For us Orthodox Christians following the Old Calendar, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, or as I like to call it, the High Holy Day of Christian Neoplatonists. Here, from Matthew 17, is the event we commemorate on this day:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
This is an important moment in the life of Jesus for several reasons, among them, it is a Sinai moment in which the New Covenant is revealed to the disciples. That the greatest Hebrew prophets appeared alongside Christ revealed his identity as the Messiah. More importantly, at least to me, is how this event shows — doesn’t tell, shows — how things Really Are. The veil was lifted, and the disciples saw the Uncreated Light. If you’ve been following my blogging about Dante’s Paradiso, you will understand that the entire canticle is about beholding the Uncreated Light, and seeking to be joined with it.
To live is to be open at all times for those Transfiguration moments, episodes of mystical clarity in which the doors of perception are briefly cleansed, and reality is revealed as it truly is. These are transfigurative moments not because we understand that we have been previously observing an illusion, but rather because we grasp that we have not seen the whole truth — that we have mistaken a partial, limited truth for the whole. I’ll give you an everyday example, from my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. The awareness of the change that watching my sister die over 19 months had made in my perception dawned on me at Ruthie’s wake, and its aftermath:
That week, in the midst of marveling about the goodness of the townspeople, Julie and I wondered if we were romanticizing St. Francisville. After all, this was at the end of one of the most emotional weeks of our lives. A local friend had said to me, “You have seen the town at its very best. You know, it’s not always like this.”
I knew St. Francisville’s shortcomings. There is poverty. There is brokenness. There is drunkenness, and there are drugs. There is meanness, and conformity, and lack of professional opportunity. All the things that made me run from this place nearly three decades ago, most of them remain.
But Ruthie transfigured this town in my eyes. Her suffering and death made me see the good that I couldn’t see before. The same communal bonds that appeared to me as chains all those years ago had become my Louisiana family’s lifelines. What I once saw through the melodramatic eyes of a teenager as prison bars were in fact the pillars that held my family up when it had no strength left to stand.
Pope Benedict once said that the best arguments the Church has for itself are the art it produces, and its saints. He was saying that we are converted not primarily by syllogisms, but by revelation and transfiguration. When we see goodness made manifest in the lives of the saints, it makes us see the world and ourselves in different ways, and converts us, unless we harden our hearts to it. Similarly, when we see extraordinary beauty, and allow it to change us. In both cases, we glimpse the presence of God in ordinary things, and realize that they are, in fact, extraordinary.
Last week I came across this passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, about its hero, Prince Myshkin, and how strange he found it that his moments of epilepsy — of affliction, note well — served to transfigure the everyday for him. Excerpt from the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation:
He fell to thinking, among other things, about his epileptic condition, that there was a stage in it just before the fit itself (if the fit occurred while he was awake), when suddenly, amidst the sadness, the darkness of soul, the pressure, his brain would momentarily catch fire, as it were, and all his life’s forces would be strained at once in an extraordinary impulse. The sense of life, of self-awareness, increased nearly tenfold in these moments, which flashed by like lightning. His mind, his heart were lit up with an extraordinary light; all his agitation, all his doubts, all his worries were as if placated at once, resolved in a sort of sublime tranquillity, filled with serene, harmonious joy, and hope, filled with reason and ultimate cause. But these moments, these glimpses were still only a presentiment of that ultimate second (never more than a second) from which the fit itself began. That second was, of course, unbearable. Reflecting on that moment afterwards, in a healthy state, he had often said to himself that all those flashes and glimpses of a higher self-sense and self-awareness, and therefore of the “highest being,” were nothing but an illness, a violation of the normal state, and if so, then this was not the highest being at all but, on the contrary, should be counted as the very lowest. And yet he finally arrived at a paradoxical conclusion: “So what if it is an illness?” he finally decided. “Who cares that it’s an abnormal strain, if the result itself, if the moment of the sensation, remembered and examined in a healthy state, turns out to be the highest degree of harmony, beauty, give a hitherto unheard-of and unknown feeling of fullness, measure, reconciliation, and an ecstatic, prayerful merging with the highest synthesis of life?” These vague expressions seemed quiet comprehensible to him, though still too weak. That it was indeed “beauty and prayer,” that it was indeed “the highest synthesis of life,” he could not doubt, nor could he admit of any doubts. Was he dreaming some fort of abnormal and nonexistent visions at that moment, as from hashish, opium, or wine, which humiliate the reason and distort the soul? He could reason about it sensibly once his morbid state was over. Those moments were precisely only an extraordinary intensification of self-awareness — if there was a need to express this condition in a single word — self-awareness and at the same time a self-sense immediate in the highest degree. If in that second, that is, in the very last conscious moment before the fit, he had happened to succeed in saying clearly and consciously to himself: “Yes, for this moment one could give one’s whole life!” — then surely this moment in itself was worth a whole life. However, he did not insist on the dialectical part of his reasoning: dullness, darkness of soul, idiocy stood before him as the clear consequence of these “highest moments.” Naturally he was not about to argue in earnest. His reasoning, that is, his evaluation of this moment, undoubtedly contained an error, but all the same he was somewhat perplexed by the actuality of the sensation. What, in fact, was he to do with this actuality? Because it had happened, he had succeeded in saying to himself in that very second, that this second, in its boundless happiness, which he fully experiences, might perhaps be worth his whole life. “At that moment,” as he had once said to Rogozhin in Moscow, when they got together there, “at that moment I was somehow able to understand the extraordinary phrase that time shall be no more.”
