Sunday’s Gospel was Jesus on the mountain, well one of them. It’s the Transfiguration as witnessed by Peter, James, and John. They see it, and they’re not sure what they see. My priest called it a mountain top moment, in both the literal and the metaphorical sense. The Transfiguration is pivotal and bridges, through Jesus, the earthly life and the eternal life. Pope Saint John Paul II included the Transfiguration when he added the Luminous mysteries to the Rosary. At a recent day of reflection, Father P talked about those “born again moments” and that reminded me of Father J and his homily on Sunday about mountain top moments. We all have them in various parts of our lives and they all mean something different to each of us in those times.
In my mind during that homily, I was reminded of a literal mountain top moment that I experienced. I was in college and had the opportunity to travel to the UK with my college roommate. She made all the plans and I followed her. I followed her to the point that I’ll follow you became a running catch phrase for the trip and the rest of our friendship including when I see her today nearly thirty years later. At some point she gave me the the itinerary with a few changes along the way, but I barely knew where we were going before we got there.
That level of trust and spontaneity sounds completely foreign to me, but at that time it was easier to just tag along. It was the trip of a lifetime and whatever happened, wherever we went would be amazing. I had no expectations and that let my mind stay open, probably for the first time in my life.
It was a wonderful trip: New Year’s in London, feeling the magic of Stonehenge, finding out that the buses don’t run on Sundays in Stow on the Wold, snow in the Highlands, but the most filled with wonder moment took place unexpectedly near the top of the Snowdon Mountain in North Wales.
In my mind, even though I knew better or at least should have known better, I thought Wales was a part of England. This is a mistake that it would be well to remedy before talking to a Welsh person. While they are joined physically, they are miles apart both in the land and in the spirit.
We took the train to Betws-y-Coed and then needed to make our way to Pen-y-Pass, a hiker’s hostel up in the mountain, about fifteen miles away as I recall. Up the mountain, of course. We walked a bit and hitchhiked, something that wasn’t such a terrible thing in 1987. We were two of the few non-hikers who stayed at that hostel in the middle of the Snowdonia National Park.
The UK tends to be rainy and grey, no matter what the season. This January wasn’t remarkably different. At least it wasn’t different until we arrived in Wales.
The train skirted by the scenery, the greenery even in the midst of winter, and I don’t recall if there was anything to notice the change from England into Wales. I don’t imagine there was an announcement. Upon arriving and disembarking the train, it was immediately clear that things were indeed different here. For beginnings, all the signs were bilingual. The air was cool but not as cold as the Cotswolds where we’d come from.
This was literally the only part of the trip that had blue sky. The grey vanished and the blue emerged.Being so far up on the mountain brought us right up to the sky and it was a brilliant blue that my photos from that time (including the few that I’ve shared below) don’t properly show.
We did a night hike, and a morning hike before we left for the next part of our trip. It was two days which isn’t nearly enough to barely scratch the surface of a visit to the Welsh countryside. We were in the north so there were no large cities. Perhaps, Bangor would qualify, but in revisiting Bangor two decades later, it was more of a college town that I remember and not remotely city like. Bangor is in the shadow of the mountain; Pen-y-Pass is the heart of it.
The tops of the mountain were snow-capped. What wasn’t covered in snow was grey, the deep slate that is known for the Welsh mountains, and not the dreary sky that comes with the rain that is so stereotypically prevalent in the land. The sheep were a weird pinkish color and they stood on the mountain side, defying gravity with every moment they didn’t tumble off. There was a winding, rock-strewn path, and a small pond or lake that we managed to find. Everywhere I looked I was left speechless, meditative, spiritual.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, but it was so much more than that.
This was a mountain top moment. This was the mountain top moment.
This is where I felt the hand of G-d. Not just a spiritual feeling of vastness and natural glory, but of history that up until then I didn’t know at all. Of a culture that I had lumped in with a centuries old enemy. If there is such a thing as a past life, I think I might have touched a part of it on this mountain. It certainly touched me.
This was the first time that I think I felt my soul. Whether it awakened at this moment, or if I rediscovered it, I don’t know. I felt my smile rush up from the inside.
All I do know is that my life changed.
From that moment on, I was Welsh.
In reading an historical fiction novel about the medieval princes of Wales, they use the word hiraeth to describe a feeling. Hiraeth is the Welsh word that encompasses the feeling of homesickness, but not in the sense of being homesick or sad, but of longing. It is a sense of belonging that can be felt way down deep. It’s the thread that keeps you tied to the place, the homeland, the land of your heart.
When people talk about visiting the Holy Land, Jerusalem, that is how I feel about Wales.
The feeling never subsided or relinquished its hold. It was only confirmed on my second visit many years later.
I go back there in my mind as often as I close my eyes.
Transfiguration is about change.
Wales changed me.
It continues to change me and inspire, encourage, and anchor me.