This essay originally appeared on the website of Jim and Nancy Forest in March 2009. We are grateful to the author for permission to reprint it here—Ed.
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only. (Mark 9:1–8)
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As is usual in the shortest of Gospels, Christ’s Transfiguration is described by Mark with great economy—one prefatory verse with Jesus saying that some of those who were present would see the kingdom of God coming in power before they die, then seven verses on the Transfiguration. Not a wasted word, yet the importance of the event is not diminished. Both Matthew and Luke provide similar accounts of the same event.
In the Orthodox Church, to which my wife and I belong, a great deal of attention and reflection is focused on the Transfiguration. I doubt there is an Orthodox Church anywhere in the world in which you will fail to find a Transfiguration icon. The celebration has its own special day on the calendar, August 6. It’s one of the more important commemorations. There is a custom, dating from the early Church but with Jewish roots, of bringing grapes, dates, figs, wine and bread to the church that day for a special blessing after the Liturgy—then everyone shares in the food that was blessed. If grapes are not available locally, apples and other fruits are brought instead.
Here are a few examples of the Transfiguration icon. The first is modern, the others mainly Russian examples that dates from the 16th Century, but also one Coptic icon. While there are many variations of the Transfiguration icon, the basic elements are always the same. On either side of Jesus are the prophet Elijah and the law-giver Moses, the three standing on top of a mountain, and in the foreground the three apostles who are witnesses—John, James and Peter—each shown responding in a different way. In every version, there a suggestion of blinding light emerging from Christ. Some iconographers show this one way, some another. Occasionally black is used—one way of suggesting that the light is not the sort of light we’ve ever seen before. The Orthodox theological term is “uncreated light,” the light of divinity.
The challenge of iconography in general is to create an image that exists on the razor-thin border dividing “realistic” art from “abstract” art. In that sense, this oldest form of Christian art has become quite modern. It’s a tradition that inspired some of Chagall’s most well-known paintings in the last century—a world where lovers are no longer subject to gravity and where the rules of perspective are ignored or even tuned inside out.
Icons are intentionally two-dimensional. This helps the viewer realize that the event or person portrayed cannot be portrayed as in a snapshot. There is a conscious avoidance of any suggestion of motion—on the contrary, there is absolute stillness, profound silence and timelessness. What one “sees” in an icon is as much a mystical experience as it is an historical event.
In this instance, Jesus has allowed his three closest followers to have a revelation of the Kingdom of God even though they haven’t died. And what is the kingdom of God about which Christ has spoken so often throughout his ministry? It’s being permitted to see, even if only briefly, who Jesus Christ really is. Implied in the event is not only seeing Christ with eyes wide open, eyes freed for a time to see things more truly, but being made aware of own transfiguration and the transfiguration of all matter.
It’s a bit like the resurrection. In Christ’s resurrection, we see our own resurrection, just as the first light of dawn prefigures noon. It isn’t only Christ who is transfigured. We are intended to share in it. It isn’t only Christ who rises from death. We are intended to share in that as well.
Both the three Gospel accounts and all the Transfiguration icons are about the discovery that the “reality” we think we are seeing so completely day after day is actually only a faint, incomplete, fog-shrouded sketch of reality—reality that is seen, in St Paul’s phrase, “through a glass darkly.” No matter how acute our eyesight, in fact we are living most of our lives on the frontier of blindness. Like the disciples Peter, James and John, there is so much we don’t see, so much we don’t hear.
It’s a little like one of my favorite scenes in the film E.T. A visitor from a distant planet is in the kitchen along with mom and her two children. The kids are well aware of the presence of this extraterrestrial botanist—but not mom. There this very odd-looking visitor stands, right next to the refrigerator. Mom, her arms full of groceries, opens the refrigerator door and in the process knocks E.T. over—thud—but she is too preoccupied to notice. There is an amazing visitor in the house, odder than odd, but she doesn’t see what, as far as she is concerned, couldn’t possibly be there. What can’t be isn’t. E.T. is off her radar.
