Mountaintop Experience‚Ä® 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."  (Matthew 4:8-9)

As college graduation approached, I felt more than the usual uncertainty for a young man who had no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.  There was a war on, and my draft board had already signaled its own interest in my future.  At the start of the reading period before final exams, I still had nearly an entire term's work left to do in most of my courses.  Late one evening, facing an intimidating pile of unfinished papers and unopened books, I wandered across the courtyard of my residential college at Yale to visit my friend George.  He suggested we split a half tablet of something he had been saving in a little foil wrapper for just such an occasion.  With a razor blade he divided the half tablet into quarters and placed one of the bright orange fragments into the palm of my hand.  I swallowed it.

We sat facing one another on a mattress on the floor of his room.  After a while I began to feel a familiar acceleration, a sensation of hurtling through space even as I sat motionless on the floor.  In a moment I had slipped out of my self as effortlessly as a snake shedding its skin.  There were no hallucinations, only a benign sense of connectedness to everything.  We talked through the night, and as dawn approached we walked around the main quadrangle of Branford College, where we had our rooms.  Gradually, the thick canopy of night receded to gray, and the dark outlines of a world began to form around us.  The massive gothic spire of Harkness Tower now loomed over us like a ship emerging from fog. 

Although it was not yet sunrise, the college had already begun to stir.  Our friend Larry, who lived down the hall from me, burst from our entryway, a boyish mop of blond hair tumbling into his eyes.  He had been up all night studying.  Soon we were joined by another friend who produced a key to the stairwell of Harkness Tower, which was always kept locked.  What better way to greet the new day than atop the tower?  The key opened a wrought-iron gate at the foot of a winding stone staircase.  We made our way up, a half dozen of us by now, giggling at our bit of mischief.  The staircase led to a cavernous bell tower, and from there we climbed rickety spiral metal steps toward the summit.  The massive bells, some as tall as a man, were hung in rows on every side, each stamped with Yale's motto, Lux et Veritas ("Light and Truth").  We reached the top just as the sun spilled over the reddish bluff of East Rock on the horizon.  A full moon still shone directly overhead.  A copy of the New York Times that had been scooped up from someone's doorstep was now peeled apart and flung from the parapet with great glee.  Sheets of newsprint took wing in the morning breeze and swooped down over the town like migratory birds, alighting in the trees far below.

I could not recall a time, in my waking moments at least, when life seemed so tantalizingly close to yielding its secret.  The prose of everyday existence was transformed into the most exquisite poetry.  Every word and image seemed laden with meaning; every incident, no matter how trivial, paraded by in the costume of elaborate metaphor.  First, there was the key that my friend had produced from his pocket with great flourish; then the gate; the long winding climb to this higher realm, the realm of truth and light; and finally, at the summit, this grand alignment of sun and moon and selves as dawn broke over East Rock.  

The trouble began when we started back down.  An elderly security guard was waiting by the iron gate at the foot of the stairs, demanding to know how we had gained entry to the tower.  "The gate was unlocked," my friend assured him, brushing past with an easy laugh.   The old man muttered furiously to himself as he secured the gate behind us.  Once back in my room, I was shocked to discover a stranger had been living there.  I recognized the clothes, the books, the posters on the walls, all of which belonged to someone I now felt no connection to.  This person now struck me as callow, self-centered and absurd, his pursuit of a Yale diploma mere empty striving.  As far as I was concerned, he was dead and gone, and it remained only for me to dispose of his personal effects.  I tore the posters from the walls, carted his books down to the courtyard to be given away and burned his papers in the bathroom sink.  I then went through his wallet, pulling out all the bits of paper that had imprisoned me in my former identity.  I wanted to burn them as well, but here I stopped.  Something told me I might need the driver's license to operate a motor vehicle, and I also knew that people who burned draft cards were put in jail.

I was quite literally out of my mind, of course, and had no idea how to find my way back in.  I went to the student health center and told them I had taken a drug and couldn't come down.  I told them I had burned all my papers and given away my books.  How to explain that I had tried to kill myself without intending any bodily harm?  I wondered whether I would be hospitalized.  The doctor asked me what I wanted to do now.   "I want to graduate," I said, astonishing myself even as I said this.  But it seemed to dispel any doubts the doctor may have had about my sanity.  He sent me on my way with a prescription for tranquilizers that I never bothered to fill, having by this time developed a healthy aversion to mind-altering drugs.

It took me a while to get my head straightened out again.  But somehow I managed to pull myself together enough to rewrite my papers and take my exams.  The only glitch came when one of my professors forgot to submit my final grade, and I had to go to the registrar's office to get things straightened out so I could graduate.  On the way back from the registrar, I ran into a girl I knew slightly, a first-year graduate student who had been dating one of my former roommates.  We struck up a conversation next to an ice cream truck parked outside the administration building.  The first clear memory I have of her is of a pretty girl with long brown hair eating an ice cream cone.   The next year we were married in a little chapel at the base of Harness Tower.  Our life since then -- like most lives, I suppose -- has been more prose than poetry.  We bought a house, raised a family.  I spent my career in the insurance business.  Notwithstanding those occasional moments when sun and moon and self fall into a grand alignment, my life has mostly been lived on the ground.

To get closer to God, we think we need to seek higher elevations.  Moses tromped up Mt. Sinai to catch a glimpse of God's backside.  Jesus communed with Moses and Elijah on a high mountain, and his disciples wanted to erect booths to commemorate the event.  But higher elevations can also be the source of great temptation.  The devil took Jesus to the mountaintop and offered him all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him.  Jesus refused to take the bait.  He never ventured more than a couple hundred miles from home in his whole life, and he got around most places on foot.  His path was hot and dusty, and he must have known it would end in bloodshed.  But then, his mission was not to reach for the highest heaven; he was meant to reclaim this world as God's kingdom.       

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