Friday, August 7, 2015

Transfiguration - Aug 6, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Feast of the Transfiguration - Thursday, August 6, 2015 

Exodus 34:29-35 
2 Peter 1:13-21 
Luke 9:28-36 

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep
I once went for my spiritual direction appointment and in a moment of informal chatting as we were settling into our chairs I mentioned to my director that despite a full day of activity, after Compline I would often go to my room, and, rather than going to sleep at a decent hour, proceed to engage my brain in all kinds of interesting things.  Then when I would invariably not get enough sleep I would shuffle around in a bit of a sleep-deprived stupor during much of the next day.  Just my rhythm, I thought to myself, now let’s move on to spiritual things.  To my surprise, my sleep issue became the topic of the whole session.  God wanted to ask me something, my director gently insisted.  Why did I want to be half-awake?  Who or what was I avoiding?  Were there things I did not want to do, to face, that a stupor was a way to avoid?  Wow.  What I assumed was merely a bothersome bug in my circadian rhythm was actually also a soul issue.     

The transfiguration is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with only slight variation in the account of what happened.  However, Luke includes a line that Matthew and Mark do not.  (Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep...)  O.K., Luke often notes small physical details like this.  It’s a throwaway line that does not seem to add anything to the narrative except as an interesting human aside.  I have to say, though, that if I was with a shining Jesus on a mountain with Moses and Elijah, no matter how sleepy I was I think I would find some energy to stay awake to see that.

In a deeper sense, this sleepiness and wakefulness to the glory of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on the mountain is an important and profound symbol of the story.  Their sleepiness speaks of the forces at work in the transformative moment.  Sleep is described as a weight that is pressing down on Peter, James, and John.  There are then seven presences on the mountain – Jesus, Moses, and Elijah; Peter, James, and John and sleep.  Sleep here is a siren song to a secure and trouble-free life – just tune out, don’t get involved, keep to yourself, don’t get carried away with this religion thing.  Now of course there are times for physical sleep and our bodies need rest and slumber, but this sleep is mentioned as weighing at the least opportune moment possible, at a time when total attention is called forth.  Peter, James, and John – even in the presence of the glorified Jesus, have to wrestle with the physical and spiritual forces that would lure them to check out.

In his retreat called “Whatever Happened to Temptation”, Don Bisson discusses the particular issues in each stage of spiritual growth.  Those of us who have been formed into the spiritual life and have a fairly attuned ability to reflect on our souls do not grow out of temptation, unfortunately, it just changes shape.  The temptation of the more spiritually mature is not to some great evil, but to unconsciousness.  We can see what is going on, recognize our own resistance to growth and the hard work that lies ahead, but then, rather than stay attentive to our work, we get tempted to, in a sense, go to sleep.

Spiritual sight thrusts us deeper into an oppositional energy that weighs down on us to have us give up.  The temptation is unique to each of us.  Mine sounds something like: “it’s not worth it”, “I don’t care”, “It is not my problem”, “Leave me alone”, or, my personal favorite, “When are these people going to straighten up?”  This is a universal archetype of the spiritual life that shows up in all kinds of mythical stories of transformation.  

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions have made a long and dangerous journey, they can see the Emerald City, it’s right there, they’ve almost made it, but the Wicked Witch has put poison on the poppies and it makes Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion (the two who breathe oxygen) go to sleep.  It takes the good witch Glinda to send the snow to neutralize the poison and wake them up so they can skip arm-in-arm to the City. The temptation to unconsciousness is particularly insidious and subtle because I can be doing all the right things outwardly, but not necessarily be engaged with my spiritual life. Then I am faced with the decision to merely conform to the system or be truly and vibrantly awake.

But what about unconsciousness is appealing?  Part of what is going on is that I am afraid of what will happen to me if I go all in with the glorified Jesus.  Looking at what I could become is overwhelming – even if it is my own growth.  I will be entering a new and unfamiliar city with Christ who will call forth from me deeper love, generosity, service, engagement, and responsibility when my ego would rather just not bother with all of that – I’m good enough as I am. 

The Christian life takes intention, purpose, energy, and action sustained through the emotional and circumstantial ups and downs of life.  Luke says “but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”  We will persevere in the transformative journey of becoming our real selves to the extent that our desire to see Jesus – and all that that vision entails - is greater than the temptation to shut our eyes or look away.  Do I want to stay awake and see his glory or do I want to be left alone?  Perhaps because he knows this danger, St Benedict uses lots of imperative action verbs in the Rule: listen, obey, rouse yourself, persevere, long for, seek peace, turn away from evil, build, mend, prepare, ask, hurry, progress (and that is just the Prologue)!  All of those commands are extensions of the Gospel imperative – “stay awake.”

On a practical level, some helpful guidance that I have gleaned from various sources in times of temptation:  look back at your life 10, 15, 20 years ago and realize how far you have come – growth may seem slow today but it’s obvious through the sweep of time – God has indeed graced us with attention and brought us into levels of service we scarcely could have imagined – the weight of sleep will never have the final word.  Become familiar with how temptation appears specifically for you and be prepared with a response.  Moments and times of discouragement are bound to come – we can feel the feelings without having to act out in them – being gentle and patient with ourselves is centrally human and therefore good spirituality.  When sleep weighs down on me, I ask myself “What is the next good thing to do to awaken myself and learn from this experience?”  Finally, beware what you say to your spiritual director.  And get a good night’s sleep.  Amen.

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