“The Holy Spirit and the Mountaintop, Vigil for Pentecost” (6/8/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
The mountaintop is often the place of encounter with God. If you want to meet God, you go to the mountaintop. Mount Sinai in the Old Testament. Mount Tabor in the New Testament. Mount Athos from the Middle Ages, onwards. And in our own day: the Blue Mountain, overlooking the Shenandoah Valley—St Dominic’s Monastery. The mountaintop is the place of encounter with God.
Our 2nd Old Testament reading this evening from Exodus puts before us Mount Sinai. And we are supposed to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit here. We read, “On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain…Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire…When the Lord came down to the top of Mount Sinai, he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.”
The Cappadocian fathers in the 4th century revel in these images. They develop time and time again the theme of contemplation in terms of Moses ascending the mountain of God. He enters the dark cloud to encounter God. Just as we, in prayer, enter the dark cloud of faith to encounter God. From the Cappadocian fathers, these themes about contemplation get developed further in the tradition in Ps-Dionysius, in the Dominican John Tauler, in John of the Cross, and many others.
What do we make of the Cappadocian’s use of these Scriptures about the cloud and Mount Sinai? Is it one of those cases of the scriptural exegesis of the church fathers being a bit too creative and straying from the meaning of the text? I think not. Surely the cloud and darkness, as they exist in nature, bear within themselves a symbolic value. If someone, anyone in human history, wanted to describe a mysterious encounter with the Most High, would not cloud and darkness suggest themselves for their inherent symbolic value?
Surely the author of Exodus, in recording the cloud and darkness was not just giving us a weather report. He knew what these images convey. And surely God himself in wanting to encounter Moses on the mountaintop knew the symbolic value of it all when he sent the cloud over the mountaintop of Sinai. My point is, what we find in the Cappadocian fathers, in Ps-Dionysius, in John Tauler, in John of the Cross and others, is not just some Neo-platonic addition to the Christian tradition. Rather it’s rooted in Scripture, in divine revelation, in the Word of God. Sure, there is development in the unfolding of the theology of prayer, but it’s already right there in the Scriptures to be mined and developed as Christians reflect on their own experiences in prayer.
So what about the dark cloud as an image of the Holy Spirit? Well, the choice of this reading by the lectionary suggests such a connection, but there’s more. On Mount Sinai, there’s the cloud, but there’s also thunder and lightning, there’s also fire and smoke. It is interesting, when St Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses, speaks of this theophany on Mount Sinai, he calls the cloud a “Luminous Darkness.” Not just darkness or an absence of light, but rather a “luminous darkness,” a glowing darkness, a bright darkness. Not so much a lack of light as an excess of light.
When we jump ahead to Mount Tabor and the cloud appears again as Christ is transfigured, we clearly have the cloud as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Son, is transfigured. The Father speaks. And the Holy Spirit is present in the overshadowing cloud. And what does Matthew say of this cloud? He says “a bright cloud overshadowed them” (Mt 17:5). It’s a bright cloud. So Gregory of Nyssa is right on the mark when he speaks of the “luminous darkness.” The bright cloud and the luminous darkness. The scriptural authors know what they are up to. Divine revelation is helping us see what contemplation is about, what it involves. In encountering the Most High God, there is bound to be some light and darkness, perhaps mingled at the same time, a luminous darkness, a bright cloud. So there’s no need for us to fear the darkness. Light will come in its own time. Or we can even discover a higher light within the darkness itself. The darkness of faith is also luminous and enlightening.
Each of the three Cappadocians also make much of Exodus 33, where Moses is held in the cleft of the rock as God almighty passes by, and Moses can only see the Lord’s back. Contemplation involves light and darkness but it is also about standing on the rock, on firm ground, the most firm ground of all. St Basil the Great says, “In reference to the Holy Spirit, God says [in Exodus 33], ‘Behold, there is a place by Me: thou shall stand upon the rock.’ This ‘place’ is contemplation in the Spirit,” Basil says, “The Spirit is the dwelling place of the saints” (ch XXVI, 62). Isn’t that lovely? This place on the solid rock is contemplation in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit himself being this dwelling place of the saints.
This is where we dwell together, in the Mass, in community prayers, in the communio of the Church. The Holy Spirit brings about the communio of the Church and He desires this communio to be a place of contemplation, in the Spirit who is the dwelling place of the saints.
So on this vigil of Pentecost, we pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And let us pray specifically for a new outpouring of the Spirit of prayer, for ourselves but also for the Church universal. How can the Church move forward in these difficult times? We must be more and more a “praying Church,”—a praying Church, dwelling together in contemplative love, in the Holy Spirit.
In the end, contemplation for us involves light and darkness while it finds support in the firm rock that is God himself. In all the light and darkness, in all the ups and downs of contemplation, we know we have found that place where our thirst is quenched—that place where our thirst is quenched while thirsting for more. The Lord Jesus says to us, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-8). Amen.