Recently something happened to me that had never happened before: someone called me "Mommy." I was stunned when it happened because the person who called me this was a complete stranger. Not only that, I have not been blessed with children, (though I am married), so there is no one to address me with that wonderful title. But this experience has stayed with me for many reasons, not the least of which was being addressed as Mommy. Mostly it is because the man who addressed me reminded me that an opportunity to love can come at any time. This man was obviously very poor and may have been homeless. In the short exchange, which only took a few minutes, our lives intersected and communion took place.
Our encounter began as I was leaving a rather nice restaurant in New Orleans. Since it had begun to rain, my husband dashed to get the car and I stepped out onto the sidewalk under the covering. I was holding a plastic bag filled with to-go boxes of food. That is when a relatively young man approached me and called to me: "Mommy!" He did not speak English, and asked me if I spoke Spanish, to which I indicating that I did not. I truly thought he was asking me for a handout of cash because I thought he had said, "Money" rather than "Mommy." And admittedly I was not sure I should open my wallet, not knowing how safe it was to do so.
But when he called to me the second time, he said, "Mommy. Food." I stopped in my tracks. I realized he was not asking for money, but that he was addressing me as Mommy. I was confused, since I did not know why he would call me that. He looked desperate, and it was clear to me that he was hungry. I gave him what I was holding, wishing I had a plastic fork or something, but he took it gratefully, saying ‘thank you’ as best he could. It was then that our gaze met. There was such gratitude in his eyes, but we did not speak the same language so it remained unspoken. However, the message was loud and clear. I was so moved that I smiled and touched his shoulder, and he also smiled, though more with his eyes than his mouth, because he was already beginning to eat. I know that not everyone likes to be touched, but sometimes touch bridges a gap like nothing else can. At that moment, there was a sense of communion. The touch joined us somehow.
Many years ago when I was living in another city, I had a similar encounter with a homeless woman whose left arm ended just above the elbow. I would see her in the streets quite often, along with a group of homeless people who would go to a nearby fast food restaurant where they were welcomed. They would pool their scant money and share among themselves whatever food they could afford. It was an amazing community of men and women. One day I saw the one-armed woman at a church across town. She told me she had a daughter in that area and was visiting! When next I saw her it was some months later, back in our neighborhood. When I saw her, I went over to greet her and she smiled, delighted that I remembered her. As we were speaking I put my hand on her disfigured arm without really thinking. Her face lit up as if I had given her gold. It clearly meant so much to her that I touched her as if we were longtime friends. I never forgot that. Reaching out and touching someone can be a greater gift than money. In that touch was communion.
Since my recent experience I have come to find out that what the man in New Orleans said to me was not Mommy, but Mami which is a colloquialism in Spanish, sometimes used as an address to a woman such as we might address someone as "Lady.” Whereas Señora would have been formal, such as ‘Madam’ might be, he used the more informal Mami. Why he did so, I do not know, but at the end of the brief encounter we both had tears in our eyes.
While giving money to the poor is a good thing in many situations, what people also need is love and to be seen as a person with dignity, not as someone of no importance. In this case, it was not only the food that made the connection between the man and me. It was a meeting of two people who had something to give each other. He initiated it by calling me Mami. As in the other situation mentioned here, it was touch and the communion of hearts which made the difference. I realized that the man is a child of God, beautifully made, loved just as I am loved.
I am reminded of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, a man who became a beggar by choice, or a pilgrim. In those days pilgrims were people who went on foot all over Europe to pray at shrines and churches, and begged for alms along the way. St. Benedict was born in 1748 and as a young man decided to spend his life in worship of God. He entered a monastery and only lasted there a few months. He tried again and again, and every time it simply did not work out for him. That was when he decided to become a pilgrim. He was 16 years of age when he made this decision. He begged for alms as he went, but he gave away most of what he collected to other poor people! He subsisted on next to nothing and was covered with vermin which he “befriended.” (He actually referred to them as his friends!) Eventually St. Benedict made his way to Rome and was seen praying in many churches. He had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother and to the Eucharist. People came to love him so much that they were not offended by his dirty condition. But whatever they gave him, he shared. Finally in 1783 he collapsed in a church in which he had been praying and died soon thereafter.
