Listen to the sermon HERE.
Today’s Gospel tells the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Transfiguration describes the physical change in Jesus as his disciples watch on and the light overtakes him and his face becomes like the face of God. But there are other transfigurations that take place as well. It may be here that Jesus’ own self-identity changes, his future becomes clear in a new way, and he sets his face toward Jerusalem. The disciples themselves are perhaps transfigured as they come to understand Jesus in a new way. They don’t fully understand, but they’ve learned that in a time of confusion, things may seem to get even more cloudy, but through prayer, through an ongoing relationship with God, clarity comes in the end.
Our Gospel tells of a dramatic transfiguration, but the Gospel also signals to us that transfigurations happen in our lives as well. We may not use that word, and we may not see them as dramatically, and we may not ever be alert to them, but God often works through confusion, a cloud, and eventual clarity.
The key to moving through this transition, the key to making it up the mountain and back, the key to transfigurations, is at the very beginning of today’s Gospel. They went up on the mountain to pray.
Prayer keeps us open and alive to Jesus Christ. It is our being with him and our listening to him. Prayer enables us to endure confusion, because our focus is on God and not on whatever blows around us. Prayer takes us into the cloud and there we find God in a deeper way. From there, prayer shows us the way out of the cloud, the way forward, the way down the mountain.
In the 14th century an anonymous monk wrote a book that has been called the Cloud of Unknowing , and it has helped spiritual seekers for centuries ever after. The author counsels that sometimes our effort to know, our need to understand everything, to get it sorted out in our head, can be the very stumbling block to a deeper knowledge of God.
The author talks about prayer in simple ways, ways that are sometimes described in what modern spiritual writers call Centering Prayer. But the praying is simple, and easy, it’s not complicated. It’s simply sitting with God, being available for God, trying to un-clutter the mind so that we’re not constantly thinking and talking to God, but listening, being, breathing.
We may think that the presence of God is unattainable and so, “Why bother?” We may have tried some kind of prayer in the past and felt like we failed at it, but the author of the Cloud of Unknowing suggests that heaven is closer than we might have imagined.
The author writes
“Spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our desires, and not on our two feet.” (Chapter 60).
Stephen Cottrell, bishop of Chelmsford (England) writes about prayer and captures nicely the way so often we think about praying, but we put it off. ( From the Abundance of the Heart: Catholic Evangelism for All Christians , London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006, p. 93.) We imagine that tomorrow we’ll have more time, or the apartment will be quieter, or we’ll be less distracted and somehow more available for God later.
Cottrell thinks of the way people sometimes will be driving down a highway and notice the gas gauge is moving toward empty. But there’s a kind of game we play—we see a sign saying that gas if available in 5 miles and also in 50, and so we pass the 5 mile marker and try to make it to the 50 mile mark. We don’t save any time doing this—it will take the same amount of time to fill up later as it might sooner, but we delay. And sometimes, we end up almost driving on empty. Cottrell suggests that too many of us are often running on empty, spiritually—we need times of prayer, we need patterns of prayer that are woven into our days. That might look like Morning or Evening Prayer with a Prayer Book, or it might look like a prayer while walking or jogging in the morning. It might mean meditation or Centering Prayer, or it might mean journaling, or prayerfully listening to music or any number of things that you choose to be your prayer.
Prayer gives us the means to make into through any cloud and beyond. One Transfiguration story I’ve been spending time with this year has to do with painting that is reproduced in this week’s “News from 316.” There’s a detail next to my article and a full version later in the newsletter. It’s of Christóbal de Villalpando’s Transfiguration, a massive painting for a chapel altar in the Cathedral of Puebla, Mexico. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bank of Mexico have teams up to remove the painting, clean and restore it, and now share it with people through exhibition. It’s at the Metropolitan in the Lehman wing through October, and I encourage you to go and see it and the art that accompanies it.
Villalpando paints an odd Transfiguration, pairing it with the scary story from the Book of Number about how the people of Israel disobeyed God and God sent a plaque of serpents. Moses prayed for the people and God said, “Build an image of a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and have the people look at it. Then they will be healed.” Jesus refers to this story when he meets with Nicodemus and relates it to the way in which Jesus will be crucified, hung on a cross, but through his sacrificial death and resurrection, we will find healing.
What’s new, and what Villalpando does is to pair the bronze serpents with the Transfiguration, rather than the Crucifixion. It’s as though Villalpando is saying that through the cloud, we find healing—no matter what the cloud may bring.
One person who would have seen that painting and understood it in many different contexts was the Mexican Hieronymite nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). Sor Juana was a largely self-taught poet, theologian, playwright, composer, and philosopher, and the Bishop of Puebla did not appreciate her larger-than-life ability to outsmart, outwit, and outpray all of her contemporaries. The Bishop of Puebla, the patron of the Transfiguration painting by Villalpando, wrote a letter basically condemning Sor Juana, and reminding her of all the old prohibitions against women—they should be submissive, not speak in church, etc, etc. Sor Juana wrote a famous Respuesta, or Response, in 1691, in which she masterfully defends the right for women and girls to be educated, to think and write and talk, and she obliterates the feeble-minded argument of Bishop Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz.
Sor Juana, through her prayer life, through her intellectual life, through her deep connection with God inside herself, navigated the cloud of conflict and condemnation, and found a peaceful place to continue to function with integrity and purpose. Eventually she retired from writing and speaking publicly, not out of defeat, but out of a sense of having said her peace. Tragically, shed died while ministering among her sisters in a plague in 1695.
On this feast of the Transfiguration, may we, like the disciples, like Sor Juana, and like so many others, be strengthened through prayer to withstand any storm or cloud that might come our way. May we always remember that prayer draws us into the cloud of God’s presence and can help us move forward with new clarity. May we, too, be transfigured and changed by God’s love.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.