More than 30 years ago my wife and I built a house on a cul-de-sac bordering a state park that is mostly woods and hiking trails. The main trail runs along a high bluff overlooking the Connecticut River. However, I stick mostly to the side trails these days, particularly when I bring my camera along. Although the main trail offers the most scenic views, I find I take more interesting pictures when I am poking around in the park’s many ravines and along its winding creek beds. Landscape photographs tend to flatten out when taken from higher elevations, and you lose the kind of detail that makes them visually compelling. My best shots are usually taken close to the ground.
Most religious traditions stake out the higher spiritual elevations, leaving it to their adherents to slog along at ground level. Their founders are typically identified with some transcendent experience that points to a reality beyond the everyday. Moses braved fire on a mountaintop and encountered the God of his ancestors. Jesus was transfigured by the light of another world. The prophet Muhammad communed with the angel Gabriel on Mount Hira. Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow used the term “peak experience” to describe such supremely luminous moments. Like William James before him, Maslow believed that peak experiences revealed as much or more about the human psyche as the pathologies that preoccupied most of his colleagues. Given their disposition, it should come as no surprise that many regarded peak experiences as some sort of mental aberration. This is why the editors of the standard diagnostic manual (DSM-V) now include an article to assist in distinguishing transcendence from delusion.
The mental health profession may perhaps be forgiven its confusion on this score, since some aspects of peak experience may closely mimic the symptoms of serious derangement. Although Maslow regarded peak experiences as characteristic of “extreme mental health,” they are so discontinuous from normal life that their short-term effect can be enormously unsettling. The experience itself tends to be quite short-term, which can result in a profound sense of loss and disorientation after the fact. How are you supposed to continue on with your humdrum existence once you have been to the mountaintop?
The danger is that the afterglow from such luminous moments can become enshrined in memory, blinding you to the ordinary light of day. This may be why Jesus discouraged his disciples from memorializing the event that came to be known as the Transfiguration. He knew, as they did not, that communing with the divine would ultimately prove far less crucial than wrestling with his own mortality in the garden of Gethsemane. As William James noted in The Varieties of Religious Experience, the true test of transcendent experience is not its luminosity as such but whether it yields “fruits for life.” I learned a similar lesson shooting landscape photographs. The high ground may offer the best views, but they do not necessarily produce the most compelling pictures.