The choices of St. Benedict Joseph Labre may seem a bit extreme, but he touched many throughout his short lifetime. He taught others both in word and in deed; his extreme humility was noted by everyone. He was embarrassed by his clothing and dirtiness, but he felt that by sharing what he had with the poor he could share the love of God. Therefore he spent his entire life worshiping God, whom he loved so very much, giving Him glory by his selfless care for those who were also poor. What a remarkable life!
We can learn something from someone like St. Benedict Joseph Labre, even if we are not attracted to his chosen extreme poverty. His way may seem strange to us, but each of us has a unique way of expressing our call to holiness. We are all called to have hearts for the poor in whatever way is appropriate for us. To be Christian is to be loving and caring of others no matter who they are or what they look like. We do not have to give money to every beggar we see, but we do have to try to do what is within our capability. Some of us have more than we need, and some of us are in need ourselves, but the fact remains that even if we cannot give monetarily there are other ways we can give of our love and our presence. What counts most is communion and that we have loved as best we can in every circumstance. In Matthew 25 Jesus makes it clear that we will be judged on the quality of our love, not on what we have or what we know. Jesus says that whatever we have done for the least of our brothers and sisters we have done for Him. We cannot judge who are the greatest or the least, but we can reach out to one another to give and receive in communion. It is in that solidarity, in letting others give to us as well as in our giving to them, that the deepest communion and love truly takes place. Communion comes in many forms and it does not have to be material to be a shared gift. What counts is that it is from the heart.
May we reach out to those in our communities and families who are in need in any way! May we be generous with our love and give from the heart! May we have hearts attuned to those who are lost, hungry, marginalized, or alienated, no matter whom they are or what their circumstances may be! And may we ask to love with the Heart of Jesus, who loves us beyond our imagining! Let us continue to be in communion with one another in the Heart of our Savior, Jesus! Peace!
The photo at the top is mine and was taken in Avila, Spain in the older part of the city.
The icon is St. Benedict Joseph Labre Patron of Homeless & Lost by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=154
Fire ants and other challenges
Recently I had a situation arise that inspired me to reflect on life's little annoyances. It began as a bit of an attempt at humor after being bitten at least a dozen times by fire ants. For those of you unfamiliar with fire ants, their bite is ferocious and leaves a "bump" that does more than itch: it hurts...a lot. They inject some sort of venom when they bite and the bumps linger for a while. Some of us are allergic to the venom. But even if one is not allergic, these critters can really wreak havoc on a person. My bites came with one handful of grassy weeds which I attempted to take out of my garden. It was a rather painful price to pay for a hasty decision to grab that handful. I never saw them until it was too late. Apparently these ants send out some sort of signal to one another so that they all bite at once. Seriously. Talk about a concerted effort!
While very painful, since my hand swelled up so much one could not see the normally prominent ligaments and such, the situation moved me to quip that I had a list of questions to ask God when I meet Him face to face. The question, given this instance, was this: Why did God create fire ants, mosquitoes, or roaches since they seem to have no purpose whatsoever except to make humans (and animals) miserable? I was kidding when I asked the question. But then I got to thinking about this more seriously. While I have no intention of making a theological claim, my thoughts ran to where God was in this situation. This is a rather Ignatian way of thinking, and since that is both my training and my spirituality it seemed a good way to go. It is an interesting question, but the root of it is not the fire ants, etc. The root of the question is in where we find God in the midst of adversity, whether it be big or small.
Truly we all have annoyances on a daily basis. We shrug most of them off and keep on moving through our day. But when there is a setback, especially one that involves physical or emotional pain, it can prove to be more challenging. The question really is not why God let something happen, or why He created something that can thwart our intentions. The challenge lies in finding our path to holiness in how we deal with these little things. Do we simply curse the cause of the annoyance and grumble the rest of the day; or worse, do we curse God? Do we rage at others when "our way" is not how the day progresses? Do we go back to bed, pulling the covers over our heads to make it go away? Or do we try to work with what has happened regardless of whether it makes sense?
