Jesus , taking Peter and John and James, went up onto the mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzlingly white.Luke 9: 28-29
Yesterday I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts entitled Open Source. It was a discussion of the Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. Now I must admit that I am not greatly familiar with this person. I found interesting, however, that her “spiritual” perspective was being discussed as rooted not only in the work of Ram Dass but much earlier in American Transcendentalism, and especially in Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the commentators reflected that the tradition could be traced even much further than that in the western philosophical tradition and was rooted in the basic tenet that the realm of the spiritual was more “real” than that of the material.
Setting aside all the complexities of these associations, for example how much these more foundational traditions become transformed in their journey to the more recent “self-help” perspective, I found myself confirming my belief in the core principle concerning the spiritual and the material. Recently I have been reading from a work of Tim Parks entitled Out of My Head. Here Parks takes up the issues which we once assigned under the theme of “epistemology.” Is consciousness a totally subjective reality, existing only inside of our heads, or is it more relational, based on our sensing of the “things,” the objects we encounter? Is it all, in the final analysis, imaginary or is there such a thing as the “real”? When we extend this questioning to the realm of the “spiritual,” we find ourselves asking about the reality of the spiritual.
In our extremely secularized world, we are prone to forget the truth of Hamlet’s admonition: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(Hamlet, 1.5). Today’s Feast of the Transfiguration confronts us directly with the truth of the “more than.” While all the synoptic gospels recount this event, Luke’s particular perspective is that It occurs in an experience of prayer. Adrian van Kaam says that the ground of all of our human experience is spirit and spiritual reality, but that it is in prayer that we make that ground figural. We act and think most of the time as materialists. Yet, we know there is more to life and reality than merely the material. We can forget this, however, sometimes relatively permanently, unless we practice bringing into focus that spiritual ground of being. This we do in what we call prayer.
As a professed religious, I am often asked by others to pray for them. And, often, I promise to others to pray for them. What am I really doing when I make this promise? What does it mean to promise another that we shall pray for them or for one they love? Certainly we are not promising that we have the power to create a certain outcome. We are not asserting that God is somehow a whimsical master who will change course based on our words. Rather, we are promising to open ourselves and those we carry with us to the more than that is spiritual truth. In the Transfiguration, the disciples awaken to the glory of the one who will be crucified. Moses and Elijah speak “of his departure which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9: 31) Yet as they speak of this unspeakable horror in the material sense, Jesus‘ face and clothing radiate the glory of its spiritual truth. In prayer we pass from our thoughts to God’s thoughts, from our ways to God’s ways.
In the Transfiguration narrative, Peter represents the consciousness of most of us. Given a glimpse of spiritual reality, he wants to hold onto and control it. He wants to build three tents so that the glorified Jesus, Moses, and Elijah will remain with them. There is no better teacher of prayer in our tradition than St. Teresa of Avila. The simplicity and directness of her style describe accessibly the experience of the Divine that touches us, body and soul, in prayer. In God’s time and according to God’s will, we know the Divine life that is at the core of our being and in which we all “live and move and have our being.” As Teresa points out, however, we cannot create this awareness nor can we hold on to it. By the grace of God, however, we can enter into this dwelling place of the Spirit that is both the ground of all being and the ongoing communion with our own spirit.
One of our greatest “problems” in the life of prayer is that we, like Peter, want to manipulate and control spiritual reality, fitting it into our comfortable and materialistic view of life. We want to use prayer as a mode of evasion of the way that we must walk. In the gospel, there is no separating Jesus’ way to Jerusalem and the crucifixion from the Transfiguration. The glory of God lies in Jesus’ obedient living through and carrying out of his life call. So too with us. Teresa points out how in the early stages of prayer we are seeing the feelings and consolations we associate with prayer. Therefore, God will at times allow us such feelings and at others withhold them. We are no less afflicted by the threat of spiritual narcissism than of all the other manifestations of self-centeredness. As Thomas Merton has made clear in our own time, it is we ourselves who stand as the obstacle to our presence to the real, to the world and life of the Spirit. We long to recognize the truth, and yet our own self-preoccupation is forever in the way.
