The Mountain No One Can Climb

Tibet's Mount Kailash, a sacred pilgrimage site for four different religions. Photo by Wikipedia user Heringf

Tibet’s Mount Kailash, a sacred pilgrimage site for four different religions. Photo by Wikipedia user Heringf

Many of us are familiar with the stirring tune “Climb Every Mountain” from the musical The Sound of Music and its repeated insistence that we shy away from no hilly obstacle. But were you to take the lyrics of this song not as a heartwarming metaphor, but rather as a literal requirement, you would find yourself sadly coming up short. For on planet earth today, there is one mountain that it is not possible for you to climb, and it has nothing to do with your physical capabilities.

Central Asia is home to the world’s tallest mountain range, the Himalayas, which run through multiple countries. They present an incredible challenge to the world’s mountaineers, but even the tallest peak, Mount Everest, has long since been conquered. However, in the region of Tibet within China (I should mention that Tibetans dispute that they should be part of China), just north of the Himalayas, lies one particular mountain that is different from all the rest. If you were to ask permission from the Chinese government to climb it, they would deny your request. At no point in modern history has a person ever reached its summit.

I am referring to Mount Kailash, a peak that is likely unknown to most Americans, but is nonetheless highly significant. It is believed to be sacred by four different religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bön (a secondary Tibetan religion after Buddhism). To save time, I will only explain why it is special to Hindus, because they are the largest of the four religions, and I find their story to be the most interesting.

Hindus revere many different gods (and not the same ones in every region), but among the greatest of these is Shiva. He is sometimes referred to as “the Destroyer”, but he is not considered to be a completely wrathful deity. (For example, he could be destroying ignorance.) Shiva is depicted with his wife, Parvati (known in a previous life as Shakti), and their children Kartikeya, Ganesha (who appears in art with an elephant head), and Ashoka Sundari. Don’t worry: there will not be a test on this information. This holy family is believed to live at the summit of Mount Kailash.

Pilgrims from all four religions make the trip to visit the mountain, many choosing to walk a 32-mile route that circles the base famous peak. But despite the fact that many believe that the path up Mount Kailash eventually leads one into heaven, and even though it appears possible to climb to the summit, no one does so out of respect, or perhaps fear that the gods will punish them in the case of believers. Today, the Chinese government does not allow anyone to climb the mountain as it would provoke an uproar among the faithful in already restless Tibet, in addition to offending important neighbors such as India.

The Mytikas summit of Mount Olympus in Greece. Photo by Wikipedia users Melkov and Hike395

The Mytikas summit of Mount Olympus in Greece. Photo by Wikipedia users Melkov and Hike395

Before you write off the piety of these believers as an odd form of Asian mysticism, consider that they are hardly the only ones in world history to revere mountains, or even to believe that they were home to the gods. The ancient Greeks were polytheists like today’s Hindus, and they too believed that their gods lived on the peak of a mountain. In this case, it was Mount Olympus that was home to the most powerful Greek god, Zeus, and his family.

Olympus is also a very real mountain in the modern day country of Greece, but unlike Mount Kailash, the religion venerating it no longer exists (apart from a few nostalgic types). Because its specific location seems to be a more recent historical development (as opposed to a former metaphorical understanding), it has never created a rush of pilgrims similar to the ones that have been trekking to Kailash for thousands of years. However, hikers do like to visit Mount Olympus these days, and it is a much easier climb than anything in the area of the Himalayas.

The fascination with mountains seems to be rather universal. It’s not hard to see why: even today, they are the largest objects on planet earth. One cannot help but be inspired by their majesty, and their steep heights draw our eyes upward, closer to the heavens. Human beings have generally thought of heaven as being “up”, so the connection between ascending a mountain and moving toward heaven was a natural one. It is also possible to observe much of the world from a mountain’s summit, another factor that may have led to the belief that the gods make their abode there to view the comings and goings of humans.

For Judaism, there are two (or possibly three) very important mountains. The first is Mount Sinai (also called “Horeb”), where Yahweh revealed himself to Moses and gave him the Covenant, the divine law which would govern the ancient nation of Israel. During their first encounter, when God is revealed through a bush that continues burning without being consumed, he commands Moses, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) We are told that, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:6)

The summit of Mount Sinai in Egypt. Photo by Wikipedia user Tamerlan

The summit of Mount Sinai in Egypt. Photo by Wikipedia user Tamerlan

When Moses returns to the mountain, he is accompanied by all of the Jewish people who were able to gain their freedom from slavery in Egypt. Moses acts as a go between for God and the people, climbing the hill to receive God’s message and then bringing the word back down. When the presence of Yahweh descends on the mountain in full view of all the people, Moses is warned, “You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.’” (Exodus 19:12)

The other mountain that is of particular importance for Jews is the Temple Mount, or Mount Zion. (Depending on one’s reading of certain portions of scripture, this could also be the same as Mount Moriah, where Abraham obeyed God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac.) In ancient Judaism, the Temple was the focal point of all worship and the dwelling place of the very presence of God in the most sacred inner chamber, the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter this room, and then only once a year on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and only after going through a series of purification rituals.