How we deal with these little events will translate to how we handle the bigger challenges which are bound to come our way during our life journey. Of course, I am thinking of Job, the seemingly holy man who had his life turned upside down. In the Book of Job, we find him to be a righteous man who has it all. The author sets up the parable-like story so that we see that God allows things to happen to Job as a test, to see if Job will curse God or if he will remain faithful. Job loses everything except his life, which has been reduced to incredible suffering. Four so-called friends show up accusing him of guilt before God, believing that God has cursed him as punishment. (In those days the belief was that reward or punishment happened in this life since they did not yet believe in an afterlife.)
Job tries to hang in there, arguing against his friends who are making all sorts of outrageous claims. One friend suggests that Job really is innocent, but that God made some sort of cosmic mistake, accidentally punishing the wrong person! Another takes up a similar theme, claiming that Job's parents must have sinned and so Job is paying the price somehow. These were actually common misunderstandings about the nature of suffering at the time. They believed that sick people were being cursed by God, and that calamities were a sign that God was displeased and had removed His favor. The author of the book of Job was trying to dispel these mistaken, quite superstitious, beliefs.
The conclusion the author comes to is that God does not send evil, since God is incapable of that; he asserts that there is really no answer we can understand as to why God allows it. At the end of the book, God basically says that we humans cannot understand the mysteries of the universe, nor can we understand the intricacies of why things happen. It is simply too far above us for us to comprehend in this life. However, the author also points out that Job and his friends are actually asking the wrong question. The question they ask has no answer. That is, asking "why?" or "why me?" has no answer which we can comprehend. It is also a self-centered and self-directed question. The question Job should be asking is: "Where, O Lord, are you in this situation?" That question is other-centered and it definitely has an answer. The answer is: "I am here, my child, right with you in the midst of your pain and suffering. I am here, right by your side to give comfort and guidance and love." Therefore we learn that suffering will always be a mystery, but that we can come closer to the Lord and find our strength in Him. We do not have to look far to find God. He is right with us. The pain does not necessarily go away, but carrying the burden becomes easier with God's presence with us.
The Book of Job is about the huge hurdles life seems to throw at us, yet I began with a bunch of fire ant bites, which are small in comparison. The story translates, however. Most of our lives consist of little hurdles which come at us daily. How we handle these will reflect how we will handle the bigger challenges. If we find God in the midst of the small things we might be able to laugh at how silly they really are, re-route our course and move on. Or we might be able to learn how to see His presence more readily, bettering our understanding of Him when we turn to Him over and over throughout the day. We can come to learn more about Him through these little events, and we can come to discover the things that really matter, rather than focusing on the little derailments and annoyances that come with day to day living.
In Jeremiah God promises: “If you seek me, you will find me.” That is, if we seek His presence when both the good and the bad happen, then we can begin to see Him with us in everything. So while I wish I never had that encounter with the fire ants, maybe it was not the worst thing. And while I still do not know why God created fire ants and other annoying critters, I realize that is not the point. The point is that it became an opportunity to seek God. He was, and is, ever present.
The small indignities we suffer are very much part of the path to holiness. How we deal with them is as important as how we deal with the really serious situations. It is never easy and we are not perfect. But with God at our side we can weather the storms big and small, trusting that He is with us in each and every situation. Sometimes things seem senseless, but while we may not understand them, we can rest in our God, knowing that in the end, we will have the victory of life unending with Him. This, after all is what Christ died for. During our journey through life we need His help, which He sends us continually, to aid us in making it to the finish line.
May we find God in the midst of that which is annoying and frustrating, ever comforting and ever present! May we have the perseverance to make it through seemingly impossible situations! May we learn to see with new eyes that even in the things in life which are frustrating, God sees and is with us! May we begin to see more clearly the presence of God and the many gifts He gives us each day! And May we have the ability to have grateful hearts, knowing that we never leave His sight! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord, with His mother Mary, the Queen of Heaven! Peace!
The top photo is of an area in Ireland called the Burren, which I chose to give a sense of barrenness. The icon is by Rev. William Hart McNichols and is called Holy Prophet Job. The bottom photo was taken in Nova Scotia. (A reminder that the icon is copyrighted material, as is all that appears on this page.)
