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Frondes Agrestes - Readings in 'Modern Painters'
by John Ruskin
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89. I was coming down one evening from the Rochers de Naye, above Montreux, having been at work among the limestone rocks, where I could get no water, and both weary and thirsty. Coming to a spring at the turn of the path, conducted, as usual, by the herdsmen, into a hollowed pine trunk, I stooped to it, and drank deeply. As I raised my head, drawing breath heavily, some one behind me said, "Celui qui boira de cette eau-ci, aura encore soif." I turned, not understanding for a moment what was meant, and saw one of the hill peasants, probably returning to his chalet from the market place at Vevay or Villeneuve. As I looked at him with an uncomprehending expression, he went on with the verse: "Mais celui qui boira de l'eau que je lui donnerai, n'aura jamais soif."

90. It may perhaps be permitted me[35] to mark the significance of the earliest mention of mountains in the Mosaic books; at least of those in which some Divine appointment or command is stated respecting them. They are first brought before us as refuges for God's people from the two judgments of water and fire. The Ark rests upon the mountains of Ararat; and man, having passed through the great Baptism unto death, kneels upon the earth first where it is nearest heaven, and mingles with the mountain clouds the smoke of his sacrifice of thanksgiving. Again; from the midst of the first judgment by fire, the command of the Deity to His servant is, "Escape to the mountain;" and the morbid fear of the hills, which fills any human mind after long stay in places of luxury and sin, is strangely marked in Lot's complaining reply, "I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me." The third mention, in way of ordinance, is a far more solemn one: "Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off." "The Place," the mountain of myrrh, or of bitterness, chosen to fulfil to all the seed of Abraham, far off and near, the inner meaning of promise regarded in that vow: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh mine help." And the fourth is the delivery of the law on Sinai. It seemed then to the monks that the mountains were appointed by their Maker to be to man refuges from judgment, signs of redemption, and altars of sanctification and obedience; and they saw them afterwards connected, in the manner the most touching and gracious, with the death, after his task had been accomplished, of the first anointed Priest; the death, in like manner, of the first inspired Lawgiver; and lastly, with the assumption of His office, by the Eternal Priest, Lawgiver, and Saviour.

[35] With reference to the choice of mountain dwellings by the greater monastic orders.