With every case we see of God living at the top of a mountain, access is denied to all but the most exceptional of humans. One must ascend into the divine presence both physically and spiritually. To arrive at the summit is to enter heaven itself, where there is no barrier between the human and the divine.

I would argue that there is a third mountain that is important for Jews (as well as Christians), which can sometimes be identified with Mount Zion, but in other cases seems to be more of a metaphor. This is the “Mountain of the Lord” which is frequently spoken of by Old Testament writers. The prophet Isaiah pictured a day when this mountain would take on a whole new level of importance.

Now it will come about that

In the last days

The mountain of the house of the LORD

Will be established as the chief of the mountains,

And will be raised above the hills;

And all the nations will stream to it.

And many peoples will come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,

To the house of the God of Jacob;

That He may teach us concerning His ways

And that we may walk in His paths.’ – Isaiah 2:2-3a

This is a picture of inclusion, but it also seems to be set in the distant future: “in the last days”. At no point in history has Mount Zion or the Temple that formerly sat upon it served as a strong uniting factor for all nations, nor as a gathering place for all peoples to worship the same God in the same way. In the time of Christ, there were strict rules on which parts of the Temple could be entered by Jews and/or Gentiles. When the Roman rulers of Judea placed their military barracks right next door, it led to tensions on both sides. Ultimately, the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D./C.E.

An aerial view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as it appears today, looking toward the north. Wikipedia photo by Andrew Shiva

An aerial view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as it appears today, looking toward the north. Wikipedia photo by Andrew Shiva

The next major structures placed on this hill were neither Jewish nor Christian, but rather Muslim. The Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock now stand on the site where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad was transported by God in his “Night Journey”, at which point he actually ascended into heaven for a time. (Ascending to God at the top of a mountain: is this sounding familiar?) The location of these sacred Islamic buildings on the Temple Mount has caused considerable consternation for both Jews and Christians over the years, and continues to be the scene of occasional violence spurred mostly by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Jews typically worship just below at the Western Wall, the last remaining portion of the ancient Temple complex.)

This is not the Mountain of the Lord that Isaiah envisioned. As at every point in human history, we are still striving to climb the mountain, hoping to find divine enlightenment at the top. In some cases, fear keeps us from making the attempt, or maybe it is a sense of awe that makes us hesitate. Perhaps we are not worthy to step where angels tread. It would seem that the search for God can never be a source of harmony, but only the genesis of discord between the peoples of the earth.

“Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place?” the ancient King David asked in the 24th Psalm. “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4) Last I checked, that category included exactly no one. It seems the hill of the Lord is the ultimate mountain that no one can climb.

Ah, but there is one more hill that is worth mentioning. It lies not at the heart of the holy city of Jerusalem, but outside the walls. Mount Zion may appear to be the gateway to heaven, but this one looks like nothing so much as a skull, a place of death. Yet, it was here that a condemned criminal once climbed with a wooden beam upon his back, leaning on the shoulder of a stranger. Here he suffered in a gruesome manner and here he died. The hill’s name is Golgotha, and no one would have ever thought to climb it to find God.

Yet, it was on this hill and none other that the gate of heaven was truly opened, that the way to God was finally made possible for those with dirty hands. Now this man, who was more than just a man, calls us all to take up our own cross and follow him to the summit. Through what he did there, our hands are now clean, our hearts are pure, our falsehoods replaced by truth, and our insincere oaths replaced by heartfelt words of thanks.

As for the Hill of the Lord, it has not yet been realized, but a most remarkable thing happened on Mount Zion the same day that man was killed. “And behold, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27:50a) The veil had separated the Holy of Holies, the forbidden presence of God, from the rest of the Temple. This was a physical symbol of a spiritual truth: the door to God’s presence was now thrown open.

“Let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace,” the author of Hebrews wrote. (Hebrews 4:16) Maybe the Mother Superior was right after all: climb every mountain!

All biblical quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.