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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

13 October 2023

Flying above the clouds, Malcolm Guite is met by an unexpected sight

I SAW something extraordinary just recently, from the window of an aeroplane. The sun was setting and touching with lovely tints of orange and gold the clouds above which we flew; but between me and the golden fringe of the sunset was the last thing that I expected to see: a beautiful mountain, rising from the clouds. Its snow-covered flanks, gilded by the sunset, were both at and above the level of my gaze. We were flying beside the mountain and not, as I might have expected, above it.

In one way, it was quite alarming, as I imagined, for a moment, what it might mean to fly into it, but that brief tremor of fear was swallowed up in sheer wonder. Because I could not see down beneath the cloud cover, it appeared that this massive mountain was simply floating in the heavens, as though the clouds above which it rose had suddenly taken the form of solid stone, but were still, impossibly, floating.

After a safe landing, I learned from my friends in Seattle that what I had seen was Mount Ranier, sometimes also called, in an Anglicisation of indigenous language, Tacoma.

And yet, when I looked for it, towering above the other Cascade mountains, dominating the Seattle-Tacoma landscape, as it should surely do, there was no sign of it! “Ah,” my friend, told me, “the mountain is not ‘out’ today.”

It seems that its own little weather system often keeps it hidden, even when the weather is clear elsewhere. You see some lower peaks, then cloud above them, and you wouldn’t know that there was anything else to be seen. It can be invisible for days, and then suddenly word goes round, in the local phrase: “The mountain is out today.” Everyone looks, and there it is!

“You were lucky to see it from the plane,” my friend said, “especially against the setting sun.” And, indeed, we were fortunate to see it once more, from a boat on Lake Washington, before I left.

It set me thinking about the great credal affirmation that God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”. Tacoma, it seemed to me, managed to fit into all four categories. I saw it shimmering in the heavens, apparently detached from earth and floating above the clouds, and I also saw it rising out of the earth, rising above its parent mountain range, a glorious expression of the earth herself at her most exultant, flung upwards and full of her ancient fire; for Tacoma, for all its year-round mantle of snow, is an active volcano.

But it is also mysteriously among the invisible, the “things unseen”, and, curiously, once I knew it was there, I seemed to feel its presence as much when I didn’t see it as when I did. Like the God who made it, the mountain need not be manifest to be present, and yet at any point it might make itself known.

And, of course, as from the boat I saw it shimmering into shape through a thinning veil of cloud, I remembered the lovely opening of Psalm 125: “They that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as the mount Sion: which may not be removed, but standeth fast for ever.

“The hills stand about Jerusalem: even so standeth the Lord round about his people, from this time forth for evermore.”

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