Observe the connection of these three events. Although the time of the deaths of Aaron and Moses was hastened by God's displeasure, we have not, it seems to me, the slightest warrant for concluding that the manner of their deaths was intended to be grievous or dishonourable to them. Far from this, it cannot, I think, be doubted that in the denial of the permission to enter the Promised Land, the whole punishment of their sin was included; and that, as far as regarded the manner of their deaths, it must have been appointed for them by their Master, in all tenderness and love, and with the full purpose of ennobling the close of their service upon the earth. It might have seemed to us more honourable that both should have been permitted to die beneath the shadow of the Tabernacle, the congregation of Israel watching by their side; and all whom they loved gathered together to receive the last message from the lips of the meek lawgiver, and the last blessing from the prayer of the anointed priest. But it was not thus they were permitted to die. Try to realize that going forth of Aaron from the midst of the congregation. He who had so often done sacrifice for their sin, going forth now to offer up his own spirit. He who had stood among them between the dead and the living, and had seen the eyes of all that great multitude turned to him, that by his intercession their breath might yet be drawn a moment more, going forth now to meet the angel of death face to face, and deliver himself into his hand. Try if you cannot walk in thought with those two brothers, and the son, as they passed the outmost tents of Israel, and turned, while yet the dew lay round about the camp, towards the slopes of Mount Hor; talking together for the last time, as step by step they felt the steeper rising of the rocks, and hour after hour, beneath the ascending sun, the horizon grew broader as they climbed, and all the folded hills of Idumea, one by one subdued, showed, amidst their hollows in the haze of noon, the windings of that long desert journey, now at last to close. But who shall enter into the thoughts of the High Priest as his eye followed those paths of ancient pilgrimage; and through the silence of the arid and endless hills, stretching even to the dim peak of Sinai, the whole history of those forty years was unfolded before him, and the mystery of his own ministries revealed to him; and that other Holy of Holies, of which the mountain peaks were the altars, and the mountain clouds the veil, the firmament of his Father's dwelling, opened to him still more brightly and infinitely as he drew nearer his death?—until at last, on the shadeless summit, from him on whom sin was to be laid no more, from him on whose heart the names of sinful nations were to press their graven fire no longer, the brother and the son took breastplate and ephod, and left him to his rest. There is indeed a secretness in this calm faith, and deep restraint of sorrow, into which it is difficult for us to enter; but the death of Moses himself is more easily to be conceived, and had in it circumstances still more touching as regards the influence of the external scene. For forty years Moses had not been alone. The care and burden of all the people, the weight of their woe, and guilt, and death, had been upon him continually. The multitude had been laid upon him as if he had conceived them; their tears had been his meat night and day, until he had felt as if God had withdrawn His favour from him, and he had prayed that he might be slain, and not see his wretchedness. And now at last the command came, "Get thee up into this mountain." The weary hands, that had been so long stayed up against the enemies of Israel, might lean again upon the shepherd's staff, and fold themselves for the shepherd's prayer—for the shepherd's slumber. Not strange to his feet, though forty years unknown, the roughness of the bare mountain path, as he climbed from ledge to ledge of Abarim; not strange to his aged eyes the scattered clusters of the mountain herbage, and the broken shadows of the cliffs, indented far across the silence of uninhabited ravines; scenes such as those among which, as now, with none beside him but God, he had led his flocks so often; and which he had left, how painfully! taking upon him the appointed power to make of the fenced city a wilderness, and to fill the desert with songs of deliverance. It was not to embitter the last hours of his life that God restored to him for a day the beloved solitudes he had lost, and breathed the peace of the perpetual hills around him, and cast the world in which he had laboured, and sinned, far beneath his feet in that mist of dying blue;—all sin, all wandering, soon to be forgotten for ever. The Dead Sea—a type of God's anger understood by him, of all men, most clearly, who had seen the earth open her mouth, and the sea his depth, to overwhelm the companies of those who contended with his Master—laid waveless beneath him; and beyond it the fair hills of Judah, and the soft plains and banks of Jordan, purple in the evening light as with the blood of redemption, and fading in their distant fulness into mysteries of promise and of love. There, with his unabated strength, his undimmed glance, lying down upon the utmost rocks, with angels waiting near to contend for the spoils of his spirit, he put off his earthly armour. We do deep reverence to his companion prophet, for whom the chariot of fire came down from heaven; but was his death less noble whom his Lord Himself buried in the vales of Moab, keeping, in the secrets of the eternal counsels, the knowledge of a sepulchre, from which he was to be called in the fulness of time, to talk with that Lord upon Hermon of the death that He should accomplish at Jerusalem?

And lastly, let us turn our thoughts for a few moments to the cause of the resurrection of these two prophets. We are all of us too much in the habit of passing it by, as a thing mystical and inconceivable, taking place in the life of Christ for some purpose not by us to be understood, or, at the best, merely as a manifestation of His divinity by brightness of heavenly light, and the ministering of the spirits of the dead, intended to strengthen the faith of His three chosen apostles. And in this, as in many other events recorded by the Evangelists, we lose half the meaning, and evade the practical power upon ourselves, by never accepting in its fulness the idea that our Lord was "perfect man,"—"tempted in all things like as we are." Our preachers are continually trying, in all manner of subtle ways, to explain the union of the Divinity with the Manhood—an explanation which certainly involves first their being able to describe the nature of Deity itself, or, in plain words, to comprehend God. They never can explain, in any one particular, the union of the natures; they only succeed in weakening the faith of their hearers as to the entireness of either. The thing they have to do is precisely the contrary of this—to insist upon the entireness of both. We never think of Christ enough as God, never enough as Man; the instinctive habit of our minds being always to miss of the Divinity, and the reasoning and enforced habit to miss of the humanity. We are afraid to harbour in our own hearts, or to utter in the hearing of others, any thought of our Lord as hungering, tired, sorrowful, having a human soul, a human will, and affected by events of human life, as a finite creature is: and yet one half of the efficiency of His atonement, and the whole of the efficiency of His example, depend on His having been this to the full. Consider, therefore, the Transfiguration as it relates to the human feelings of our Lord. It was the first definite preparation for His death. He had foretold it to His disciples six days before; then takes with Him the three chosen ones into "an high mountain apart." From an exceeding high mountain, at the first taking on Him the ministry of life, He had beheld and rejected the kingdoms of the earth, and their glory: now, on a high mountain, He takes upon Him the ministry of death. Peter and they that were with Him, as in Gethsemane, were heavy with sleep. Christ's work had to be done alone.