The principal theologians of the early Church saw in the Transfiguration a promise. In the words of St. Athanasius, “God became a human being so that we human beings might become God.” The Greek word is “theosis.” We could translate that as deification. We are intended to enter more and more deeply into the sacred, into holiness. We are called to participate in Christ’s divinity. It’s an astounding idea. We are not just window-shoppers who get to look though the plate glass and see Christ on the other side, close but untouchable. We are meant to cross what seems to be an uncrossable barrier—to rub the glass so thin it isn’t there anymore. Through God’s grace and our God-given longing, the glass wall evaporates, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a flash. It’s what St. Paul means when he speaks of how “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye.”
One of the most important texts in the Book of Genesis is the declaration that Adam and Eve, the fountainhead of the human race, were made in the image and likeness of God. Part of the way our transfiguration occurs is in our becoming more and more capable of seeing the image of God in other people, and not just in the attractive people, the people whose company we seek out, but in people we don’t especially like or even dislike, people whom we avoid, unattractive strangers, potentially dangerous people, people whom we might think of as our enemies.
Let me give you an example of what that conversion of vision looked like in the life of one person, Thomas Merton. You may have heard of him or even have read one or two of his books. You may even guess the story I am thinking of. It’s often called the Epiphany at Fourth and Walnut.
Fourth and Walnut is a busy intersection in downtown Louisville. It’s the spring of 1958. Here’s Thomas Merton, in the city on an errand, one of many people waiting for the light to change. He’s not in his monk’s robes—these would only be worn at the monastery where he has been living since 1941. He’s inconspicuously dressed in the black clothing of a Catholic priest. He appears to be no one special—in Louisville there are many Catholic priests—but probably a few people in the crowd would have recognized his name and perhaps have read his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. It’s a book in which Merton described growing up in a artistic, bohemian family, his eventual conversion to Christianity in its Catholic form, and finally his becoming a Trappist monk who left the world with a slam of the door.
Here’s what Merton has to say about what happened to him while waiting for the light to turn green:
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, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. . . .
There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . There are no strangers! . . . If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. . . .
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.
I have no program for this seeing. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Think about it. We all know what’s it’s like to be waiting for a light to change. Probably you’re not in the best of moods. You may even be irritated—you have places to go and things to do and not much time and the bloody light is red. It’s not a condition of mind that would seem to clear the way for a mystical experience. Yet somehow it was the right moment in Merton’s life for a transfiguration. It might have taken just ten or twenty seconds, maybe less. Time seemed to stop. He wasn’t standing in expectation of something special occurring that day. But then the fog suddenly lifted and he saw something he had never seen before. It’s wasn’t a pious thought or fantasy but an intense experience of God-illumined reality.
It’s a vision to long for. All these people, none of them known to you by name, none of them familiar, none of them out of the ordinary—and we see them as bearers of the image of God.
One of the phrases Merton uses in his description is that “it was like waking from a dream of separateness.” All the barriers that we imagine separate us from each other—gone.
It’s an experience not just of the other as a person known to God and beloved of God, but an experience of God. To see God’s image in another is to be aware that we are, here and now, in the presence of God.
Here’s how one of the monks of the early Church, St. Dorothea of Gaza, put it. “Be aware. The further we are from each other, the further we are from God. The closer we are to each other, the closer we are to God.”
In Merton’s case, while waiting for the light to turn green, he was freed from the illusion that, by virtue of his monastic vocation, he belonged a category of people—holy monks—who were dearer to God than those with more ordinary vocations.
What happened to Merton afterward was a great turning toward the world. Not that he was less a monk. Not at all. But Merton began to better understand that monastic life is not a life that exempts the monk from love of neighbor so that he can concentrate more single-heartedly on love of God. Merton was 44 that day. He was totally unaware that he had only ten years left before his death. 1968 would be his last year of life in this world.
