Of all the places to be in late June, I do not recommend Phoenix, AZ. The temperature the past few days had been topping off at 120°, so hot and dry that you did not notice your sweat because it boiled off your epidermis upon contact. But as much as the heat forced its presence upon my mind, the sight of Camelback Mountain in the midst of the city all the more assaulted my imagination as my Uber drove me from the airport to our conference.
We lodged in the valley of its presence. But great as my desire to climb its height, I learned to turn my eyes away from that vision cutting into the blue above me. I had only packed my swim trunks in addition to my dress clothes. And without a proper pair of hiking boots, I had resigned myself to a week of swimming between discussions of Josef Pieper, Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, the Church Fathers and Bl. Newman, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Fortunately, a couple undergraduate conference aides and a younger group of teachers were more ambitious than this aging professor. And near the end of our week, I found myself at 6am––before the sun begins to empty his quiver on the trespassers of the day––waiting for a quick ride to the trailhead. So I found myself in t-shirt, running shorts, brown dress shoes, and khaki dress socks ready to ascend Camelback.
It was the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. As we ascended higher, the little vegetation grew scarcer. Already at 6:30am, we saw more descending than joining us in our ascent. The shadows grew smaller. A mockingbird. Then some insects. “And the same John had his garment of camels’ hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins: and his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4).
One of the young teachers, a missionary in Belize, was amazed at the phenomenon of so many Americans obviously hiking the mountain as part of their daily exercise routine. No one in Belize, except soccer players, subjected the body to such toils outside work. I thought of our reading in Pieper. They know no leisure. They have made work out of their spare time. A middle aged man called out the number of times he had passed someone as he ran up and down the trail. Another man in green camou subjected us to the pop-rap blasting from the speakers attached to his hips as he billy-goated up the mountain. “The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
As we rose higher, the vegetation gave way to dirt, the dirt to rock. The trail turned to the north, we found groups huddled under the eaves of boulders recovering their strength. We too stopped and worried about how low our water was. There were few still on the ascent above us. Some groups began to turn back, abandoning the quest even in the shadow of the summit. I wanted to turn back. My dress shoes were ruined with dust and sweat. My arches rebelled from the irregular rhythms of the rocks. My calves seized tight and whispered dreams of descent. My companions, all a decade younger, were a hundred meters ahead of me. I could turn around. The city yawned below me. All around, to north, south, east, west, the city sprawled. Patches of smog like whispers of fog on the lake, but otherwise a clear view of the city. A mosaic floor with their geometric patterns of roads and houses surrounded by the wall of mountains. This mountain, cut off from the others, stood like an altar in the center of this basilica under the baldacchino of the heavens. What view could the summit afford me better than what I already had? “What went you out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” (Matthew 11:7).
At the summit, I found my younger companions were sprawled on the rocks. I rested my legs. One of the men read from the life of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. But my thoughts were not on modern saints. In the last moments up the mountain, as the slick soles of my dress shoes negotiated whatever cracks I found in the rocks, my thoughts turned to John, Elijah, and the angels. Here, this supposedly domesticated mountain in the midst of modern America became my Carmel. “And he said to him: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord: and behold the Lord passeth, and a great and strong wind before the Lord over throwing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: the Lord is not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake: the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire: the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a whistling of a gentle air.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)
I was supposed to finish reading Fr. Danielou’s “The Angels and Their Mission” for our morning discussion. How little we think of them. As we descended, my mind turned to them as I negotiated the rocks, conscious of the peril I faced. The light grew in intensity and, descending, my mind was pierced more by its brilliance than its heat. How bright and terrible they must be. Upon Carmel, we have no Renaissance putti, no Hallmark card cherubs. Seraph means “the burning one”. How little thought I had given to the light. “But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea I tell you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.” (Matthew 11:8-10).
Back in the valley: How long shall I carry this illuminating vision? Still, my mind wrestles with the image of this mountain in the midst of urban sprawl. There is no distant mountain obscured by mist. There is no “tomorrow, perhaps”. There is no feeling of safety or comfort. And that is good. I often wondered at the fearful reaction of Zechariah’s neighbors to his song. A song so important that it is said every day in the Liturgy of the Hours. It was is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. On this day, the ears of man first heard this song that broke Zechariah’s long silence. Music and silence. Neither of these exist in Hell. I look at the text again. Now I see it. Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri, in quibus visitabit nos oriens ex alto. “Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us.” (Luke 1:78). It is the same in the Greek. What imp had led us to say, “because of the tender mercy of our God”? Viscera. Bowels. The entrails of God’s mercy. A scandalizing thought. “But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).