Saturday, August 6, 2016

Happy Feast of the Transfiguration!

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Suddenly there were two men there talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they kept awake and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’  He did not know what he was saying. As he spoke, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’ And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.

The Transfiguration has always been one of my very favourite Bible stories. It's probably my favourite mystery of the Rosary (although the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Annunciation and the Presentation are also up there).

I like anything to do with light. My two favourite states of illumination are definitely light and darkness. I like them both at full pelt. I like dark cinemas and dark nights and caves and being the blind man in blind man's bluff (though it's long since I played that estimable game).

When it comes to light, I like it to be ostentatious in some way, to draw attention to itself. That can be the flicker of a single candle, or it can be glow of a hundred neon signs.

The Transfiguration is a wonderful story in so many ways. It may be the most notable example of the 'inner circle' of disciples, John and Peter and James, being chosen from the Twelve. Jesus was nothing if not hierarchical, although his idea of hierarchy is obviously very different from our unredeemed human idea of hierarchy-- as his bathing of his disciples' feet shows.

The question of hierachy, 'elitism', and egalitarianism is a tricky one. Personally speaking, I dislike anti-egalitarianism even more than I dislike egalitarianism. The progressive's urge to abolish all distinctions and privileges and meaningful differences is odious, but the bullish reaction to that-- "There are differences in nature, deal with it, let's be completely outspoken about them"-- seems even worse, especially when it goes along with a contempt for democracy, or for mass culture (which is folk culture as well as pop culture), or for expressions of social solidarity.

In my view, a healthy egalitarianism is one which sees every human being as being made in the image of God, or-- to secularise it-- that sees every human being as infinitely precious. I also think we should see every human being as a marvellous creation, not only in his or her humanity but in his or her uniqueness.

But why should we abolish all the differences and prerogatives and distinctions which give social life so much of its spice, from a layman kissing the hand of a bishop to a husband kissing the hand of a wife? Why can't we accept the two impulses-- the one which revels in drinking toasts to the monarch, in applauding some wonderful feat, or in using an honorific title-- with those countervailing impulses, which seem no less ingrained; the love for the underdog, and for the 'man on the street', and a chivalric tenderness towards anyone who is 'out of it' in any way-- even if it's their own fault?

But the presence of the 'inner circle' is only part of what I find fascinating about the Transfiguration. The thing I find most fascinating about it is that it is one of those moments of 'shock and awe' which fill the Bible.

Da man! C.S. Lewis
Such moments have always fascinated me, whether they are sacred or secular. Some moments in life seems charged with a kind of overflow of inspiration, or of intensity, or even of ecstasy. Wordsworth called them 'spots of time'. C.S. Lewis called them moments of 'Joy'. I put them in my purple notebook (which has now been replaced with a golden notebook).

Well, we have to come down off the mountain. St. Peter's mysterious remark regarding the three tents has been interpreted as an illegitimate desire to prolong that state of ecstasy, here on Earth. The aesthete Walter Pater famously wrote:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

This doesn't work, however. You have to come down from the mountain, back to the fallen world. But I value the story of the Transfiguration because it suggests such moments have a value, and that such 'spots of time' or moments of 'Joy' are foretastes of our ultimate goal.

(Although it should be obvious, I should state here that I am simply an unschooled layman giving his personal responses to the story of the Transfiguration. I am not an exegete by any means, though I try my best to conform my thoughts with my own knowledge of solid Catholic teaching. All the same, I entreat you to read everything I write-- here and elsewhere-- in the light of Catholic Tradition, i.e., commentary written by people who actually know what they're talking about.)

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