What he did in that last decade of his life had a great deal to do with responding to his eye-opening moment at Fourth and Walnut. He began corresponding with a lot more people. One of them was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement with its many houses of hospitality for street people. She was also editor of a newspaper that challenged its readers to live lives of hospitality with all that hospitality implies, a life built on seeing Christ in the least person. Merton began to see that all the preparations for nuclear war that had been going on since the end of World War II posed an issue which he, as a Christian writer, could not ignore.
The lead article in the October 1961 issue of The Catholic Worker was the first of a series of articles by Merton on our duty as Christians to strive with all our power and intelligence, with all our faith, all our hope in Christ, and love for God and neighbor, “to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war.”
In 1961, the Cold War being arctic cold, there were many people not at all pleased that Thomas Merton was writing about such matters—a monk criticizing his nation’s military policies, a monk protesting nuclear weapons, a monk condemning war. Who does he think he is? Write about the rosary, please, not about war. The consequences made the years that followed far from easy for Merton. Six months later, he was forbidden to publish a book he had written, Peace in the Post-Christian Era. It finally got into print just a few years ago, more than four decades after it was written.
Even so, when one door is locked, another opens, and one door leads to another. Merton’s peace work continued if much of it in a more intimate form. By the time Merton died, he had become one of the rare Catholics of the time who were in frequent contact with all sorts of people Catholics in those days—not to say Catholic monks—would ordinarily ignore and avoid: Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, believers and non-believers, even a fellow writer in Russia, Boris Pasternak.
Merton became one of the great letter writers. Happily, a great many of his letters are now available in books. Merton has died but not his voice. His letters are still being delivered to anyone who wishes to receive them.
The point here is not to single out Merton as one of those rare souls who gets to see something many of us can hardly imagine exists, but rather to stress the point that all of us are intended to see the world around us more clearly than we do, and that means seeing in others the presence of God no matter how thoroughly it may be hidden.
Consider ordinary moments on ordinary days and how much we look at the people around us through narrowed eyes.
You’re walking down a street and see a man in stained clothing sitting on the pavement, a paper coffee cup in front of him. As you pass by, he asks if you could contribute something toward his next meal. Though unshaven and in need of a shower, he’s young and muscular, apparently healthy and capable of working. You’ve just walked past a dozen help-wanted signs. What thoughts pass through your mind? What do you see? Who do you see? How do you respond?
As the sun is setting you notice several teenagers down the street, speaking abusively in voices that can be heard 50 yards away. They seem to be looking for trouble. What do you think and feel as you look at them? Do you continue on the same path or find an alternate route? What do you see? Who do you see? How do you respond?
You turn on the news and hear a report concerning the murder of a young woman. There’s a photo of her taken from her high school year book—a beautiful face and bright smile, a face full of life and promise. She reminds you of your own children. Based on information from witnesses, a drawing of a man seen running from the crime scene is shown along with a telephone number you should call if you have seen anyone resembling the suspect. You are warned not to approach him as he is regarded as armed and dangerous. The drawing lingers in your mind. What are your thoughts about the man being sought? When you look at his picture, what do you see? Who do you see? How do you respond?
It is in such ordinary moments that we need transfigured eyes—not only to see the ruined state of so many people around us, but that hidden person who, for all that has gone wrong in his or her life, is beloved by God but probably hasn’t been very fortunate in being loved and cared for by human beings.
Maybe this is something we need to pray for, even on a daily basis. Let me leave you with this brief prayer:
Lord, please give me transfigured eyes. Give me a readiness to see in others a little of what you see in them, so that I might respond in such a way that your love may be more evident, and that my fear will not get in the way of your love.
Jim Forest is the author of numerous books, including Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh; Writing Straight With Crooked Lines: A Memoir; The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers; and At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Memoir and Biography of Daniel Berrigan. He serves as International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Further information on his books, essays, lectures, photographs, and other projects is available on his website.