OPENING THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION
The Transfiguration represents a breakthrough moment, and has become the archetype for what we now call “mountaintop experiences.” A mountaintop experience is typically defined as one of those special moments of great insight, realization, awareness, expanded consciousness or spiritual awakening. It is typically a life-changing and defining moment.
The people who were with Jesus apparently could not find words or concepts big enough to describe the amazing things they witnessed and participated in. So in the early Church, terms and phrases like “born again,” “made alive,” “new creation” “child of God, and “transfigured” expressed something of the magnitude of their experiences. Why did they use such terms? What did they mean to them? What might they mean to us as we try to translate them across much time and a multitude of paradigm changes?
There are many questions, but one thing I recognize is how hard it is to step out of the critical and skeptical mindset in which I was educated, a mindset in which we learn to critique things before we know much about them — a mindset that surrounds me and reinforces my skepticism each and every day.
It seems as though Christian spirituality has lost the thread – the way – that might connect us to the deeper reality of what Christ was offering, and what the first disciples were experiencing, and has left us with a spirituality which is mostly focused on externals. Because we have been living in a mental landscape which has pretty much eliminated the spiritual, such terms as Transfiguration, the experiences behind them, and the way to access them, are almost impenetrable.
When we look at something like the account of the Transfiguration, we are prepared to look at a great variety of possible interpretations but the one we are most likely to dismiss is that this actually happened. It is intellectually respectable (and safer) to label it as a moment of “cognitive dissonance” or “metaphorical insight” or literary license aimed at marketing the Gospel, than suggest we think it could have happened pretty much as described. In our time we have a high regard for the skeptics, the ones who poke holes in our myths, and we dismiss the open-minded believer as gullible, naïve, and even stupid.
In Galatians, St Paul says “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” but freedom is not the word that comes to mind when I think of the restrictive intellectual environment we have created in the church, especially among the clergy. I can’t tell you how many strained, self-conscious and stultified Anglican gatherings I have been part of, due to that condescending and critical attitude which ridicules and dismisses anyone who dares to believe these things might actually have some truth and validity to them, or that our spiritual practices should derive from some sense of actual relationship with the living God.
Usually what we do with the Transfiguration account is focus on what happens when the disciples come down from the mountain and we use the event to warn about what happens when we divorce spirituality from action, or go around with our heads in the clouds, or feel we are too high and mighty to be concerned about the needs of ordinary people. And thus we might be avoiding and abandoning an important insight into the true meaning of Christ and of Christian spirituality.
We interpret the scriptures as historical material, as literature, for their potential sociological and psychological insights, but not primarily as a way of entering into the living Spirit of Christ, not as a way of leading people into direct encounter and experience. We often seem to read the scriptures with a view to dis-proving and de-constructing their accounts of things rather than devotionally – to pray them, to allow the Spirit to speak through them, and to live them.
So we tend to ask questions like: Did he change or did the disciples’ eyes open (inner awareness) to who he really was? Were the apostles simply deluded? Did the moon just happen to shine through the clouds for a few key moments, creating an ambience that suggested something more profound? Was this actually a post-resurrection event – an encounter with the Christ of faith? Did the Gospel writers just invent the entire incident in order to speak as a poet might, and in order to create a connection between him and the patriarch Moses?
I do not wish to come across as saying that they way we view things spiritual in our time, especially our Christology, is all wrong. It is simply the lens through which we see things at this moment. Nor do I wish to set up an antagonistic relation between Science and Faith – they are different ways of knowing, and both aim at discovering what is true. But it is important to be aware of how our perspective is heavily influenced by a critical and even cynical rationalism which has tended to be dismissive of the metaphysical in general, and spirituality in particular.
Part of how we are is a reaction to times when there was too much emphasis on the non-critical, when people were obliged to believe and discouraged from questioning anything, and superstition ran amok. Knowledge and insight which challenged the status quo was sometimes either stifled or even punished. But haven’t we arrived at a similar point today (except for the fact that the shoe is on the other foot)? I am actually proud of the fact that we in the Church have engaged people’s minds and welcomed their questions, and created a much more open intellectual environment. But in the world in general, and even in the Church, I feel we have swung too far in the direction of a materialistic rationalism which has become a belief system in and of itself.
Do I believe that all of scripture should be taken literally? No. But do I believe that none of it should be taken literally? No again. This points to the need for discernment – to know which is which, and to be aware of the limitations of our own way of thinking and perceiving, not just the faults in the thinking and perceiving that we assume were operative in the early Christian era.
As Jesus might have said, “Cynics you will always have with you.”
But as spiritual author Kyriakos Markides said: “if the gatekeepers of our higher culture accept the fact that there are spiritual realities … we are bound to witness a real revolution in consciousness. At the moment, we are still under the spell of modernity, a “flatland” understanding of reality that reduces everything to the physical level.” (Inner River: A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Christian Spirituality p. 17f.).
Paul says to the early Church: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The Greek word for Transfiguration (which came from the Latin) is metamorphosis, which means to change form. So Paul teaches, you have a choice as to whether you just align yourself with what everyone else is doing, and allow yourself to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” — to open yourself to the possibility of being transformed into something more, by the influence of God.
One of the issues which arises is: how we are to understand and experience this kind of transformation in our own practice of religion and spirituality?
