Mountains have their essence, their own distinct character and conscience. They also serve as a geological totem on the history of myth-making and socio-cultural definition on the convergence of people. In my imagination they most often loom oppressively large, majestic and breathtaking. This is congruent to my limited experience of climbing local mountains and the memory of a mountain range that has been imprinted from childhood from my distant province. William Blake has this to say about mountains, “great things are done when men and mountains meet.” A quintessential example is Mt Fuji’s most famous series of paintings done by the Edo period’s artist Hokusai. They have become an artistic expression of humanity’s obsession with this sacred Japanese mountain and no tourists experience of Japan is replete without a look at them. Others, professional and amateur climbers and trekkers have powerful experiences of being able to stand at perilous summits. Their telluric chorus is an experience of divine bliss and eureka moments. Their singular voice speaks of a mystical and magical encounter of how minute they are in the scheme of vastness and anthropocentric tendencies.
Mt. Nebo in Jordan carries with it a different self-abnegating perspective of a mountain. The experience it elicits is deeply sublime and fecund with meanings and symbolisms. The mount which is approximately 800 meters above sea level is in southwest Jordan and commands a panoramic and historic view of the Holy Land. To the north, one can have a limited view of the valley and the River Jordan. The ancient Palestinian city of Jericho is also visible and on clear days, the hills of the holy city of Jerusalem. From the stone marker placed at the edge of the ridge, it depicts where the cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, the Qumran of the Scrolls, the Dead Sea, Lake Tiberias are and their relative distances from Mt. Nebo. With one’s naked eye, there is only that almost arid landscape of hills and deep languid contours that witnessed ancient histories and is a terrain of current subversive geopolitical pressures. In this area, there is a modern church where you can see the remnants of mosaic floors from different periods. There is also the serpentine cross sculpture, known as the Brazen Serpent Monument. Giovanni Fantoni created it as a symbol of the bronze serpent created by Moses in the wilderness and the cross of Jesus.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Mt Nebo is believed to be where Moses was given a view of the Promised Land of milk and honey. It says “and Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land …” In that book too, this where he had shown to his protégé Joshua, the prophet, the land where they will finally settle after their 40 years of wandering in the desert.
Almost always, the Holy Land Pilgrimages would commence here. My experience joining two pilgrimages started here. From the modern Queen Alia Airport of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, we proceeded with excitement to this holy place where Moses is believed to have been buried, for the first Holy Mass of the pilgrimage.
Two powerful reflection questions posed by the chaplain stared at me in one of my visit here. The first is all about the moments of our life when we stand before our dreams, the promises laid before us while standing at the edge of a lacuna. Sometimes, we become paralyzed. Will we boldly cross that space and conquer the fear of the unknown? Will we leap with audacity? Will we remain standing on that safe and stable ground marveling the vision, with predictability and certainty both our comfortable allies.
The patriarchal perspective of Moses resonates with me as a father. I have the role of showing the vision to my children on the limitless possibilities that are before them. With this world accelerating at dizzying speed to the 4th Industrial Revolution, there is no turning back the tide of technological advancement. That is the world my children of this generation will inhabit and contend with. How would they define and see themselves in that picture?
Joshua on the other hand, has a compelling and equally riveting perspective. That land beyond is where my promised land. That is the geography where I, as a professional, a writer, an adventurer and a incessant dreamer will be in the next two, five and ten years. What kind of powerful paradigm then will abjure the limiting beliefs that hold me back, that make my my creaking feet too limpid and too immobilized?
The second reflection point is more of an oblation of thanksgiving for the Moseses of our lives. These are the individuals who have helped us show the vista. These are the humble people who have loved us, coached and mentored us. They selflessly formed us with a craftman’s squinting yet lucid eyes and a blacksmith’s callused hands. They influenced us to become prepared to leap into that future reality. Oftentimes they themselves didn’t have the chance and the luxury to reach that destination. On a personal note, there was my late father with whom my earliest recollection was his word of “go, go to different places, conquer it with the power of understanding and waste no lessons to go with it.” That was my father telling me in a hopeful and inspiring voice one night, tapping my shoulder as if an invisible sword anointed me to go and discover a new world. Sonorous and phlegmatic, he showed me a picture of Eiffel tower. Interestingly, he did not even own a passport in his lifetime. To this, I mumble a line for him from the Syrian poet Adonis,
“Love and dreams are two parentheses.
Between them I place my body
and discover the world.”
There is my courageous mother, who have travelled to places she may not have dreamt of early in her life. She encouraged me to read at an early age even if growing up, electricity and the light bulb have not reached our place in a province facing the Pacific Ocean. We had to contend with the lowly kerosene lamps and almost always, the challenge was to read aloud for another extra hour, spitting conjugations and phrases that disturbed a rancid night. Unknowingly, dragging with me the weight of a sack of stories, my inchoate love for literature and the written word grew steadily over the years. Not knowing any other writers probably except Shakespeare because of Romeo and Juliet she learned in highschool, she had given me the wings of Icarus to touch the sun and explore the burning passion of different writers and genres from Milton to Tolstoy, from Hemingway to Salinger and from Pinter to Pirandello – from the sublime to the mundane. To her, I mumble slowly this line again from the Syrian poet, Adonis.
“What shall I say to the body I abandoned
in the rubble of the house
in which I was born?
No one can narrate my childhood
except those stars that flicker above it
and that leave footprints
on the evening’s path.”
To my parents, I call them my Moseses. They are the flesh and blood prophets who have journeyed with me on the ordeals of growing up and who allowed me to discover myself as a Joshua of sort.
As a Catholic faithful, Mt. Nebo is a place of promise for me. It will always be a reminder of God’s faithfulness and audacity. Standing there at the edge of the ridge, the desert breeze that blew on me on that winter December morning allowed me to experience a feeling of incontrovertible gratitude for this faith and for sending me many Moseses. I stood there with a joyful response of “thank you”. I believe the God of Israel heard me loudly as I chanted Psalm 45, the praise of David.
“I will exalt you, my God the King;
I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
and extol your name for ever and ever.”