Called to Pray
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. February 28, 2021
Have you ever had an experience in your life so wonderful, you didn’t want it to ever end? Often, they are very short-lived experiences – a beautiful sunset, the feeling of connection with a friend, the ecstasy of falling in love, an exceptionally fine glass of wine, a beautiful dream from which you wake up, an inflow of strength in the midst of a trial, a quiet moment after communion or during a walk in the sunshine where you feel a sense of inner peace: at one with God, at one with the universe.
Then, as suddenly as the experience comes … it goes. No matter how hard you try, you cannot cling to it, cannot possess it. It evaporates, slips away out of our grasp. Before you know it – it’s gone.
These moments in our lives can be called TRANSFIGURATIONS. They lift us up out of the cynicism and busyness of our everyday lives. Through them, we are graced with the awareness of God's glory in the very heart of our experience. And in our full and busy lives, these moments can seem very few and far between. Sometimes we're so busy, so preoccupied by our many concerns and projects, we fail to see them. Eventually, we can even give up looking for them, stop believing that they are possible. Too easily, we lose that last and most precious of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: our sense of wonder and awe, our very ability to see the glory of God in the middle of the hustle and bustle of our busy lives.
There's another trap we can fall into: that of pursuing those moments, trying to cling to them, using them as a form of escape. Sort of like Peter in today's Gospel. Peter wants to build tents: settle in for the night. He liked what he was seeing and feeling: he wanted to prolong the experience, to control it, to make it last as long as possible. I can understand that. It's the feeling I sometimes have at the end of a really good film, or listen to a great song that stirs my soul, or when I sail to the bottom of a gentle slope when I go cross-country skiing in the woods on my day off. Then I pray my own version of “Lord, it is good to be here”: Here! Now! Yes!
It's the feeling we often have at the end of a holiday when we know it's back to work (or school) on Monday. We are going into “spring break” this coming week, and in this most strange of years, perhaps the most “transfiguring” experience we can expect is an outdoor socially-distanced skating party or a popcorn-free afternoon movie! But once we've begun to cling to an experience, once we think we have some inherent right to have it, to own it, to control it, we cease seeing it for what it really is: a gift from God. It's like chasing after a butterfly, or catching a soap bubble, or tracking a deer in the woods – you capture the butterfly, and crush it; you touch the bubble, it bursts; you come one step too close, and the deer disappears.
When we think of the Transfiguration as depicted in today’s Gospel, we tend to see it visually, as in Raphael’s famous painting of this scene in the Vatican Museums: Jesus floating in the sky, clothed in white, dazzlingly brilliant; Moses on the right, holding the Tablets of the Law; Elijah on the left; the three awestruck disciples cowering on the mountaintop. We see the glory. But we forget is the subject of their conversation: Jesus' "departure", his coming suffering and death in Jerusalem. This is the flip side of the Transfiguration: union with Christ in his glory also means union with Christ in his suffering. A piece of news that Jesus' disciples – Peter in particular – had great difficulty accepting.
In her essay “Ministry to a Wounded World`, Benedictine Sister and modern-day prophet Joan Chittister speaks of the significance of this passage of Jesus` transfiguration. She comments on Jesus’ choice to identify himself not with David the King or Aaron the Priest, but with Moses the Liberator and Elijah the Prophet. Christian ministry is not just about keeping the structures running smoothly and providing comforting rituals, but rather about setting people free from what binds them, about prophetically challenging the root causes of the injustices that still plague so many peoples and nations. She writes:
“Of course, the call to Christian ministry presupposes a long journey up the mountain to find God. But it also means that we cannot build a spiritual life and expect to stay on top of our pious and antiseptic little mountains. The call of the spiritual life, the call of ministry, is the call to take all the insights into Christ and his life that we have gained on our private little mountains to the grasping, groaning world of our own time, with a deeper awareness of the root causes of its suffering, its demons.
What does it mean to minister today – on a new mountaintop, a new millennium, a new moment in history? It means awareness, authenticity, and transfiguration. It means being willing to be transformed, so that the world may be transformed into the image of Jesus, the Liberator.”
I sometimes wonder "why" Jesus asked Peter, James and John to be with him on the mountain that day. Perhaps he felt that it would be easier for his friends to understand and accept his destiny, his decision to be faithful to his Father even unto death, if they had a taste of the glory of the Resurrection to come. At that time, the disciples could only see the glory; they weren't ready to face the Cross. But I guess Jesus knew that somehow, this event, this experience would register. That even if they couldn't see it then, eventually they would understand that his glory and his Cross were not opposed, mutually exclusive, but just two different expressions of his total love for us, two successive steps in his promised victory over sin and death.
As a foretaste of the death and Resurrection of Jesus, in which we rise to new life in him, Jesus' Transfiguration is a call to us to allow our own lives to be transformed, to be infused with a new hope, a new light. And in a sense, this is what Lent is really all about. Lent is a season of transformation, a time where we invite the Lord to transform us, where we make room for him in our hearts and our lives. Lent is also a time where we are empowered to accept the totality of our lives - even the Crosses - because we know that God has revealed his glory to us, that his Resurrection is a promise we can count on.
Lent is also a season for prayer. While he is at prayer, Jesus is transfigured. Throughout the Gospels, whenever Jesus has an important decision to make, a special message to share with his disciples, a sign of great significance to perform, Jesus prays first.
He goes off - to a lonely place, often a mountaintop - to be silent, to discern, to reconnect with his Father and thus know his will. Are we not called to do the same - to find in the midst of our busy days even a few precious minutes, where we awaken to the presence of the God who dwells within us?
Prayer is not an anaesthetic against the more painful realities of life, a way of escaping from the very real challenges which lie before us. We don't pray for the "high" it gives us; we pray in order to be in intimate relationship with the Creator, we pray that we might be renewed, strengthened for whatever mission in life God has entrusted to us. We pray not in order to change God. We pray in order to give God a chance to change us. And we need to be changed, because when we come down from the mountain, we inevitably meet someone in need: of healing, of friendship, of justice, of love. Someone who needs a share of the gift we have just received.
In his famous "I have a dream" speech, Martin Luther King proclaimed, "I've been to the mountaintop ... and I've seen the glory." But for Dr. King, the mountain was not a nice, safe refuge from the pain and strife of a messy, often unjust world; the dream was not a fantasy world into which he escaped, but a profound belief that the universal brotherhood for which he had prayed and worked for so long would one day be a reality - in God's time, if not his own. He knew that the path to glory led through the Cross. He also knew that at the bottom of the mountain, we confront a world filled with pain and suffering, in need of compassion and love. Prayer strengthens us for the essential task of responding to this world.
We too must dream the dream; during this time of Lent, we too are called to go to the mountaintop with the Lord, to embrace the totality of our lives, including our suffering; to see his glory. In the words of St. Paul today, let us remember that NOTHING – no suffering, no trial, no hardship, no sin, no frailty, no weakness – can ever separate us from the love of Christ, who was willing to lay down even his own life so that we might live – here on earth, in abundance, and in the infinite and eternal life that awaits us in his glory, So let us journey up to the mountain with Jesus, that we too may be transfigured with him.