Ah those moments of transfiguration! Those fleetingly eternal moments when our faith is an almost tangible reality, when we feel at one with our family, our world, our God. The times when we don’t have to rationalise or believe or understand anything because we experience some sacramental reality. Are we going to live for those times, to try to make choices that bring us into a cosy proximity with an incandescent transfigured Jesus?
It’s tempting isn’t it? To make religion into a sort of ecstasy pill that can dispel the pain of reality! To give up striving because God only will achieve all things and to loll back on the cushions of a contemplative (and somewhat disengaged) lifestyle. The people who have this full reliance on a loving God- is it any coincidence how often they are white, male and/or middle class, living in privileged societies and whether they acknowledge it or not relying on the labour and anxiety of less “holy” others.
This is not an argument against prayer, contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, self-care. Going inward for peace is vital just as sleep and food, friendship and exercise are vital for our bodies and souls. Significantly Moses takes the veil (interesting imagery) off his face to speak to the people of Israel. You cannot lead the people by being other or more than they are. If only our church leaders would enter into the lived realities that most of us cannot escape from. If only there were some women priests who have to bleed and perform household tasks and deal with everyday sexism and can show us a Christian life in that real-world. But more than that, because we are all priests. We are Moses, we are the apostles.
We have experience of standing in the presence of God, awash with the ecstasy of God’s proximity. We can have a sort of “boldness” about this according to the second reading. Yes it is real!
When I was in my mid-twenties, or even before in my teens I suppose; I first came across feminist theology and it challenged, frightened and empowered me. I wanted to have “all the answers” about God and the problem with feminist theology was that it complicated everything, problematised easy answers like abject humility. I wanted a new set of “all the answers” and frustratedly I prayed, went to mass as many times a week as possible, read everything I could get my hands on and tried, tried, tried to know where God was in my life, in the women’s subjectivity that I had never asked for or wanted but was stuck in.
I had a dream then, which at the time seemed like a confidential thing that I shouldn’t talk about too much but it was a long time ago now and I feel I have “permission” to be more open about it. I think I have posted about it before, but I only once had such an experience so I do return to it quite often. I dreamed I was in the church that I was brought up in, where my brothers were much valued altar-servers. I dreamed that I remembered that time I was eight years old and dragged to a mass praying for more vocations and I really clearly heard the call right there in the service and I first had angry words with God about the futility of making me female AND calling me to priesthood. It seemed that God ought to have been smarter and made me male to begin with.
In my dream that came up again, but I was stuck in the porch of the church and couldn’t get the doors open to go into the actual church. They were stuck closed even though my brothers had got in. I was frantically looking for any sign of God’s “femaleness” because everywhere there were forbidding male statues and pictures and icons of God. And I had a frantic thought that if only I could find “proof” that god was also “female” I would be able to get back into the church.
There were sort of blinds I could pull down with pictures, each of them turned out to be bearded and severe looking when I pulled it down. In tears with sore hands I checked every single one more and more frantically and finally one came down and showed a divine face as female for a split second before rolling itself up again. I cried out in frustration and tried to grab it again but it was stuck.
“What are you doing?” God asked
“I saw it” I said in tears, “I know it was there. Show me”
“It’s not that easy” God said “This is how it is for you. You are always going to bother me with your questions and your insistence in seeking answers that can’t be found.”
“So it’s pointless then?” I asked in despair
“There’s no end to it” God said “But you’ll always do it. You will never find it for sure but you will always almost find it and it’s your quest to always keep looking.”
“Why?” I asked. It seemed pointless. I don’t think my question was answered. If it was then I didn’t hear it. Then God caught me up in loving arms and we flew through the air, out of the church and over all sort of spectacular landscapes.
“Why?” I asked again, this time in enjoyment of the experience.
“You need to know I love you” God said, “But knowing you, you will expect this all the time and it doesn’t work that way. It’s just this once. You will have to be stronger and remember.”
