The journey of Christian prayer.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
This is Abound in Hope, a newsletter with thoughts and reflections on prayer from the perspective of a Catholic Christian. I hope that you join me here on the journey.
This photograph of the stairs to the Sainte-Baume grotto, in Southern France near Marseille where Saint Mary Magdalene spent her last years in prayer, speaks to me strongly of the journey of Christian prayer.
The walk itself from the base of the mountain to the grotto takes about 45 minutes. A quick glance upwards as you leave the parking area deceptively suggests a gentle walk through the woods will lead to the base of the steep cliffs below the grotto. During the first part of the climb, you walk through the forest on gently upwards sloping paths. The canopy obscures your view of what lies ahead — all you can see is the immediate path in front of you.
Each turn-back opens up a new portion of the path. Long gravel paths cut through the trees. Some legs of the journey are rocky. Others are smooth. Obstacles are encountered and climbed over. Clean, cold water flows from a mountain spring.
The path gets steeper as you get higher. One begins to wonder “how much farther do we have to walk?” After more walking than expected from that glance leaving the parking area, you are out of the woods. What you encounter are these stairs at the base of the final cliffs. Although this is late in the climb, you look up and see that the summit is still far away. (In my experience, the stairs are rather foreboding at this point if one was not physically ready for the climb!)
The picture reveals so much. One barely sees a flight of stairs before they are partially obstructed by a tree. Most of the stairs lie in shadow — the sunlight at this time of the day only illuminates a small portion of the stairs. The air is starting to cool now, close to the rock of the cliffs. How many flights of these stairs lie ahead before one reaches the summit?
The long walk up the mountain, with much of the future obscured from view, presents a great image of the journey of Christian prayer. Although each person’s experience is unique, there are recognized stages in the journey of prayer that lead to full mystical union with God. In future posts, I hope to discuss these stages in the spiritual life in more detail. For now, however, take a minute to go back and read the previous four paragraphs below the picture that describe the walk to the Sainte-Baume grotto. This time, instead of visualizing the physical journey up the mountain, read the story as an allegory describing the spiritual journey to union with God.
Mountains and hills are symbolic of prayer as we see them as being closer to God, something we ascend to. The psalmist writes in the Bible about this journey, the mystical ascent to God:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of his salvation.
Psalm 24:3-5 (RSV-CE).
A slightly different translation reads:
Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord:
or who shall stand in his holy place?
The innocent in hands, and clean of heart,
who hath not taken his soul in vain,
nor sworn deceitfully to his neighbour.
He shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
and mercy from God his Saviour.
Psalm 23:3-5 (Douay-Rheims).
We also see this symbolism at work in the New Testament when Jesus begins the great Sermon on the Mount:
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain,
and when he sat down his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them.
Matt. 5:1-2 (RSV-CE).
No matter where you may be on your journey to God through His Son Jesus Christ, let us set forth from today together with words of the Prophet Isaiah in our heart:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
Isaiah 2:3 (RSV-CE).
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