I love this, and read it over and over. Myshkin is perfectly aware that these transfigurative moments come about as the result of his epilepsy. Are they then false, the result of an abnormality? Or do these fits mysteriously reveal to him the world as it is? Is he hallucinating, or is he seeing reality? What he knows is that in those moments, he has glimpsed a truth that fills his cup to overflowing, and grasped a truth worth living and dying for.
This is a mystical religious state, of course, but it is also a state that one who has a high degree of sensitivity to art can at times enter into. I have never been overwhelmed in precisely this way by art, but I can think of at least two aesthetic occasions — one, seeing the Chartres cathedral for the first time, and the second, watching a performance of The Gospel At Colonus in Austin, Texas, on the night of October 11, 1996, in which art so overwhelmed me as to be transfigurative. I was not the same after experiencing those moments of revelation. Later, I could submit my reaction to those aesthetic experiences to reason, but then I think, as Myshkin does, that one has to murder the moment to dissect it.
The disciples on Mount Tabor could not prove that they had seen Jesus transfigured. They could not prove that they had not been hallucinating. They could only accept it on faith. If you had witnessed that, would you have concluded that you had been drugged, or had had a seizure, or had been out of your mind in some sense? Could you give your whole life for a moment like that? To have been taken to the mountaintop, literally and figuratively, requires going back down, and the intensity of what you see at the mountaintop compels you to descend into “dullness, darkness of soul, [and] idiocy.” When you apply reason to it, you feel like an idiot. And yet … it happened.
This was a religious moment for the disciples, obviously. But it was also a transformative aesthetic one. They saw something that not only confounded their reason, but utterly overwhelmed it. In a lesser way, but on the same continuum, we can perceive fragments of this in the greatest art, and the most compassionate deeds.
Everything can be rationalized away if you try hard enough. But sometimes, reason does not enlighten; it endarkens and blinds.
A library full of theological genius is a glorious thing, but not worth the rose window at the Chartres cathedral, or a single Mahalia Jackson spiritual, or William Byrd’s Agnus Dei, or the sight of St. Maximilian Kolbe volunteering to die in Auschwitz in the place of a fellow prisoner, a stranger to him, but a man who had a wife and children, or Dr. Matthew Lukwiya’s sacrifice for his Ebola patients, or, I would wager, the thought of the love of Gen. Majid Ahmed Saadi, risking and giving his own life to save the lives of strangers who weren’t even of his own religion.
As St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of all Western theologians, said after a mystical vision near the end of his life, that he could write no more because after what he had seen, all he has written was like straw. Aquinas never told a soul what his vision was, but he surely saw the Uncreated Light. In 2002, then-Cardinal Ratzinger called on Christians to rediscover the transfigurative power of Beauty, which is not the same as “superficial aestheticism” or “irrationalism.” More:
True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality, “how it is Christ himself who is present and in an ineffable way disposes and forms the souls of men.”
Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.
All too often arguments fall on deaf ears because in our world too many contradictory arguments compete with one another, so much so that we are spontaneously reminded of the medieval theologians’ description of reason, that it “has a wax nose”: In other words, it can be pointed in any direction, if one is clever enough. Everything makes sense, is so convincing, whom should we trust?
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”
The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.
In a rich way Pavel Evdokimov has brought to light the interior pathway that an icon establishes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight.” Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendor of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
Beauty is all around. It is the language of the divine. Let him see who has eyes to see, and be changed by the sight. Let him who has ears to hear do likewise.
A blessed feast to you all, even those who do not observe.