footsteps crunching steadily in the snow behind the solitary climber. One such climber, sensing that he was being pursued, only managed at the last moment to avoid hurtling over a precipice towards which he felt irresistibly impelled; others fled the mountain in terror. Inexplicable footprints in the snow also had been photographed, and several climbers claimed to have seen a huge grey figure in the mist, in some cases taking an animal form, in others human, one of whom appeared to be dragging chains, perhaps the Big Grey Man himself.
Intrigued as I say by these stories, Affleck set about collecting them from the books, journals and newspapers in which they had appeared, and he corresponded extensively with people who claimed either to have had such experiences on Ben MacDhui, or to be able to explain them; and eventually his book on the subject was published in 1970. In this book, Affleck was careful to give a fair hearing to all the different experiences that had been claimed, and to all the theories that had been offered to explain them, even those which seemed most outlandish, such as visitations from outer space for example. Many other experiences, less outlandish but still weird, of things heard or seen on Ben MacDhui, he considered, might be explained by the play of wind, air and light on mountain tops, comparable for example to the phenomenon in the Harz Mountains in Germany known as the Spectre of the Brocken, in which the observer’s own shadow is magnified in the midst, surrounded with bright prismatic colours sometimes called ‘the glory’. Other experiences, of being accompanied by an unseen presence, reported also by climbers in the Himalayas, might be explained by the effects of altitude, or of ‘agoraphobia, fatigue, debility or morbid sensitivity’ on the imagination of a solitary mountaineer. But while many of these experiences might be explained in such ways, there was also, Affleck believed, other ‘testimony which cannot be ignored’ or ‘impatiently discarded as emanating from abnormal brains without further research’; and so, he concluded, ‘there does appear to be an area of mystery which has so far defied explanation by anyone’.
Now these various explanations of the Big Grey Man, I must confess, were brought to my mind by our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. Both record very strange events taking place in the mists of high mountains; and because we live in a largely secular and scientifically-minded culture, it is tempting to wonder whether there might not have been some natural, atmospheric or psychological explanation for what our readings say that Moses, Jesus and his disciples experienced on their mountains. So let’s look a little closer at these readings in the light of that suspicion.
Well two things to say about these readings are: first, that they are not historical accounts of what literally happened; and second, that even if they were, atmospheric or psychological explanations of what was experienced could not be excluded.
Historically, Moses and Jesus and his disciples may well have climbed those mountains and heard what they believed was God speaking to them. But many other people, in some cases also on mountain tops, have claimed to hear what they believed God was saying to them, and in many cases what they believed God was saying was very different, so different indeed that it would be difficult not to judge them dangerously and destructively demented. But what Moses, and Jesus and his disciples believed God was saying to them, by contrast, was the source of a way of living, loving and forgiving, embodied in the Jewish Law and the Christian Gospel that countless Jewish and Christian people through the centuries have found deeply and ultimately meaningful. They found this, not least because they were aware, in their own consciousness and communities, of the unseen, mysterious, but also intimately real presence of God, Christ or the Spirit. Stories like those in our readings, set down in writing long after the event, are testimonies to the living faith of their writers and their communities; not records of what literally happened historically, but celebrations of the meaning of what happened and was happening still, offered to succeeding generations including ourselves to meditate on and allow their meaning to awaken within us.
Does it make any difference that atmospheric or psychological explanations of the events on which these stories may have been based, cannot be excluded? If faith depends on marvels and miracles and signs in the heavens, of course, it does: but Jesus himself warned against looking for such signs, and he told those he healed, that their faith had made them whole. It is not miracles that create faith, but faith that perceives and gives thanks for miracles, often every-day ones, and gives thanks above all that we live in a universe governed by laws that humans can gradually and painstakingly come to understand, however incompletely; and can come to understand, because as faith tells us, humans are made in God’s image. If atmospheric or psychological explanations could be offered for whatever happened on the mountains of Moses’ Law and Jesus’ Transfiguration, these need not be rejected - except as total explanations - since they too may be within the providence of God.
There’s one thing further that might be said about psychological explanations. What may be experienced by climbers on high mountains, or by others in what are sometimes called ‘peak’ or ‘mountaintop’ experiences of religious insight, can of course be interpreted psychologically or even physiologically. But to conclude that such explanations can explain away such experiences and make them ‘fade in the light of common day’ would be a mistake; and the reason for that is that ‘the light of common day’, and everyday mundane experience, also can be explained psychologically. What we see, and how we choose, however unconsciously, to see it, is also influenced by our psychological state; and in our absorption with the task in hand, or our desire to get on with people we like, there may be many significant things in the world around us that are not brought home to us, that we do not realize, that do not become real to us, until we are forced to take them on board, by an illness perhaps, or bereavement, or the breakdown of a relationship, or some moment of insight into what others are going through. How we come to realize what we previously overlooked of course may be explainable psychologically, but that does not make it less real or less a true insight into reality.
Whatever happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, it has been suggested that it was the central point of the spiritual drama of the life of Jesus, the moment when his humanity fully realised what it would mean in terms of rejection, suffering, and ultimately death, to will and do the will of his Father, and then to leave the outcome to his Father. It is hard, very hard, even for those whose conscience is most alive to the call of Love, to will and do all that Love requires; and perhaps it is humanly impossible. Most, perhaps all, humans cannot rise to it; and all-too-often we run away to take shelter in the mundane light of common day, reassuring one another that ordinariness is all. But one human managed it, today’s Gospel tells us, managed it so that others could follow – could follow, however imperfectly, again and again needing to take courage from his words of forgiveness, telling them and us, as on the mountain, to ‘get up and do not be afraid’. ‘Get up and do not be afraid’, those are the words we all, always and ever again, need to hear from the heart of Love who is the hidden heart of reality. ‘Get up and do not be afraid’.