David Brooks Has His Mountaintop Experience

A short passage from the remarkable 21st chapter of the NY Times columnist’s new book, […]

David Zahl / 5.3.19

A short passage from the remarkable 21st chapter of the NY Times columnist’s new book, The Second Mountain, in which he recounts, well, you’ll see. I’d reprint the entire chapter if I could. The setting is the summer of 2013, just after the end of his 27 year marriage:

That summer, I took my annual walk up to American Lake, which is at the top of a mountain near Aspen, Colorado. I was in a spiritual frame of mind that morning, and on the hike up the mountain I composed a list of all the things I would have to give up to God if He actually existed: my work, my reputation, my friendships, my life, my loves, my family, my vices, my bank accounts.

I reached the lake, sat on a rock, and pulled out a book of Puritan prayers that I’d brought. Most of them are grim affairs, about human depravity and all that. Then I came upon one called “The Valley of Vision.” The first line is “Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly.” I looked at the spare and majestic mountain peaks in front of me. Just then a little brown creature who looked like a badger waddled up to the lake, not noticing me. He came within two feet of my sneaker before looking up, startled, and scrambling away. High and holy, meek and lowly.

The next sentence is “Thou has brought me to the valley of vision.” Well, there I was in the bowl formed around that lake. “Where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights.” I was in all sorts of depths but could see mountaintops. “Hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.” The rest of the text summarizes the whole inverse logic of faith: the broken heart is the healed heart. The contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit. The repenting soul is the victorious soul. Life in my death. Joy in my sorrow. Grace in my sin. Riches in my poverty. Glory in my valley.

I had a sensation of things clicking into place, like the sound of a really nice car door gently closing. It was a sensation of deep harmony and membership, the kind Jayber Crow described on that bridge: that creation is a living thing, a good thing, that we are still being created and we are accepted in it. Knowledge crept across my skin. I didn’t so much feel at one with nature. I had a sensation that there is an animating spirit underlying all creation.

I’d always heard that phrase “God is the ground of being”—that he’s not a big guy in the sky with a beard but a caring moral presence that pervades all reality, a flowing love that gives life its warmth, existence its meaning. By the lake, I had the sensation that life is not just a random collection of molecules that happen to have come together in space. Our lives play out within a certain moral order. I sat there for a while and looked at the sloping hillsides surrounding the lake leading up to the mountain peaks. I imagined the little moral dramas and clashes of armies—Lord of the Rings style—the forces of love and selfishness playing themselves out within this mountaintop basin. And all of it is held in the cupped hands of God. I wrote and account that day: “God really does tailor himself to you. For those of us with a sense of not belonging, of being sojourners, He gives membership, acceptance and participation.” The hike down took about an hour and half and was marked by giddiness.

This was not a religious conversion. It wasn’t moving from one thing to another. It felt more like deeper understanding. I understand those who cannot related to this experience or who just see it as an emotional response to nature. I can report only how it felt and feels. It was and is a sensation of opening my eyes to see what was always there, seeing the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday. Like there’s a play you’ve been watching all your life, and suddenly you realize that the play you are seeing onstage is not the only play that’s going on. There’s an underplay, with the same characters, but at a different level, with different logic and forces at work, and greater stakes. There’s a worldly story to follow, as people move closer or further from their worldly ambitions. But there’s also a sacred story to follow, as souls move closer and further from their home, which is God.

It’s easy to not be aware of the underplay, but once you see it, it’s hard to see the other play about worldly ambitions as the ultimate reality. The main story is the soul story.