The Transfiguration is a vision of divine love that allows us to see one another as we really are.
A street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, has an unusual historical marker. It’s a cast-metal sign with a little scrollwork at the top. The raised letters describe the significance of something that happened at that particular place.
The big capital letters at the top say: “A REVELATION,” and it goes on to commemorate a spiritual vision.
The visionary was Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the best-selling spiritual writers of the 20th century.
When Merton entered the order, he was a graduate student in English at Columbia University. He surprised everyone he knew by announcing he’d received a call from God to become a monk. Off he went to the Gethsemani Monastery of the Trappist order, just outside Louisville. It would be his home for the rest of his life.
Merton didn’t always have an easy time keeping his vows. He had a keen interest in the world outside the monastery. He struggled to reconcile his contemplative life with what he could be doing out there in society, working for causes he was passionate about: civil rights and nuclear disarmament. He wrote about these struggles in a number of bestselling books about the spiritual life.
On March 18, 1958, standing on that very street corner, watching the crowds of shoppers and office workers surge past him on the sidewalk, Merton had a vision he felt was from God. Here’s how he describes it in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
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 those 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 ... I have the immense joy of being [human], a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now 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.1
Think of that: All of us, as we run our errands, sit at our computers or open a can of soup in the kitchen, are shining brightly like the sun. And we don’t even know it! If the witness of the scriptures is true, then the part of us that’s most truly real is, by the blessing of God, holy. We’re clay from the riverbank scooped up by the hands of the Creator, molded into God’s own image and infused with the breath of divine life. Because of that — at least in God’s sight — we do shine like the sun.
Let’s leave the Trappist monk, for now, and see what a scientist has to say about such a wonder. A physicist by the name of Arnold Benz spends his days looking deep within the very molecules of which we’re made:
The carbon and oxygen in our bodies stem from the helium combustion zone of an old star. Two silicon nuclei, merged in the early phase of a supernova explosion, became the iron in our blood’s hemoglobin. The calcium in our teeth formed out of a supernova out of oxygen and silicon. The fluoride with which we brush our teeth was produced in a rare neutrino interaction with neon. The iodine in our thyroid glands arose through neutron capture at the onset of a supernova. We are connected with the development of stars and are ourselves part of the cosmic history.2
Maybe that’s what poet and songwriter Joni Mitchell was thinking as she wrote these lines of the song “Woodstock,” made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young:
Well I came across a child of God, he was walking along the road
And I asked him, tell where are you going, this he told me:
Well, I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock-and-roll band.
Got to get back to the land, set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Today’s reading is about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here’s how a physicist might conceive of what happened: Jesus reached into himself to the very core of his being to that dark realm where electrons orbit nuclei. Deep within those minute molecules, each one a solar system unto itself, there’s a luminescent playground of subatomic particles. These blink into life for a millionth of a second — quicker than the quickest of shooting stars — before winking out again. Each bright explosion is succeeded by another, and another, until that shadowy realm is illumined by dancing energy, the holy fire at the center of all things. Reaching deep into himself, not with the fingers of his hand but with the power of his will, Jesus grasped that very light and pulled it outward — until the fire within became the fire without.
Have you ever lain upon a beach, warm light falling full upon your face, eyes closed tightly against the blinding light of the sun? You can see the inside of your eyelids. They seem to glow red. Maybe this is the sensation Peter, James and John experience as the cool darkness of night suddenly vanishes, pushed back by the man-shaped star standing a short distance away.
They shield their eyes with their forearms. They have to look away or be blinded. But they’ve seen just enough to know it’s their master, as they have never seen him before.
Beside Jesus are standing two other figures — star-men like himself. Somehow the disciples know them to be Moses and Elijah — the greatest of the prophets. Great because, in their time, they had talked directly with God.
Peter feels the urge to fill the luminous silence with speech, but the words that come out of his mouth are foolish beyond all belief: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents:, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
None of the three pay the least attention to his words, because, even then, a bright cloud — the holy wonder the Hebrew scriptures call the shekinah — is descending from heaven, surrounding these three prophets of God. From the cloud emerges a voice, beautiful beyond all beauty and infinitely old: “This is my Son, the beloved: listen to him!”
And with that, the light winks out, restoring the mountaintop to its natural darkness. A few minutes pass before their eyes fully adjust to the blackness. In time, they see again the moon and the stars winking down at them. Silhouetted by their celestial light, they see their Lord walking toward them, a mere man as he’s always been — yet, now, in their estimation, more than a man.
Who dwells on a mountaintop, anyway? There’s no living to be scratched, there, from the piles of rock at the summit. There’s no spring of water, no roof to shelter under — unless it’s a rude lean-to of the sort Peter offers to build. No, mountaintops are not for dwelling. They’re for visiting — and for visions.
The question is, for us, in our spiritual lives: can we carry such visions down from the mountain, as we pick our way back down the winding trail, to the plain where people dwell?
In just a few days — on Ash Wednesday this year, when worlds collide — it will also be Valentine’s Day: that gentle holiday of flowers and hearts and boxes of chocolates; of dinners by candlelight — and, for the younger set, stacks of those punched-out cardboard valentines, exchanged with everyone else in the class. Maybe, too, a handful of those chalky heart-shaped sweetheart candies stamped with mildly flirtatious sayings: “CRAZY 4 YOU,” “BE MINE” and “OH YOU KID.”
It’s easy to be in love on Valentine’s Day — or, at least, to play at it. It’s far harder to sustain committed love for another person, over time, through all the ups and downs and crazy detours of life.
The preacher Peter Marshall was thinking of just this sort of love — love for the long haul — as he spoke these words to a couple on their wedding day:
We are souls living in bodies. Therefore when we really fall in love, it’s not just physical attraction. If it is just that, it won’t last. Ideally, it’s also spiritual attraction. God has opened our eyes and let us see into someone’s soul. We have fallen in love with the inner person, the person who is going to live forever. That’s why God is the greatest asset to romance. [God] thought it up in the first place. Include [the Lord] in every part of your marriage, and [God] will lift it above the level of the mundane to something rare and beautiful and lasting.3
Truer words have never been spoken, for marriage or any other loving relationship. Part of the secret to loving another deeply and well is this very matter we’ve been considering today: spiritual vision. Such vision — which depends not on the eyes at all — permits those who are married to glimpse their beloved, ever so briefly, as the spiritual being he or she truly is. It matters not that the measured stride of the beloved grows halting, the grip grows weak, the eyesight grows dim. For that spiritual being is ageless. Its blazing form is eternal, immutable.
As it says in the First Letter of John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”4
“We will be like him.” It’s not unlike the epiphany, the mystical vision, experienced by that celibate monk Thomas Merton in 1958, as he stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. Those people around him, he perceived, were not as they seemed: “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
It is a rare and precious thing to glimpse such glory. Yet, now and again — if we are attentive to things unseen — we too may be so blessed as to catch a flicker of the way things really are, in this God-dreamed universe of passionate, fiery love!
1 Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (Paulist, 1992), 144-145.
2 Arnold Benz, The Future of The Universe: Chance, Chaos, God? (Continuum, 2002), 32-33.
3 Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter (Chosen Books, 2002), 73.
4 1 John 3:2.