Monday, January 15, 2018

Fighting the need to build tents in our spiritual life.

In all three of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark, there is an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  There is an interesting and rather important part of the event which I believe is very relevant to anyone who is truly interested in developing and sustaining a healthy prayer life – it is when Peter makes a rather strange and seemingly random suggestion to put up three tents or shelters right there on this mountain top.

This suggestion of Peter needs to be unpacked for it to be something that we see ourselves doing in our own spiritual lives and prayer moments.  Peter had the overwhelming need to sustain and freeze in time something that was supernatural.   When Jesus was transfigured, his outer appearance was beyond what was naturally human.  The words that Scripture uses are indicative of this being more than natural – the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzlingly white.  This was the gospel writers’ way of saying that what was beheld, what was experienced, was more than natural, more than normal, more than usual, but in a good way.

What made Peter utter the phrase that he did?  What was he trying to imply and suggest?  More importantly, can we in our prayer life or religious experiences find ourselves having such thoughts and intentions?

Peter in his innocence and naivety was trying to do what so many of us do when we have a very good and pleasant experience in life.  He wanted to preserve and sustain this pleasure.  He didn’t want it to end, or at least have it prolonged in some way.  We find ourselves doing the same thing in different ways, partly because pitching of tents isn’t something that we moderns aren’t particularly adept at.  Our ways of pitching tents in the 21st century are a bit more sophisticated – we take selfies, we take videos, and we share them on the Internet.  As well, we buy keepsakes and mementoes just so that we can hold on to a great and significant moment, giving the phrase “been there, done that and bought the T-shirt and the mug” something that resonates with a dose of light hearted hilarity.

While doing all that isn’t wrong in themselves, these actions do have a side effect that is inevitable – they rob us of truly experiencing the moment and appreciating fully what the experience is offering us.  So many tourists who go to places of noted interest and fame return home and when they view their photos taken with such dedicated art direction and precision realise that they hadn’t really enjoyed or appreciated the moment while they were there.  It could be a concert, a wedding, a birthday or a meeting of friends.  Wanting this joy and bliss to be somehow preserved causes us to step out of the moment rather to be steeped in it. 

What was perhaps lost on Peter as he made that suggestion was that this experience was given to him for a purpose other than the moment itself.  Otherwise, that episode would have ended right there.  Instead, it continues with them coming down from that mountain the very next day.  Its implication is obvious – that event, which was definitely a moment of supernatural grace, was for the three of them (four, if Jesus is included) to continue on Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem, where he would be delivered into the hands of men.  The Transfiguration was, if you like, a charging station, a spiritual boost, to prepare them for the Passion, which was to come.

Those of us who have gone on retreats often speak about how peaceful and serene the retreat was, and I have personally heard of retreatants lamenting that the experience had to end.  In speaking like this, there is evidently something Peter-ish about this.  Those mountain top experiences, which in spiritual language are also called consolations, serve a purpose other than the moment itself.  They strengthen our faith and grounds our belief in a loving God for a time later, and these are more often than not our own “passion” moments.

I write this reflection as I am sequestered in my priest’s residence recuperating from my surgery to my necrotized hip.  People have asked if I was ok and how I keep myself buoyed during this time of incapacity where I need to use either my wheelchair or crutches.  The answer lies principally in the harnessing of those mountain top experiences in my own prayer life, where I was grounded in the truth of God’s never ceasing and ever abiding love.  This enables me to move and make strides in my journey of life even though I can hardly physically move at all. 

If God is giving you, by his grace, a mountain top experience in life, savour it for all it is worth, and be in the moment.  Hoping that it never ends, or worse, hoping that it will be repeated in a similar way could inadvertently be cramping God’s style.     

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