I felt immense grief and panic at the idea of the experience ever finishing and not being a regular and predictable thing. I knew there was no point trying to bargain with God and to be more “good” or more “holy” like when I was a child because it wasn’t about whether I was or wasn’t good, it was sort of God cutting me a break because of how close to suicide my depression had got me and I wasn’t called to kill myself, I was called to struggle on for the sorts of fleeting moments of happiness that I hadn’t yet learned to believe in. Even writing about it makes me cry…but it was a happy experience.
Then God said, “There is more” and drew me into the base of a mountain, deep into the heart of a mountain in a dark place with a warm fire and female figures dancing about the fire and they welcomed me into the dance and I became one of them. I knew they were somehow of God but they were outside the church in my dream they were simply being female and dancing, I don’t think they had clothes on but in my dream that wasn’t a big deal.
It was sort of a primitive scene, hard to describe without using cliches and stereotypes. But it was all one, the frustration and inklings of meaning in the church and the flying through the air in the arms of God and the community of wise dancing women (they were wise and they spoke but I don’t remember the details of that) and God said “remember I am everywhere. When you are searching and when you are just going to people who welcome you. It’s not about answers it’s about searching and flying and being in darkness and dancing.” But I don’t remember the exact words. It was comforting and frightening at the same time.
Not long after that I went to church (in the real world where I was able to open the door in my new church) and it was transfiguration Sunday and I had to “preach” to the children that week and I played them a song: Permission to Shine and we stuck gold stars over ourselves because children don’t need to be brought up with quite the same fear of their own sinfulness that I had, it needs to be balanced with a sense of call and of being loved.
But I thought of the apostles wishing they could create a tent to live in the transfigured reality forever and I shed some quiet tears over my dream, although I was grateful too. But I tried to focus myself on the humility of “not expecting” transfiguration in the every day. And this reflection this week started with that too, because really when people think they are so special to God that nothing matters apart from maintaining their spiritual high; that is an awful thing for the poor of this world who Jesus actually called on us to serve.
Our vocation is not to stand forever radiant on a mountain top but to come down and suffer and die and walk with and transform through our labour and our patience a world that needs our embrace as surely as we need to be embraced.
But in all these years of struggling with the “quest” of ever more questions and doubts and a real measure of despair at the suffering not only of myself (which I could try to rationalise) but people I love, in all these times of trying to “not expect” the consolation and solace of my dream again I have missed the point.
Those moments in our lives- the mystical dreams but also the first time our child smiles at us or the day we realise someone fantastic loves us, or the time we get acknowledged for a talent or the favourite hymn after a particularly connected experience of communion or even just a sunset or piece of music that moves us to tears at its beauty. They are our moments of transfiguration and they are not for always, they are not repeatable but the point of them is also not to cast “ordinary” moments into shadows.
We are called into radiant connectedness with God’s creation for a fleeting moment only (like the apostles, like Moses shining) and then we come down from the moment and become “ordinary”. But were Peter, James and John ever again “ordinary”? Can we ever again be “ordinary” once we have been touched fleetingly and forever by a loving God? Isn’t there somewhere in our lives, our thoughts, our possibilities and our relationships still the thumbprint of God, the teasing possibility of a more-liberating icon, the memory of radiance and intimacy. Because Jesus is not an ecstasy tablet, it’s not for us to get depressed and lost in the “morning after” coming off some unsustainable high, into real life.
In the darkness, we are called to connect with other believers and to dance, to share wisdom and to know God’s presence without having to be constantly spoon-fed. We don’t follow our call perfectly, just like Peter will post-transfiguration deny Jesus and James and John won’t believe the women who see him risen. Transfiguration isn’t an “always tent” of all the answers and security. But it’s not beside the point either to have bathed in the radiance even fleetingly. God loves us eternally, in transfigurative moments, and in returning to our lives and in the trial and burden of the cross and through the deaths that happen as part of the human experience.
God has touched us.