March 11, 2017
“And he was transfigured before them” (Mt 17:2)
When I first entered the monastery, I couldn’t get over being surrounded by nuns. In the church or the refectory or the cloister – nuns, everywhere I looked! I would giggle to myself and imagine taking a surreptitious photograph to send as a postcard to my friends. In spite of a longstanding desire to be a nun, or perhaps because of it, my sense of what a nun could be was very limited. There is a tendency to see the habit and imagine a life of holiness and devotion, without realizing that there is a flesh and blood person inside that habit. What gave me the most joy in those first days, weeks and months was having my cardboard cut-out image of a nun marvelously humanized by the women I was living with. I loved how they would make fun of each other, sing a silly song on someone’s birthday, gobble up sausages on July fourth (the one regular meat day of the year…), and demonstrate an eccentric choice of socks.
Having become used to my sisters’ humanity, next came amazement at an unexpected glimpse of someone’s profound spiritual identity. Imagine living and working with people, seeing them every day amidst the ordinary tasks and events of life. We see them eating, washing dishes, brushing their teeth, typing, mopping the floor, stirring the soup, dropping something and picking it up. Then a moment comes when the veil is removed and we see them lit from within by the light of God. It may be an act of selfless kindness that takes our breath away, or a word of wisdom, or catching sight of them at prayer. They seem suddenly to have taken on greater depth, goodness and beauty than we ever suspected. They are themselves, more than ever, but somehow transformed, transfigured.
Such a moment occurred for me when I went with two or three others to pick fruit at a neighbor’s farm. The raspberry plot was a jungle of thorns, and I was making a big deal out of avoiding getting pricked. One sister said to me, offhandedly: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16: 5). This stopped me in my tracks, because it was anything but a starchy pious exhortation. It was a word of earthy wisdom given unselfconsciously and with a dash of humor. And it was a profound statement about how our goal of following Christ is pursued through the most ordinary of daily realities. In that moment, she was transfigured, and so was I.
Then, the dreariness of ordinary reality sets in, and we see these people going about their business, forgetting things, putting their foot in their mouth, apologizing and doing it again, and we wonder if what we saw was real. Wouldn’t we like to pitch our tent on the mountain and live among people visibly glowing with inner light? That is not the reality of our daily experience. But we do believe that the light we saw emanating from them in that peak moment is a revelation of who they truly are in the sight of God. It is real and not an illusion. But it is incomplete – a reality in the process of being brought about by God’s ever-active Spirit. It would be false to expect of people that they live up to the full truth of themselves at every moment. Brokenness is part of human beauty. But it may also be that we have in mind a false image of that person, and our desire to see them conform to it is a means of exercising control over them. We need to cultivate great reverence for God’s work in each person. We need faith that something is simmering under the surface. Some day we may be privileged to see it again.
“See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the wilderness I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.” (Is 43:19)
Image: J. Kirk Richards