The Gospel of John reports that a man named Nicodemus, an esteemed figure in the Jewish spiritual hierarchy, came to see Jesus one night. And Jesus spoke to him of spirituality as being “born again” – or born from above. Nicodemus, who had been a teacher in spiritual matters for a long time, had no idea what he was talking about. So Jesus asked a very pointed question, one which should be asked of anyone presumptuous enough to call themselves a spiritual leader: “Are you a teacher of God’s people and do not know this?”
It speaks to us of the futility of accumulating great knowledge about religious matters — a lot of information – without developing a deep relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ. We (clergy) think we know when really we don’t, and what’s worse, we lead other people to believe that we know, when we don’t. Faith and spirituality involve a particular kind of knowing, which I think we are just beginning to re-discover – even in the church.
In the church, we have been guilty of doing mental gymnastics, feeding people on concepts and intellectual trends rather than putting them in touch with something genuinely spiritual and transformational. In this sense we (clergy) have become like the Pharisees, who, though never entering the kingdom of heaven, would stand in the way, preventing others from getting there either. What stands in the way is our ego, our presumptuous attitude that we know best what actually happened or what could have happened. We declare what are the parameters of possibility, whereas as I always understood it, that is God’s prerogative.
I have been thinking recently about the phrase “fully human,” and what that might mean in terms of Jesus. One has only to be slightly honest or insightful to be able to admit we are not yet fully human, that in fact we are a long way from it.
According to some scientists, human beings have been evolving for something like eight million years. Yet even as recent as 500,000 years ago, a snap of the fingers in terms of the total age of the universe, you could argue that our ancestors were still much more like monkeys than men. But if, after evolving eight million years, we are only now at the point when we are using 10% of our brain capacity*, as many scientists have suggested, how many more million years would it be before we could fully begin to comprehend one who was “fully human,” not to mention “fully divine?” We may like to think of ourselves as the last of the line, the cream of the crop, but every indication suggests we have a LONG way to go.
I think it was more in this sense that St Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is in human beings fully alive.” Do we know what that means yet? St Paul, a profoundly mystical person, didn’t think so. He said, “now we see in a glass, darkly, but then we shall see face to face,” acknowledging our incomplete state here on earth. Though we don’t yet know what it means to be fully alive, when we are encouraged to open our minds and our hearts, we get inklings, intimations of our true glory, and of the greater glory of God. It is in this sense that we speak of the deceased moving toward the light, and moving into greater life. Many people “know” these things already – it is time the Church snapped out of its limited worldview and offered support and guidance for that kind of awareness, instead of ridicule.
Maybe what the Gospel writers are describing in the Transfiguration is what fully human life looks like. I do believe that Jesus reveals, and IS, the way to get to that place, and I believe the Transfiguration is meant to convey something of that promise and reality.
St Paul speaks of the importance of being true to the meaning of the sacred writings – the scriptures. “We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word,” he says. We have chosen the way of intellectual credibility to the point where whether the possibility that something is literally true is not even considered, yet we really have no idea what the mind is capable of yet. Maybe the many miracles attributed to Jesus are what is truly normal, and most of us simply don’t know how to operate on that level yet. Just because you haven’t been in love doesn’t mean love is an illusion. Just because all you can see is the trunk doesn’t mean an elephant is a snake. At least remain open to the possibility of greater things! It seems to me we should remember that through history it has often been people of faith – spiritual people – who have shown us new possibilities in human consciousness and capability. I think of Buddhist monks, and many of the Hindu yogis, and certainly many of the Christian saints, who displayed remarkable (and verifiable) phenomena. So, to me, it should go without saying that we should at least attempt to take seriously the phenomena that are credited to the founder of our faith, Jesus.
For me, the issue, as we read a passage like the Transfiguration, is not about whether we can understand it in some sense that satisfies our intellect, but whether in some real way we can experience it. I believe this is possible, and that what the New Testament exists to do is to enable and encourage people to enter into the spiritual reality in which Jesus himself dwelt.
Some of the Christian mystics speak of a process of unknowing — emptying ourselves of what we think we know of God, and the pride that goes with it, which only further separates us from God, so that we may become more open to the reality of God, and the possibility of becoming one with God.
The recent Diocesan Leadership School suggested a model of Gather-Transform-Send for the church. We seem to know how to gather people, but we have substituted information for transformation and so we are sending people out ill-equipped to engage the deep spiritual issues in their lives and the world around them. The key is transformation, so it is imperative that we shift to a discipleship and transformational model of being church.
The real job of the church is to be able to lead and guide people to the top of that mountain (in a spiritual sense), preparing their minds and hearts that they may be open to what the living God may reveal to them. When you have had that experience, as the scripture suggests, the ancient mysteries open up and become present and personal to you (as Moses and Elijah did to Jesus and the disciples). Otherwise, they are just a bunch of superstition, legends, fables, even nonsense.
When I was in seminary, there were times during the day when the sun would shine through the stained glass windows in the chapel and create these beautiful, warm patches of light in various places. I couldn’t really explain why they happened or whether they were somehow divinely arranged or if the Spirit prompted me to go there at certain times. I just knew that I wanted to be in that light, and that, as Peter suggested on the mountain, it was good to be there.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
*One real bit of irony is that many scientists are now claiming that the 10% theory is not true, even though people as eminent as Einstein proposed it, and these scientists are apparently annoyed and frustrated that people refuse to believe what they are saying.
RCL-appointed readings for Transfiguration Sunday:
Exodus 34:29-35 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.
Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Psalm 99 The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he! Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he! Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them. O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy.
1Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.