MARCH 16, 2003, 2ND SUNDAY OF LENT: CHAPTER 

JESUS LED THEM UP A HIGH MOUNTAIN ALONE AND WAS TRANSFIGURED BEFORE THEM (Mark 9: 2). After this introductory observation the evangelist describes briefly in which this transformation consisted.  The Lord radiated a brilliant light that made his very clothes to shine with an incomparable brightness. The effect of this radiancy and the words and events accompanying it was to convince his companions that our Lord bore a unique relation to the Father. “This is my beloved Son.” St. Mark was not given to expansive commentary. He leaves to the imagination and intelligence of the reader the task of deriving further implications from this scene for himself. It was not long before believers began doing just that and the process has continued down to our own times. The apostles themselves were overwhelmed by the experience but seem to have been unable to assimilate the lessons it taught and in particular they were not capable of grasping that his glorification presupposed the coming sufferings and death. That insight would come only after the resurrection on the third day after Jesus died on the cross. 

The fact that all three synoptic Gospels recount this same event in our Lord’s life indicates that very early the followers of Jesus appreciated the large significance of his transfiguration. Of course, once it happened that the risen Lord appeared to them, the transient event of the transfiguration would have been understood as anticipating his glorified state. The resurrection rendered his condition permanently that of a glorified being, body and soul and tended to absorb the message of the Transfiguration. Peter, along with the three synoptic evangelists, nevertheless, never forgot the event itself and it would seem he spoke of it often. At any rate the Second Epistle, written in his name, speaks of that mystery with a sense of awe that seems never to have disappeared from his soul, even long after the event. 

We were not following learned fables when we made known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ; rather, we were spectators of his greatness. He received glory and honor from God the Father by a voice that came down to him with magnificent glory to this effect: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” And we heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. (2Peter 1:16-18). 

The Church followed his example, obviously being deeply impressed by his words as well as by the several accounts of the event itself. As a result in the course of the Church year the Transfiguration of Our Lord is one of the few events commemorated regularly on two distinct occasions: the second Sunday of Lent and August sixth. There are quite distinct reasons for these dates, and it is of particular interest to advert to them in as much as they contribute to our appreciation of the role of this mystery of our Lord in our own spiritual life and in the life of the Church.  

First, the feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6th  for two reasons. It was on this date that the chapel of the Transfiguration, built on Mt. Tabor already in the 5th century, was dedicated. This commemoration spread to other local churches in the course of time but was not marked in the universal Church until 1457. In that year, on August 6th, the Pope received news of the defeat of the Turks at Belgrade.  This victory, though mostly forgotten in the West these days, was an event of major historical significance. For until then it seemed the Turkish forces were unstoppable, and that Islamic rulers, after capturing Constantinople in 1453, the way to dominating Christian Europe. In gratitude for this improbable victory, that took place on August 6, 1456, the Holy Father extended the celebration of this feast to the universal Church.  

The reason why the Transfiguration is commemorated a second time, on this second Sunday of Lent, would seem to be that attending to this mysterious revelation thus early in this season places our Lenten practices in the perspective of the Paschal mystery. In this way it focuses our attention on the person of our Lord who gives meaning to our efforts to be found worthy of the Father’s favor. Lent is a time for penance, for turning away from worldliness, from selfish egotism in its manifold forms and the development of good habits that support a life of fervor. This is one aspect of this season; it has a somewhat negative character considered only in itself. This penitential feature, however, does not exist for itself, but in view of a higher, wholly positive, life-enhancing aim. The more important purpose of Lenten practice is a personal even intimate union with the Savior. 

Lent is above all a season for a more dedicated attention in faith to the person of Christ, who gives meaning to our life and is the very soul of our virtue. We strive to cultivate good habits primarily so as to be more firmly and intimately at one with him and so to be found pleasing to his Father. The Transfiguration is a powerful reminder that Jesus alone is the way that leads us to life in the Kingdom. It is the Father himself who tells us so precisely on the occasion of the Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” We are reminded by today’s liturgy that Christ is our true life and the only hope we have of attaining the purpose for which we are created: eternal life dedicated to praise of the Father, united with his Son and all who belong to him. This season of the year is a time of training for the eternal liturgy of heaven. To that end we must have pure hearts, free from sin and selfish desire. 

In order to carry out in practice the implications of this conviction that union with Christ is the way to the Father, certain believers came to the conviction that they would do best to follow him in his retirement to the desert. While our Lord himself was led to this withdrawal by the Holy Spirit only for forty days, these men were persuaded that their purpose would be best served by making this withdrawal a permanent way of life. But within the lifestyle that resulted from such a commitment there were a minority of monks who were more reflective, more cultivated in theology and gifted with powers of analysis and expression. Before long, they were living and teaching a form of monastic life more ordered to contemplation and pure, wordless prayer. Evagrius Ponticus, who was living in Nitria, Egypt from 385 to 399 AD, was the mastermind of this group. What was sound in his thought and that was chiefly his teaching on spiritual practice and contemplative prayer, was taken up by other highly influential monastic authors including John Cassian and passed on in the West as well as in the East. 