In my own experience, it seems as if the older I get the more I question my own perceptions of things. Because the “truth” is always so much more than my comprehension of it, it becomes increasingly difficult to be assured of my own sense of reality. Tim Parks describes the view that “the brain and body, in contact with the world, allow experience , or mind, or consciousness, to happen, but the experience is not located in the body or the brain. It’s outside. The object is the experience.” (Out of My Head, p. 79). In Adrian van Kaam’s view, we are a field of formation. And so “experience,” the call to become at each moment of life, comes through the field of forces that is constituted by myself as relationship to world, situation, others and my own inner life. Pulsing underneath every “experience,” however, is the Divine call, the reality of myself and all that is as grounded in the Divine life. God speaks and calls in every moment, in every “experience,” and it is in a prayerful presence to life that we are able to discern that call.
Hamlet, of course, is correct. Everything is always more than it first appears to be, and more meaning-filled than our limited personal perspective can recognize. As spirit, however, we can grasp life more fully than we can rationally and functionally. Jesus, at every moment, is able to say that he does only what he sees his Father doing. He does not need to build tents for himself, Moses, and Elijah because he recognizes the vertical dimension of call in every experience. We, however, are like the disciples who are asleep and only awaken to absorb, for a brief moment, that God is in this place. What we call prayer is an awakening to the depth dimension of human life and experience. It is when what the Father is doing becomes, for a moment, focal for us.
Perhaps the diminishment of our rational-functional potencies condition the possibility of the growth of our transcendent form potency. When I bring another to prayer, I cease defending against the painful and the difficult in human life. I bring their suffering and my incomprehension before God, that somehow they may come to see what they are going through in the light of God’s love. This is not an act of manipulation or of magic. It is rather a loving willingness to cease evading the truth, trusting in faith in God’s work and God’s ways. It is opening to the “more than” that in my usual busyness and self-preoccupation I ignore. It is opening to the Mystery of life and world, a reality so much more than the constricted space from which I most often judge and act.
We read in Exodus of the radiance of Moses’ face as he came down from the mountain and of his need to veil his face as the people could not bear its brightness. In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul says that in the Incarnation of Jesus the veil has been removed, that we can now bear the glory of God because it has shown itself in human form in Jesus. Now, he says, we reflect, with unveiled faces, the brightness of the Lord. “And we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3: 18) We believe that the glory of God is transforming us, day by day, moment by moment, into the image of God, that is Jesus himself, whom we reflect. There is a work of continual transformation occurring in us and in the world. It is possible for us to attune to that work, but only in a mode where we relinquish our demand for dominance and control. That mode of presence is what we call prayer.
It seems that since that heavenly water begins to rise from this spring I’m mentioning that is deep within us, it swells and expands our whole interior being, producing ineffable blessings; nor does the soul even understand what is given to it there. It perceives a fragrance, let us say for now as though there were in that interior depth a brazier giving off sweet-smelling perfumes. No light is seen, nor is the place seen where the brazier is; but the warmth and the fragrant fumes spread through the entire soul and even often enough, as I have said, the body shares in them. See now that you understand me; no heat is felt, nor is there the scent of any perfume, for the experience is more delicate than an experience of these things; but I use the examples only so as to explain it to you. And let persons who have not experienced these things understand that truthfully they do happen and are felt in this way, and that the soul understands them in a manner clearer than is my explanation right now. This spiritual delight is not something that can be imagined, because however diligent our efforts, we cannot acquire it. The very experience of it makes us realize that it is not of the same metal as we ourselves but fashioned from the purest gold of the divine wisdom. Here, in my opinion, the faculties are not united but absorbed and looking as though in wonder at what they see.Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, The Fourth Dwelling Places, Chapter II, 6