The Transfiguration of Our Lord has a particular relevance today. We live in a time where many wish they could have a more direct and personal encounter with our Lord. Meanwhile, traditional forms of worship are seen as 'cold, impersonal and putting a barrier to real relationship with Christ.' Many desire an experience of mysticism and the miraculous: the great popularity of healing services testify to this.
We are seeing movements in the church which advocate the direct reception of the Holy Spirit, and the practice of the glossalia talked of in St. Paul. We see apparitions of Our Lady multiplying around the world, with some developing a cult following completely outside the authority of the church. Some movements go as far as to say that those who do not have a personal and emotional encounter with Christ and the Spirit have not been saved.
All of this can be deeply embarrassing to many of us. Nevertheless it is worth bearing in mind that spiritual phenomena like this has existed throughout the history of the church. St. Philip Neri once received the Holy Spirit in his heart at Pentecost. St. Bernard used to heal with the sign of the cross. However they have a tendency to cause problems particularly with authority, and St. Paul himself does not seem to encourage the practice of glossalalia in his Epistles. In our day and age it is a major issue in the church: so how are we to deal with it?
The problem does not so much lie with the unusual and unconventional nature of all this. Let it be granted that this signs, wonders and miracles of the Spirit are part of the life of the mystical body of Christ. The real question seems to be of the desire to seek them. The Transfiguration gives us a salutary lesson: when Peter, James and John saw our Lord transfigured before them they were terrified. Peter's reaction, 'let us make three tents', may be an allusion to the fact that he was treating the figures before him like the Ark of the covenant in the old testament.
James and John were to later ask Our Lord to be seated on his left and on his right in his kingdom. Our Lord's answer is very pertinent: You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism I am baptised? (Mark 10:38) . The reality is we should never seek experiences, the miraculous, the mystical or direct personal encounter with Christ. Those who seek them do not know what they are asking for! A direct encounter with God is an awesome and frightening experience! Not only that: to share his life closely is to drink the cup that he must drink, that is to share in his sufferings.
The experience of genuine mystics, seers and spiritual writers is unanimous: all of them had to undergo the most untold sufferings in their divine mystical experiences. When St. Philip Neri received the Holy Spirit in his heart on Pentecost, he cried out, 'No more! No more, Lord. I cannot bear it!' St. John of the Cross underwent the dark night of the soul where he experienced the complete rejection of God. St. Faustina Kowalska was made to endure the pains of an aborted baby, as well as to experience the apparent wrath of God against her.
But not only that, the experience many great saints is that most of the time they found that their prayer was completely cold and dry. St. Therese of Liseaux for most of her life experienced almost no consolation in her prayers. And more recently it has come apparent how Blessed Teresa of Calcutta suffered so much from her complete sense of abandonment by God. Indeed Our Lord was to say to Thomas, 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.'
The church has traditionally always been very sceptical of emotional and mystical experiences, and for good reason. Quite apart from the fact that they may be false and deceits of the devil, it is very foolish to seek them. In her liturgy she has always downplayed emotion and strictly formalised prayer, seeming as it were to put Our Lord at a distance. It is not because she wishes to cut us off from him in any way. It is because she knows all too well who he is, and great fount of love and mercy he may be, he is also God and is terrifying.
Our Holy Father in Spe Salvi has alluded to this: he describes our judgement and purgatory as a direct personal encounter with the heart of Christ. His gaze seers us and reads into the bottom of our hearts and uncovers all our secrets and our sins. This is the reality of a personal relationship with Our Lord, the word made flesh, the God who has become man.
Scrutator alme cordium,
infirma tu scis virium.
Ad te reversis exhibe,
From Audi Benigne Conditor, hymn at vespers in Lent.
Monday, 18 February 2008
Of all the feasts of Our Lord, the Transfiguration is one that our holy mother the church commemorates twice: the main feast on August 6th (an excellent day to begin a novena for the Assumption) and yesterday, on the second Sunday in Lent. The church commemorates this to remind us of that we are preparing ourselves for Our Lord's resurrection and glorification at Easter.