Sunday, August 6, 2017

Transfiguration: Theory and Practice

(Mount Tabor)

Looking ahead to this Sunday's feast of the Transfiguration, I thought first of the remoteness of the cosmic figure revealed on Mount Tabor, to only his most intimate disciples and only to be spoken of or understanding attempted until after his resurrection. Then I began to think of other figures "clothed in white" and even the "woman clothed in the sun" of the Apocalypse (12:1). Thomas Merton wrote an essay titled after that verse. But then, even that led me to another vision of people all "shining like the sun": Merton's vision as he waited for a ride back to the monastery after a dental appointment:

Thomas Merton

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton’s joy was at the revelation that he was part of a race all transcendent, but one in which God himself had become incarnate. There is awe and wonder and humility in that. As C. S. Lewis once said, to be a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve, there is enough in that to be both humbled and glorified.

Have you ever known someone whose face was shining, whose encounter with grace or God or love or forgiveness so lightened the load of the world on their shoulders that they looked relieved and joyful? Or just in a moment of inspired perception you saw them as they always were, as Donald Nicholl says, “in aspiration”, as the Holy Spirit conceived them? A reality, an identity, deeper than sin can ever reach?

One time Donald saw a young woman of a lower class (he’s English) dressed up and made up for a Saturday night (or a Sunday morning) and at first he judged her sharply, to be cheap, as her outfit of clothes and her choice of coiffure were not the best. But then he countered himself, she is doing very well. And so he said, inside himself, something British that meant, “you go, girl!” For he felt he finally saw her a bit with the eyes of God, the eyes of love, “in aspiration.”

It’s a lame example, isn’t it? But Donald was himself striving toward perception - with openness - and so perhaps we should see his anecdote and his attitude themselves “in aspiration.”

God is not finished with us yet - and yet he is, “in aspiration”, fully conscious and complete in conception of what we are called to be, meant to be, and in some ways already are, if only we saw it, beneath all the layers of fault or failing or even just ordinary crust of everyday inattention.

So it is that not only Jesus shines with the sun - we are to be caught up, too, along with Moses, Elijah, Peter and James and John, in a vision and a revelation of how God means us to be...

That openness, that vulnerability, that Donald Nicholl exposed to a roomful of California undergraduates, is of a piece with Mary’s own openness - in that “Woman Clothed with the Sun” essay, Thomas Merton points this out. Receiving the incarnate Word, as Mary did, receiving the Word of the Law, as Moses did, receiving the self-awareness dawning in us, as my teacher did, all involve a willingness to surrender, a willingness to accept defeat of ego by a greater purpose: to serve, to reveal, to accept, the presence and working in us of the spirit of God.

That’s a hard one to sell. How do we know that God is by? That God is near us, and that the light is shining in us, through us?

Not sure we need to answer that. More compelling and more convincing is the call to witness to the light itself, not our ‘en-candle-ment’ - we testify to the light that is not of ourselves but in us.

The light that is a light to all nations. And we know it as Jesus. The one who, equal with God as the incarnate Word, nevertheless became a human being as one of us, and brought that light, that revelation, that joy of being, down to earth.

And even he did not point to himself but pointed to the cosmic wonder of the grace of God and the immanence of his Spirit and of his Kingdom…

What Jesus reveals on the mountain is not just his own transcendence but ours. We are called to that divinization, that transformation into godliness, into the fullness of our own created natures, which is the goal of God’s plan. Of course not for ourselves but as transformation agents of the cosmos, so that this world may become what it is yearning to be, made to be.

(There is an American pattern of hermitage - Thoreau at Walden Pond, Merton at Gethsemane, Bruno at New Camaldoli - of a cabin in the woods a mile or so from one’s friends or family, where one could retreat in silence and yet stay in touch, through a family dinner, Eucharist, an evening’s common prayer.)

So Moses on Sinai, Jesus on Tabor. But do we need to be on a mountain top to experience change and transformation? Illumination? Transfiguration? What about when we come down? “Morning after”/”Monday Christians”? A common worry - will we keep the momentum going?

Is the buzz all that important? What Moses did - and the people did, or tried to do - thereafter was when the Revelation took root in the soil. When Jesus spoke to Peter and the Sons of Thunder he said, don’t tell anybody about this (like the hidden Messiah of Mark) - not until after… and then you’ll begin to understand....

Once the Spirit had descended and Ordinary Time arrived, then it was the Revelation of the Word, the glory of the Gospel, came into its fullness. The completion of the task was pushed off into the future because we must carry on his work - proclaim, heal, embody, transform - and be transformed in the task.

The Revelation becomes complete in the Practice.


A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. (Revelation 12:1)

Kathryn Hogan. “The Secret of All Joy”: Finding Mary in the Month of May. Catholic News Live. accessed August 4, 2017.

Robert Pogue Harrison. The True American. The New York Review of Books. August 17, 2017. Vol. 64, No. 13. accessed August 4, 2017.

Transfiguration 2017

No comments: