Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Process of Personal Transfiguration

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Today is the "Leavetaking" of the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. This is not only a beautiful Feast, but a "feast of beauty." And as Dostoevsky once enigmatically said: "Beauty will save the world." The transfigured Christ is an image of humanity restored to the beauty of the original image as intended by God. We see this beauty in the shining face of Christ, which is the human face of God. Human beings are meant to reflect the glory/beauty of God - something terribly lost through sin and corruption. On Mt. Tabor, Christ also revealed a foretaste of the beauty of the Kingdom of God which is yet to come in its full splendor, when "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." (MATT. 11:43) But now we must descend from Mt. Tabor as did the disciples Peter, James and John. Then, through the manner of our lives, we are asked to witness to that vision of divine glory that we were allowed to glimpse, "as far as we could bear it," in the radiant face of Christ. The daily bearing of the Cross is the only "road" back to Mt. Tabor and the glory of transfiguration. The disciples learned this the hard way, and this is a truth that we must always bear in mind as we bear our daily cross(es).

For certain of the great saints of the Church throughout the centuries, this process of transfiguration began in this life in a very tangible and even overwhelming manner. These saints witness to our claim and belief that by the grace of God, a human person is capable of shining with the identical uncreated divine light that shone in the face of Christ on Mt. Tabor. This experience is not only reserved for the Kingdom of God, but can begin in this life. This comes after a prolonged period of preparation through prayer and fasting, but ultimately it is a gift from God reserved for certain of the saints to demonstrate the human capacity to participate directly in divine life. What our Lord is by nature, a human being created in the image and likeness of God may become by grace.

A fairly recent, and all-together spectacular instance of this was revealed in the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833), a Russian monk, ascetic and mystic whose life has become very popular and well-studied for the last few decades at least. His disciple, the landowner Nicholas Motovilov, has left an extraordinary account of the saint's transfiguration based upon a personal experience that God allowed him to have while together with St. Seraphim one winter day in the woods. These notes of his were discovered after his death in about 1903, and have since been widely-translated, read and studied as an unique eyewitness testimony of being in the presence of a transfigured human being. The context for this event was a discussion between the saint and his disciple over the meaning of the saint's famous statement: "The purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God." Motovilov's awe is evident throughout as St. Seraphim does his best to explain to him what is happening based upon the Transfiguration of Christ. I am including the following excerpts for you to marvel at:

"The grace of the Holy Spirit is the light which lightens man. [...] And indeed, the Lord has often demonstrated before many witnesses how the grace of the Holy Spirit operates with regard to those people whom He has sanctified and illumined by His great visitation. Remember Moses after his conversation with God on Mount Sinai. He shone with such an extraordinary light that people could not look at him, and he had to cover his face. Remember the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. A great light surrounded Him and 'His garments became shining, exceedingly white like snow' and His apostles fell on their faces from fear. In the same way the grace of the Holy Spirit of God manifests itself in an ineffable light to all to whom God reveals its activity."

"But how," I asked Father Seraphim, "can I know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit? [...] I need to understand completely."

Father Seraphim then took me firmly by the shoulders and said, "We are both, you and I, in the Spirit of God this moment, my son. Why do you not look at me?"

"I cannot look, Father," I replied, "because great flashes of lightning are springing from your eyes. Your face shines with more light than the sun and my eyes ache from the pain."

"Don't be frightened, friend of God," Father Seraphim said. "You yourself have now become as bright as I am. You are now yourself in the fullness of the Spirit of God: otherwise you would not be able to see me like this. [...] Why don't you look at me, my son? Just look, don't be afraid! The Lord is with us!"

At these words, I looked at his face and was seized with an even greater sense of trembling awe.
Imagine in the center of the sun, in the most dazzling brilliance of his noontime rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips, the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel that someone is holding his hands on your shoulders. Yet you do not see his hands or his body, but only a blinding light spreading around for several yards, illuminating with its brilliant sheen both the bank of snow covering the glade and the snowflakes that fall on me and the great Starets (elder) ...

[Seraphim continued:]

"Concerning this condition the Lord said: "There are some of them that stand here, who shall not taste death, till they see the kingdom of God come with power.' Behold, my son, you who love God, what ineffable joy the Lord God is now granting unto us! This is what is meant being in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, what is meant by St. Makarios of Egypt when he writes: "I myself was in the fullness of His Holy Spirit' ..." ( translation by Mary-Barbara Zeldin from St. Seraphim of Sarov, 93-102)

As everyone likes to say these days: "Awesome!" But truly awesome, as in awe-inspiring. For God is glorified in His saints. But perhaps we only need to be inspired enough to transform/transfigure our lives on the most modest of scales: to change for the better on a daily basis by putting aside sinful inclinations, petty behavior and feeding of the passions. And further, as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes: "To renew our relationship with others through imaginative sympathy, through acts of compassion, and through cutting off of our own self-will." This would be a transfiguring experience, indeed, not only for ourselves, but for others around us. This comes back to the point of denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (LK. 9:23). Then something of the glory, light, and beauty of God would enter the world - perhaps unspectacularly, but truly convincingly.

Fr. Steven

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