“A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.” If you go to Italy you see towns and cities built on hilltops and mountaintops. Throughout the world, in fact, this is the preferred location. How inconvenient for old people! Was it for the view that people built in such awkward places? Yes and no: it was not to admire the landscape, nor to be admired, but to get a view of approaching enemies! It would be hard to hide a city, so you make it fully alert instead: full of eyes, full of consciousness.
    As you guessed, this is not only about cities; it is about human beings. The valley is a symbol of sleep and unconsciousness, the hilltop is a symbol of wakefulness and watchfulness. Most religious sites are high places: Mont St Michel, Jerusalem, Mount Tabor, Croagh Patrick, Skellig…. The list could go on and on. And not only Christians have this instinct; most people do. Hindus have said that Shiva lives on Mount Everest….
    When you choose unconsciousness you descend into the valley of darkness. Sleep is a kind of valley. In sleep you lose your awareness of everything. But our world now finds this kind of sleep no longer enough: it creates TV that enables you (if you overuse it) to turn even your waking hours into a kind of sleep. It also creates drugs that send you into even deeper sleep; it creates some strange suicidal instinct in many of the young. Popular culture is addicted to sleep and unconsciousness. Everything becomes a flight and a kind of merging of the self that caricatures the religious merging of the self. Music, drugs, alcohol and sex have all now taken on this significance.
    Why all this flight? It is because consciousness is painful. To be on a hilltop in some sense, to have to be awake, to be exposed, to be vulnerable and to know it: all that is painful. Or perhaps what makes it painful for me is that I am only partly conscious, fluctuating say between 5% and 10%, or even less. That is enough to provide a glimpse of the 90% or 95% unconsciousness in me. So I bury my head! I blot out that 5 or 10% consciousness. I am an ostrich! An ostrich buries its head (which, I suppose, is about 5% of its body size!) when it sees danger, thinking that it is hiding itself completely. But in doing that, of course, it is helping its enemy. Let me look at yesterday, or even this morning, and count all the times I took flight from direct experience into unconsciousness….
    A city on a hilltop cannot be hidden. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said. I don’t feel like that, do you? Much of the time I'd rather climb under a tub. I accept it when he says that he himself is the light of the world (John 8:12), but when he tells me that I too am the light of the world I feel deeply puzzled.
    Jesus can hardly have been stroking my ego, saying, “Ah, you’re not as bad as you think!” He was referring to something that is lodged in me whether I think I deserve it or not, something that is there before I ever perform either badly or well, something given to me through no merit of mine. At the natural level it is the light of consciousness. At a deeper level, for a Christian, it is the light of faith. St Paul described it as ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.’ “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, shining in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Donagh O'Shea


These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.