Readings: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:20-4:1; Luke 9:28-36
Purported visions of Jesus, Our Lady, or one of the saints, typically result in the site of visions becoming a place of pilgrimage for the curious and faithful alike. This is not surprising considering that our Christian faith is just that: faith and not sight. Accordingly, supernatural phenomena such as apparitions and divine messages can be sought to augment what sometimes feel like our weak and wavering faith. We can thus sympathize with Abram who similarly sought a sign from God that he would possess the so-called “Promised Land.” I draw attention to this tendency because several spiritual masters–John of the Cross being an obvious example–strongly caution against either seeking visions or taking ant that occur seriously.
One concern is the fact that some have been led astray by demonically-inspired visions while others have simply been victims of hallucinations. Perhaps you recall the tragic example of the Desert Father, who, without adequate discernment, obeyed the instruction given him in a vision to cast himself down a well–being assured that the angels would bear him up so that he would come to no harm. Sad to say he was being deceived by demons and as a result fell to his death. However, this possibility of being led astray and deceived is not the only reason spiritual masters warn against seeking out visions or trusting inner voices. Today’s gospel account of the Transfiguration suggests additional reasons.
To begin with, there is no indication that the mysterious vision of Christ’s glory was something sought by Peter, James and John. The gospel simply says that they went up the mountain to pray and while they were praying, [Jesus’] face changed in appearance and his clothes became dazzling white. In other words, the Transfiguration was purely the initiative of God and was neither sought nor expected–indeed it came as a terrifying surprise. And so another concern is that seeking visions of the divine sometimes betrays a disrespectful regard for God’s freedom in his relationship with us and forgetting that only God can invite us and bring us into deeper intimacy with himself.
But a second and more crucial concern with visions, voices and other paranormal experiences is that they are, at best, mediated and spiritually diluted encounters with God. And so, as long as it was only Moses and Elijah, the apostles were able to behold these two great men–albeit in a partial and illuminated way–precisely because Moses and Elijah were and are fundamentally human. However, when the apostles encountered the Father, as with Abram, a dark cloud descended upon them and no vision was granted but only a voice was heard confirming Jesus as the Father’s beloved Son. This is not God trying to remain mysterious or proving unwilling to show his face. As with Moses who begged to see God’s face, the apostles were simply incapable of seeing God’s face in their still limited and time-bound condition. However John would later assert that this still limited human condition would gradually be transformed by our becoming like him so that we shall see him as he is because we shall [have become] like him.
Seeking out visions and voices still perceived only by our outer senses is thus to reject–albeit out of ignorance–this becoming like God and being able to see him as he truly is. In the imagery of Saint Paul, it is to persist in being spiritually nourished by milk and not solid food. Eschewing visions and signs by embracing the dark walk of faith and journeying trustingly within the enveloping cloud of God’s mystery is to partake of that solid food by which we will be transformed and transfigured into Christ. Then, having become like God, our erstwhile weary eyes will finally gaze upon the infinite beauty and glory of the Father’s face–a glimpse of which was given to three privileged men on the heights of Tabor in the face of his beloved and transfigured Son.