In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI writes– “The mountain is the place of ascent – not only outward, but also inward ascent; it is a liberation from the burden of everyday life, a breathing in of the pure air of creation; it offers a view of the broad expanse of creation and its beauty; it gives one an inner peak to stand on and an intuitive sense of the creator.”
And later he adds “The transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself “light from light.””
If, for Our Lord, the Transfiguration was a prayer event the possibility is, for us, that our prayer can become a transfiguration event: if we precede it by ascending the mountain. But, you say, this is just the sort of thing people write in these annoying spiritual self-help books, what does it actually mean? Which is a fair question. Let me see if I can unpack it a little.
Usually when we start a period of prayer our minds are filled with the urgent necessities of mundane daily life- the children will demand to be fed shortly, the boss is insistent about the deadline being met, sharp artistic differences have emerged over that difficult second album- so we need to do something to change our focus. This is the beginning of the ascent. If we are Catholics we can start off by saying some of the prayers we have memorised, the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be is a favoured combination, in order to disassociate from our immediate worries. Of course as Catholics its perfectly possible we can gabble them out in auto-pilot mode without even slightly disengaging our minds from what lies behind let alone engaging them with what lies ahead.
A certain amount of effort then is required, try to pay attention to the words we are using, slow down our usual prayer rate to half-speed. If our worries about stuff are still at the forefront of our minds we shouldn’t hesitate to repeat prayers we have already said, perhaps adding others, like the Salve Regina, to them. Putting a crucifix or icon in front of our eyes can also help in the process of changing gear. If the world and its worries begins to fade into the background at least a little way then we have begun ascending.
In climbing we often have a split awareness. On the one hand we are largely absorbed in the physically demanding and often rather dreary business of putting one foot in front of another over challenging terrain and on the other we are somewhat aware of the vista beginning to unfold below as as we mount higher and higher. At this stage of our prayer time when the ‘burden of everyday life‘ is no longer so insistently present to our mind’s eye we can perhaps take up our beads and begin to meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary. Or maybe we can read a short passage from the Gospel or Epistles and then hold it in our minds. The emphasis here is on short, our concern in this exercise is not to be analysts of Scripture but recipients of the Spirit. That is, we should concentrate on accepting what He offers us now, today, at this moment, rather than working out elaborate ideas about this or that doctrine or aspect of theology.
Actually there are a whole host of things we could do during this stage of the ascent. We might follow the example of the good Jesuit St Ignatius Loyola and imaginatively envisage a Gospel episode to ourselves. We might repeat some aspirations which speak particularly to us (on my old blog I wrote about Frequent Ejaculation which might be helpful here.) Or we might express in our own words, directly or through our favourite saints, our need to offer praise, blessing, adoration, petition and intercession to Our Lord.
Whatever it is that we do it should hopefully be leading us into purer air. Ideas and thoughts about the mundane will still insistently present themselves before our consciousness but as soon as we become aware of their presence we can just let them go as they came, not engaging with or fighting against them, just noting that as they arose without our willed intent so they can easily depart the self same way.
It’s not always easy to know for certain when we have arrived at the peak. We may be continuing with our Rosary, we might be simply breathing in and out the names of Jesus and Mary, or perhaps we are silent, mind and voice both stilled. While some religious traditions aim at the experience of emptiness as such, for Christians the hope is only to be empty of self and to be filled with Christ. There are many ways He can come to us, indeed He is with us always if we are in a state of grace, prayer is the time when we can change our vision enough to perceive His presence and respond to it.
What we see from the mountain peak depends on our eyesight, on what is there to be seen and on the weather. This reflects the complex interplay between our capacity to know God, what He chooses to reveal of Himself to us at this moment, and our deep inner response to the action of grace in our heart. He may send us darkness to strengthen our patience. He may be the Light that makes all else appear darkness to us. Or He may send us any one of an infinite number of things but faith can tell us that whatever He sends or retains is just exactly what we need at this time. Sometimes it will be that prayer is indeed a transfiguration event for us but whether or no this is the case it will nevertheless always be a transformative event. Little by little, constantly repeated the daily act of prayer will reshape us more and more in the likeness of Him whom we adore.
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The picture is Mount Tabor by Adrien Egron