The history of monasticism and more specifically of the more contemplative and mystical traditions within the monastic movement took on a quite distinctive feature in the East in part under the influence of Evagrius’ writings when a Byzantine bishop, Diadochus of Photike, around 450 AD, combined the doctrine of this Nitric mystic with the frequent repetition of the name of Jesus along with a decided emphasis on sorrow for sin. This manner of prayer was to have a remarkable future. As it came to be practiced by those monks who lived a more solitary life in small groups of hermits it came to be called Hesychasm, a term derived from the Greek word hesychia, quietness. The practice of this form of spirituality was best facilitated in a climate of silence and of withdrawal from worldly care. After the monk became more adept in this form of prayer his inner life became more quiet and simple. This feature is what gave rise to its name. 

Since the Cistercians early came to be known as ‘the silent monks’, and silence was one of the more characteristic marks of the Trappist reform of the Cistercians. Consequently a familiarity with the history and theology of hesychastic spirituality offers to the monks and nuns of our Order any number of lessons that can prove helpful for our efforts to follow a life of contemplative prayer. This entails a major effort for the hesychastic tradition is embedded in a history that covers 15 centuries and is expressed in a large number of authors. Many of them are included in the Philokalia, a collection of writings in five volumes from various Greek authors made in the 18th century. A century later, these writings were translated into Russian with additions, notably those taken from Theophane the Recluse who, in my opinion, presents the most appealing version of the method and theory of contemplative prayer for modern readers. 

Rather than attempt to summarize this form of spirituality, which deserves fuller treatment on some other occasion, I will here discuss only one of its most distinctive teachings, namely, its concern with the vision of divine light already in this world as the culmination of contemplative prayer. This doctrine of a light that can be seen by the believer who dedicates his whole life to seeking union with Christ is central to hesychastic spirituality as it developed in the 14th century. This emphasis on beholding the light of Tabor in the inner space of the heart explains why this topic of Hesychasm is an appropriate subject for reflection on this Sunday when we commemorate the Transfiguration.  

That there is a kind of inner-light which accompanies any contemplative prayer would seem to be axiomatic. At times that light is perceived consciously as an illumination of the mind or a pacification of the emotions and affective states of the soul it. In other instances, it remains unconscious but its effects are felt indirectly in the form of a sense of peace, of rootedness in a reassuring reality even while, consciously, one may doubt any contact with God is taking place. St. John of the Cross has spoken of this form of contemplative prayer in his works on the Dark Night of the Senses and The Dark Night of the Soul. The experience of God’s transcendent light is so strong that it is felt as a darkness. It is analogous to the physical vision when it is exposed to an excessively bright light and sight is baffled, unable to function with any clarity of vision. It is evident from the Gospel accounts of the Tabor experience that the three apostles present found the light of the transfiguration overwhelming and highly disconcerting both to their inner and outer senses. Peter, who acted as their spokesman, is described as not knowing what he said when he made recommendations for building shelters there.  

Thus far, the light spoken of in connection with prayer of a kind that transcends words and images poses no problems for orthodoxy. Light was commonly said to accompany faith and prayer. Such practice, in fact, is authorized by Scripture: ‘Your word is a light to my path’  (Ps. 119)  ‘In your light we will see light” (Ps 36). But in the 14th century there were monks practicing this prayer in the hesychastic monastery in Thessaloniki who maintained that by using a technique involving a particular way of sitting and breathing, it was possible to arrive at a vision of the divine light in the spacer around the heart. This claim was hotly contested and called heretical by a prominent Italian-Greek monk, Barlaam. As he became disillusioned with the ignorance and heresy, as he judged it, of the Easterners, he joined the Roman Church.  

His criticisms were in turn answered by a monk of Mt. Athos who, in the course of the ensuing debates, became the Archbishop of Thessaloniki and is now honored in the Byzantine Church as St. Gregory Palamas. He was a man of outstanding holiness and learning who suffered for his faith and displayed admirable firmness of character. His doctrine, developed in defense of this hesychastic practice and its concept of the perception of divine light, became the official teaching of the Eastern Church when it was confirmed by an important Synod. Gregory maintained that since man is truly divinized he must be acted upon by God himself, not merely by some created gift of God. There is no difficulty in accepting these two points for a Roman Catholic believer. We are indeed destined by God to become his children in all truth. Luther had maintained that grace does not refashion us into new creatures but simply declares that we are holy while leaving us in our being, still sinners. The Council of Trent rightly condemned this position as inadequate and misleading. 

The next step in Palomas’ argument, however, still causes difficulties for Catholics and continues to be rejected by most Western theologians who treat of it. Palamas maintains that in God there is a real distinction between his nature and his energies. The light of Tabor, he teaches, was not merely the natural created reflection of the glory of the divinity; it is rather the divine energy itself. That means it is God himself, more specifically, the Holy Spirit of God, in his manifestation as the sanctifying energy. This, incidentally, is why Gregory Palamas has a special commemoration in the Byzantine liturgy today, the second Sunday of Lent. He is considered the vindicator of the divine light of Mt. Tabor shining from the glorified body of Christ. 

