Today’s Feast has long been a favorite of monks–especially those of Eastern Orthodoxy. This is not surprising, considering that monastic life is ideally immersed in the Divine penetrating all of reality with its life-giving presence. And in the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John were given a privileged glimpse of that omnipresent divinity breaking through the humble created humanity of their beloved Master. That this occurred before the Resurrection and Pentecost is significant for what it teaches us about the unmerited mercy and goodness of God. I say this because such privileged encounters with the divine are commonly associated with advanced holiness that is the fruit of years of spiritual practice, ascetic discipline and growth in virtue.
However, at this stage Peter, James and John were really only beginners in Christian discipleship and far from spiritually mature. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too long after this Mount Tabor experience that at least two of these disciples would abandon their Lord and Master at the time of his arrest–Peter actually denying that he knew the one he had beheld so magnificently transfigured! That this privilege was granted to such still imperfect disciples is thus an important reminder that profound mystical experiences are not necessarily signs of holiness and that even if we are holy, we are not automatically entitled to such graced encounters with the divine.
Instead the initiative is always God’s and not infrequently God illustrates this by inundating with special manifestations of his love those whose lives have little that is praiseworthy or meritorious. Such was the case of Zacchaeus as well as the so-called good thief crucified with Jesus, and was promised the joy and glory of paradise in what seems to have been a last minute conversion on the cross. This was a very practical illustration of that parable of Jesus concerning those employed in the Master’s vineyard at the eleventh hour who, nevertheless, earned the same wages as those who had toiled all day.
Remembering this is important for those whose spiritual journey seems bereft of anything that might be termed extraordinary or mystical. A spiritual path that is all too ordinary and whose apparent monotony is rarely if ever broken by anything vaguely resembling the Transfiguration, can be simplistically attributed to personal sinfulness and unworthiness. And when someone is actually diligently trying to overcome their sinfulness and grow in holiness, this explanation can be very discouraging and undermine resolve and perseverance.
It is, of course, natural to feel that experiencing something like the Transfiguration would radically alter your life and empower you to finally break with sin and attain to that inner liberation that is the hallmark of sanctity and being a child of God. The post-Transfiguration behavior of Peter, James and John show us that this is not necessarily true. So, too, we recall that the ancient Israelites who rebelled against God in the desert did so despite witnessing the awesome power and miracles in leading them out of the land of Egypt.
And so, two cautionary messages from today’s Feast: the first is that if God is blessing you with special and extraordinary experiences of his presence and action in your life, don’t presume it’s because you’re holy. On the other hand, if despite sincere efforts at ongoing conversion your journey remains devoid of any transfiguration-like experience, then trust God’s wisdom and love who arranges all things in such a way as to maximize your potential for growing in holiness and union with him. In addition, draw comfort from the thought that this simple and very ordinary path entitles you to a deeper claim on God’s leniency and mercy, as we recall Jesus’ caution that much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.