The tradition is that the Mount of Transfiguration was the summit of Tabor; but Tabor is neither a high mountain, nor was it in any sense a mountain "apart," being in those years both, inhabited and fortified. All the immediately preceding ministries of Christ had been at Cesarea Philippi. There is no mention of travel southward in the six days that intervened between the warning given to His disciples and the going up into the hill. What other hill could it be than the southward slope of that goodly mountain, Hermon, which is indeed the centre of all the Promised Land, from the entering in of Hamath unto the river of Egypt; the mount of fruitfulness, from which the springs of Jordan descended to the valleys of Israel? Along its mighty forest avenues, until the grass grew fair with the mountain lilies, His feet dashed in the dew of Hermon, He must have gone to pray His first recorded prayer about death; and from the steep of it, before He knelt, could see to the south all the dwellings of the people that had sat in darkness, and seen the great light, the land of Zabulon and of Naphtali, Galilee of the nations,—could see, even with His human sight, the gleam of that lake by Capernaum and Chorazin, and many a place loved by Him, and vainly ministered to, whose house was now left unto them desolate; and chief of all, far in the utmost blue, the hills above Nazareth, sloping down to His old home; hills on which yet the stones lay loose that had been taken up to cast at Him when He left them for ever.

"And as He prayed, two men stood by Him." Among the many ways in which we miss the help and hold of Scripture, none is more subtle than our habit of supposing that, even as man, Christ was free from the fear of death. How could He then have been tempted as we are?—since among all the trials of the earth, none spring from the dust more terrible than that fear. It had to be borne by Him, indeed, in a unity which we can never comprehend, with the foreknowledge of victory,—as His sorrow for Lazarus with the consciousness of His power to restore him; but it had to be borne, and that in its full earthly terror; and the presence of it is surely marked for us enough by the rising of those two at His side. When, in the desert, He was girding Himself for the work of life, angels of life came and ministered to Him; now in the fair world, when He is girding Himself for the work of death, the ministrants come to Him from the grave. But, from the grave, conquered. One from that tomb under Abarim, which His own hand had sealed long ago; the other, from the rest into which he had entered without seeing corruption. "There stood by Him Moses and Elias, and spake of His decease." Then, when the prayer is ended, the task accepted, first, since the star paused over Him at Bethlehem, the full glory falls upon Him from heaven, and the testimony is borne to His everlasting Sonship and power. "Hear ye Him."

If, in their remembrance of these things, and in their endeavour to follow in the footsteps of their Master, religious men of bygone days, closing themselves in the hill solitudes, forgot sometimes, and sometimes feared, the duties they owed to the active world, we may perhaps pardon them more easily than we ought to pardon ourselves, if we neither seek any influence for good, nor submit to it unsought, in scenes to which thus all the men whose writings we receive as inspired, together with their Lord, retired whenever they had any task or trial laid upon them needing more than their usual strength of spirit. Nor perhaps should we have unprofitably entered into the mind of the earlier ages, if among our other thoughts, as we watch the chains of the snowy mountains rise on the horizon, we should sometimes admit the memory of the hour in which their Creator, among their solitudes, entered on His travail for the salvation of our race; and indulge the dream, that as the flaming and trembling mountains of the earth seem to be the monuments of the manifesting of His terror on Sinai, these pure and white hills, near to the heaven, and sources of all good to the earth, are the appointed memorials of that light of His mercy, that fell, snowlike, on the Mount of Transfiguration.

FINIS.

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Edinburgh & London

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