The Western Catholics point out that to make such a distinction within God between his nature and his energies is to deny God’s absolute simplicity. Catholics agree with the Archbishop of Constantinople that no created being, angel or human, even in the beatific vision, can comprehend the nature of God, that is, grasp it fully. By virtue of the special grace known as the light of glory, one can know God, see him face to face, but never comprehend the fullness of his being with the same measure of understanding that he has of Himself. Yet we truly know him as he is. It is this limitation of even the divinized human person that leads Gregory to affirm that we cannot know the nature of God, even though it is God whom we know in his energies. He goes further and asserts, with the hesychasts, that such knowledge of God can be acquired already in this life by the pure of heart. To behold this divine energy in the form of an inner-light is, in fact, the immediate aim of hesychastic contemplative prayer. Gregory explains further, nonetheless, that it is only to eyes purified and elevated by grace that this divine light appears, for it is not a material but spiritual light as God himself is spiritual. He stated it in the following terms. 

…hesychasts know that the purified and illuminated mind, when clearly participating in the grace of God, also beholds other mystical and supernatural visions, for in seeing itself, it sees more than itself: it does not simply contemplate some other object, of simply its own image, but rather the glory impressed on its own image by the grace of God…. By this union, the mind sees God in the Spirit in a manner transcending human powers.(‘Triads’, N.Y. Paulist, 1983, 58 as cited in '‘he New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 325, 326) 

There are very intelligent, learned and holy theologians of the Eastern Churches who still today defend this conception of God and of his manner of acting upon us through his energies. Father John Meyendorff, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Palamas, is one. The views of these men are considered by the Roman Catholic theologians who have seriously studied them, such as the French Assumptionist, Jugie, to be incompatible with the Church’s teaching. However, there has never been any official condemnation. I believe it likely that further investigation of this matter could discover a resolution of the seeming differences between the Byzantine and Western theologians. After all on the most important issues we have the same positions in this regard. We are agreed already that it is truly God himself in his divine persons that we encounter in prayer made in faith. We further agree that it is the Holy Spirit himself who comes into us at baptism and is our sanctification so long as we remain in the state of grace. We also hold that sanctification is not an e mere declaration that God accepts us, but consists in a recreation of our being that is the beginning of our divinization. Finally, we hold with the Byzantines that God is simple in his nature. He does not consist of parts; there are no divisions, only interrelations of three persons within God.  

Those who speak of the energies of God as being God himself in so far as he acts outside of His nature, have two concerns: one is to conserve the truth that God’s nature is at once incommunicable and essentially unknowable. The other is to affirm that God can be known as God and that that he can and does communicate effectively his deifying grace. This too we as Catholics hold. The sole difference then is that what is commonly called in the West, ‘created grace’ in man justified and elevated to the status of a child of God, in so far as man retains his human identity even in the beatific vision, is said to be the work of divine energies. As far as I can understand this matter, however, it is not the belief of the hesychasts that the person thus transformed himself becomes identical with God. He exists in a new state of being, lives as the same person but in a fresh mode, not functioning according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. He is subject now only to the laws of the divinity in which he shares, not to the law of human nature as such. In all this both parties agree. If nothing else of benefit derives from this disagreement, it has served to clarify for those who examine it carefully, what is the nature of our final hope. How we explain the profound mystery of our divinization is until now not demonstrated to the satisfaction of the two Churches involved. 

What is clear is that we are dealing with one of the most profound of all mysteries and all mystics, St. Paul included, are unable to find words to describe it adequately. Gregory comments on this fact in his best known work.  

For how can what is beyond all intellect be called intelligible? In respect to its transcendence it might better be called ignorance than knowledge. It cannot be a part or aspect of knowledge, just as the Superessential is not an aspect of the essential.(‘Triads’, p. 64, op. cit., 328) 

 As regards the Transfiguration of Jesus, we who are called to the life of prayer by our vocation, like the hesychasts, see in this mystery an invitation to behold in the glorified body of our Savior a reflection of the glory of the divinity shinning through his humanity. Contemplated in faith and with the desire to abide in ‘his love, the glorified Christ is the object of our prayer and our one hope of eternal life. Already now, St. Bernard tells us,  

‘We live in his shadow among the gentiles’…. Nor does he have only a shadow; he also has light. He is a shadow by virtue of the flesh, but he is the light of understanding by virtue of the Spirit. … and even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, now we no longer know him such. (2Cor 5:16)’ [Sobre el Cantar 48.7]  

By contemplating the light of Christ manifested on Tabor, hidden in his ordinary state while on this earth and now seated at the right hand of the glory, we ourselves will fulfill our purpose as monks in the Church of God.  And when all of us live in this fashion together we, as a community shall witness to the loving presence of our Savior among his people. He even now abides with us as the one who by his death and resurrection, predicted on Mt. Tabor, unites us with himself and so becomes for us the source of eternal light and life.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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