While traveling with priests this summer, Josh climbed the highest peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where they celebrated Mass together at the summit. The unique setting helped him see the Mass from a new perspective.
When you are celebrating Mass on top of a mountain peak, there are some extraordinary things to account for.
It’s windy, for one, so candles won’t work, and having someone hold the book of prayers for the priest helps. Also, you’ll want to find a spot where you can gather around and find a tolerably comfortable seat on the exposed granite. Finally, it’s best to start Mass right away because your group will be hungry after expending the energy it took to summit. Take in the trailmix with the view afterward.
An early summer vacation this year took me to my home state of South Dakota, where I grew up in the Black Hills. My wife and I are good friends with several priests we met in graduate school and every year we share a week of vacation together. (Before you assume that our vacations are boring, you should take a peek at our beer tab at Miner Brewing in Hill City.)
We took one morning to climb Black Elk Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps (which, btw, is named after a Lakota leader who was not only Catholic, but is a candidate for canonization). One of our friends, Father Jim Gallagher, CSC, has a really strong beard game, so it seemed fitting that he offer Mass up there.
He had packed a stole (the long, thin cloth priests wear around their necks as a sign of their ordination and of the cross Jesus bore) and a small, simple plate and chalice. Beyond that, we had everything we needed: bread, wine, and each other.
Despite the extraordinary circumstances, there’s a lot about that mountaintop Mass that struck me as the same as what we do every Sunday:
- Coming together with others who are on the journey with us.
- Acknowledging to ourselves, God, and others that we’re not perfect.
- Hearing stories about Jesus Christ and discussing them together to see how his example and life touches ours.
- Praying for others, and being supported by them in prayer.
- Offering the simple elements of bread and wine for a meal.
- Seeing what we have offered transformed into something sacred that feeds our souls as well as our bodies.
- Being sent to continue our journey, strengthened and deepened by love.
The experience boiled down for me the essence of what the Mass is. Strip away the ornate churches and the organ music and the formal bowing and genuflecting, and you still have Mass: people gathering around a simple meal to pray, eat, and share stories together. These are the fundamentals that feed us.
Was I a different man climbing down Black Elk Peak than the man who climbed up it? Not drastically. I was still me, after all — I still stumbled on the uneven ground from time to time, I got thirsty, I was still plagued by selfish impulses. Going to Mass once — even on a mountaintop — didn’t make me a saint.
Mass changes us by small degrees, though, and the more I return to it, the more I see my life turning in the right direction. I was the same guy climbing down the mountain, but celebrating Mass up there did change the journey I was on. It allowed me to not only take in the view passively, or capture it for my Instagram account — somehow Mass allowed me to become a deeper part of the expansive world I could see up there.
The ceiling of our church that day was the dome of the sky. Our altar was the granite stone of the mountain. The walls were the limits of the horizon touching the four states we could see. Was this not the world God sent His Son to save? Are we not His people?
And if His love is this big, what is there to fear?