Scripture is full of magnificent views of nature – rushing streams and still waters; towering deep-rooted trees and sprawling, fruit-bearing vines etc. All tell a story, none more so than the mountains.
Throughout the ages, people of all races and religions would build temples / shrines on the highest peaks. Now, God’s purpose for creating mountain ranges was not to bring humanity physically closer. However, the symbolism behind peaked formations does have the potential to draw us closer to the deity. In Scripture we see that symbolism played out in many, many verses, events and mountain ranges. The events that occur there affirm God’s covenant-keeping faithfulness and power.
- Mt Ararat, where God gave Noah and his family an everlasting promise. (Genesis: 8:4)
- Mt Sinai, where God renewed that covenant with the Israelite people. (Exodus 19 / 20)
- Mt Nebo, where Moses, after 40 years of desert-wandering, died and is buried. (Deut. 32: 49)
- Mt Moriah – later renamed Zion – is associated with important events in the lives of Solomon, who built its magnificent temple (1 Kings 8:1), Abraham, Jacob, and David.
- Mt Hermon / Tabor – There is a dispute as to which of these is the scene of the Transfiguration. But more significant than the location is the event itself: God reveals Jesus and the revealer of the ‘old covenant’ and the embodiment of the ‘new’. (Matthew 17: 1-9)
- Mt of Olives – the scene of tragic events: David took refuge from his rebellious son. Solomon used it for idol worship. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and where he agonised alone. But it also the place of hope and promise and commission; the Risen Lord blessed his disciples and ‘ascends’. (Luke 19: 29-37)
Yes, mountains are biblical symbols of steadfastness, strength and faith. And the same formations feature in the life of St. Patrick. Here one’s first thought might be that place of pilgrimage, ‘Croagh Patrick’. Tradition has it that our patron saint spent 40 days fasting and in prayer on its summit.
But it is not what first comes to my mind. I think of ‘Slemish’. Though it may not merit the title of ‘mountain’ – it is only 437 metres high, but a difficult climb, Slemish is the legendary first home of Patrick in Ireland. We surely know the story – captured into slavery, escape, return to his original home (unknown) and eventual return to Ireland etc. But why do I instinctively link Patrick with Slemish? Simple answer: It’s close to where I spent my childhood and teenage years. In those early years of my life, there were many trips to Slemish – very few as a pilgrim. It was an interesting / exciting place for a ‘day-out’ with family and / or friends – and a good climb with a 365° view of awesome scenery: north, as far as the hills on the Mull of Kintyre and south to the Mournes.
But in the years, when I would return from West Africa / Australia, it became a ‘sacred site’. I became a ‘pilgrim’ who – sometimes alone – sought a ‘space’ to reflect and pray. And one question I often asked on the climb: ‘If Patrick had not come here, what would my adult and Christian years have been like; where would life have taken me? I leave you with the same question.
PS. The longest St. Patrick Day’s Parade is thought to be in New York, and the shortest – 23 metres, from the Weigh Inn Pub to the Lee Valley Pub – in Dripsey, Co. Cork.