transfiguration: unrecognized, uncreated energies


I was already thinking about my homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration last week Tuesday when we celebrated the memorial of St. John Vainney. That morning at Vigils we had a reading from his writings in which he wrote that “The Christian’s treasure is not on earth but in heaven.” Now, he was a great saint and I am a simple monk, but I think that that phrase has to be nuanced just a little bit. How often I have gone back to the teaching of the wonderful scripture scholar Bishop N. T. Wright. He wrote that the idea that the end (telos) of the Christian life is for my body to die and my soul to go to heaven is “hopelessly misleading.” According to scripture, the end of Christian life is eschatological integration! The end of Christian life is a new heaven and a new earth. We can supplement what the Cure d’Ars taught with Jesus own teaching: ‘Seek first the reign of God and its righteousness’­­­­—seek it first­­–and all these things will be granted unto you.’ The important hing is to establish right relationship­­—seek first the reign of God. We were having a retreat on the teachings of John of the Cross this weekend as well and I remembered also his teaching. After all the nada nada nada, ‘Now I shall have all things when I have them without desire.”

Jose Pagola,[1] in his marvelous book Jesus: An Historical Approximation, wrote that what moved Jesus was “his love for those who suffer, and his will that they should experience now, in their bodies, God’s mercy which liberates from evil”; and that Jesus rebuilt sick people “from the bottom up,” first their bodies and then their souls; and that Jesus’ “power to awaken unrecognized energies in people created the conditions that made the recovery of health possible.” (Note that in the Gospel of Mark, for instance, that the first thing Jesus does after his transfiguration is go back down the mountain and heal someone.) Pagola suggests that Jesus and the sick person “were fused into a single faith.”[2] What was this energy? What was this faith?[3] That energy is what the transfiguration is all about, what spiritual practice is all about, the goal (scopos) of spiritual

While it has never been fully accepted in Western Christianity, in Eastern Orthodox theology the Taboric light of the Transfiguration came to be seen as something very tangible and even accessible, identified also with the light that St. Paul experienced during his conversion experience on the road to Damascus,[4] and even further back with the burning bush of God’s self-revelation in the book of Exodus.[5] It is related to the theory of the ‘uncreated energies of God’ expounded by a 14th century monk of Mount Athos named Gregory Palamas of the hesychast mystical tradition. According to the hesychasts, a saint who is completely pure, someone who has reached divine union, could experience a vision of divine radiance that is the same light that was manifested to Paul and Jesus’ disciples—the Taboric light. Gregory Palamas explains it like this: “… those who receive the spiritual or supernatural Light, perceive what is beyond all intellect. They participate in the divine energies and become themselves, in a sort, Light.” This is actually a step further than just seeing that same light; Gregory suggests that we can participate in the divine energies and become light ourselves! This is also suggested by the scripture passages and prayers with which the Roman church surrounds the liturgical celebration of the Transfiguration, for example the beautiful passage from the first epistle of John, the communion antiphon today, in which the church teaches us that we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.[6] There was the amazing reading from 2 Corinthians we heard at Vigils which says that God is preparing us for a glory beyond measure. The opening prayer says that Jesus’ transfiguration “wonderfully prefigured our full adoption,” and prays that we “may merit to become co-heirs with him.” The prayer after communion links the transfiguration with the Eucharist: “May the food we receive from heaven transform us into his image…” We shall be like him! As Paul writes in the Letter to the Philippians, he will transfigure our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own![7]

There are many monasteries named after the Transfiguration (or Mount Tabor), including the Sacro Eremo of Camaldoli. One of the reasons the Christian monastic tradition, especially that of Eastern Christianity, has a special love for this image going back to the Fathers of the Desert, is because of monasticism’s emphasis on the practical spiritual life and asceticism. This transfiguration is thought of as the end (telos) of the ascetical life. Life in Christ is a life permeated by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. “The glory of God is the human person fully alive”! Life with Jesus is to be fused into a single faith with him.

I recently read Francis Tiso’s book entitled Rainbow Body and Resurrection. Tiso is an expert in Tibetan Buddhism, which makes the claim that some of its enlightened masters’ bodies have dissolved into a sort of burst of energy and light. Tiso is speculating if there is any connection between this phenomenon and the resurrection body.  He laments that there is no training, both trainers and places of training, for contemplative and mystical experience and the development of intuitive powers. “Contemplative experience is a full-fledged art,” he writes, “an abili­ty that must be developed as a calling.” He says that it is very hard to obtain results on a part-time basis and that it is impossible without a teacher. But even more in­dispensable than a teacher is “the inner sense of a calling, a passion for this sort of life—the same kind of passion that a dancer, an athlete, or a painter has for his or her profession.” I like those images because they recall the original meaning of asceticism, not a punishing of the body, but more something like an athlete’s training of the body. He says that all sorts of people may have “cosmic-consciousness ex­periences, spontaneous peak experience, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, which suggest “persuasively that we are not our bodies.” I might not say it that strongly, perhaps more like “we are not only our bodies,” but still… At the same time, because of these experiences, “we come to know that our bodies are an irreducible part of the mystery of who we are and are becoming.” And so it’s “possible to relate to the body as a nexus of energies”—the uncreated, unrecognized energies­­—“that manifests transformation in conjunction with, and as a result of, spiritual development.” And so he says that the task before humanity today—along with ensuring peace, jus­tice, security, health, and economic well-being for all—is to “devel­op programs of training that will enhance our natural capacity for spiritual development. From a contemplative point of view, to develop a world that is comfortable for the bodies of people without any attention at all to the soul is sheer folly. In fact, it is self-defeating because, even in the simplest terms, we know that if people focus on material comfort, without ethical or spiritual discipline, they quickly find reasons to be jealous and to squabble over those tiny differences that make someone else’s grass seem greener. … Isn’t it time for humans to develop intuitive, mystical, and ethical capacities with the same rigor with which we train the body in athletics, the hand in artistry, and the rational mind in scholarship?”[8]

And so we pray the our feast at the Table of the Word and Sacrament, and our spiritual practice and life, would begin this process of transforming us into Jesus’ image, rebuild us from the bottom up, awaken in us the unrecognized energies that make the conditions for a full human life possible, and fuse us into a single faith the Christ in the Spirit.

[1] Some of this is taken from my book Spirit, Soul, Body.

[2] Jose Pagola, “Jesus: An Historical Approximation” 166-167,

[3] And we are not even touching at this point on the social implications of the gospel, which also make Jesus and his teaching very earth-linked, more or less accented by various Christians (from liberation theologians to conservative Republicans), but unavoidable nonetheless.

[4] Acts 9:1-9.

[5] Ex 3:1-6.

[6] 1 Jn 3:2; this is suggested as the communion antiphon for the day.

[7] Phil 3:21.

[8] Rainbow Body and Resurrection, Francis Tiso, 153-54.

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