Since the very beginning Christians have sought out high places for their houses of worship.
What do Mont Saint-Michel, Mount Athos, St. Michael’s Mount, and Jasna Gora (Luminous Mount) all have in common? They were all built on highly elevated ground. In fact, countless Christian churches and monasteries throughout the world have been built on mountains or hilltops since the very beginning of Christianity.
There are even some Orthodox religious houses, like Varlaam Monastery, that are located on solitary peaks only accessible by being pulled up by a rope!
Why is that? What is the significance?
Most ancient cultures had a belief that divine beings resided “in the heavens,” which for them was physically located in the sky or above it. This was certainly true in Greek mythology, which held Mount Olympus as the dwelling place of the gods.
In the Old Testament this belief was furthered when God conversed with Moses on Mount Horeb. Another place sacred to the Jewish people is Mount Carmel, where Elijah built an altar to God and challenged various pagan priests to offer sacrifice. Even the city of Jerusalem is situated on a mountain, Mount Zion.
With the incarnation of Jesus, mountains continued to be associated with divine events. Jesus preached the beatitudes at the Sermon on the Mount and was transfigured before his apostles on Mount Tabor. He suffered greatly after the Last Supper on the Mount of Olives. Last of all, Jesus performed his supreme sacrifice on the cross on Mount Calvary.
It appears that when God created the world he placed on mountains and high places a fingerprint of his greatness and glory. Often when a person reaches the top of such heights, a feeling of awe rises from within. For a Christian this awe turns into thanksgiving and it is not surprising to imagine why many ancient people decided to build altars on high peaks. It was a way to say “thanks” to the creator of all for such a beautiful vista.
With this in mind, Christians over the centuries have recognized that innate spiritual feeling and specifically chose high places to foster that encounter with the divine. Even in our own country, numerous shrines have been built (and continue to be built) in scenic locations that lift up the souls of Christians “to the heights,” as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati would say.