© Michele L. Catanese
In the Realm of the Heart
The Feast of the Assumption of Mary is a magnificent celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose life culminated in a beautiful death and resplendent arrival into Heaven. It is also a wonderful celebration of the role of Mary, a kind of thanksgiving for her assent to bringing salvation into the world. And it is a celebration of the power of the love of God which filled Mary throughout her life and triumphed over death.
Not much is known about Mary’s life after the death and resurrection of Jesus, but we do know that she was in the care of St. John the Apostle, the one "who Jesus loved." Some traditions have Mary going to Ephesus, in what is now Turkey, and assert that she lived there for the better part of the rest of her life, dying and being assumed into Heaven there. Others say that she returned to the Jerusalem area and died there, also attesting to her assumption into Heaven. Whichever of these traditions is true, there was testimony handed down which teaches that upon the moment of her death, her body and soul were reunited and she was taken bodily into Heaven. Certainly she merited this, given how much she suffered and how much she gave herself totally to the desires of God. She dedicated her life to serving the Father through His Son, who was also her son: Jesus was not only her Messiah and her God, but He was her son, too. That is a lot to get one's head around, so it is no wonder she pondered so much during her lifetime, as the Gospel of Luke tells us!
It is good for us to realize that mystery is very important for us to ponder, to pray about. That Mary had so much to reflect upon helps us to realize that we are not meant to understand everything that happens in our life of faith. I find it consoling that she struggled with it, too. She spent years with Jesus, yet she did not understand things any better than any one of us. But what makes this so important is that she teaches us that understanding is often a matter of the heart, not of the intellect. All that pondering, or meditation and contemplation, allowed her to expand her heart maybe more than her mind. That is why we can have less difficulty understanding the Assumption (or any other mystery of the faith) if we allow ourselves to also ponder as she did. It is a matter of the heart "understanding" rather than purely the intellect.
That is not to say that we should give up trying to understand our faith; not at all. We should do our best to understand and to know what our faith teaches us, rather than to blindly accept everything without allowing it to take hold in our understanding. If we do not try to understand as best we can, we cannot really grow in our faith. It would remain childish and never mature. However, we also need to allow that which is beyond us to become part of us, and that means we need to allow ourselves to do as Mary did: we can "know" by immersing ourselves in the mystery and letting it envelop us. This takes place in the realm of the heart, which is a place with which Mary was intimately familiar and very much at home.
The Assumption of Mary seems to be the culmination of a life lived in the realm of the heart. She once held the beating Heart of Jesus within her body, and then again after His birth she held Him near her own heart when she held Him in her arms. Therefore, she was very familiar with that Heart. From it, Mary knew what true mercy and compassion were; she learned these from observing the way of God as lived by her Son. But she also knew mercy, compassion, and the fullness of love before His birth when she was chosen to be His mother and was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, impregnated with Love. She already lived in the realm of the Heart, and continued to live even more deeply in that realm as she lived her life in service of God through serving others.
Mary's most important role after being Jesus' mother is that of intercessor, often praying to her Son, (and no doubt with Him when He lived at home with her.) We can turn to her to intercede for us, but we can also turn to her to learn more about prayer. She teaches us through her role as intercessor that we, too, can live in the realm of the heart. In fact, she calls for us to enter into that place of solitude, to join her there. During her life, Mary was often absorbed in God through prayer as she pondered and interceded and then acted upon that prayer. Therefore when she died it is only fitting that she be fully absorbed into God, as it were, both body and soul. In Heaven she continues to intercede for us and our world. And in doing so, she calls for us to ponder, and to allow our hearts to be a place where love and saying 'yes' to God are at home.
Maybe we can learn to imitate Mary by turning to her intercession for help from God when we need it. We can enter into the realm of the heart with her, as we turn to her son, Jesus. We can immerse ourselves in the life of God more abundantly simply by becoming people of love more and more. In doing this, we may be able to affect our world even if just a tiny bit, making it more filled with love and less with that which divides us. The Assumption of Mary is both consoling and a challenge to us: it is consoling to know that Mary continues to be present to us, attending to our needs, and it is challenging in that she calls us to learn how to live like her in the realm of the heart.
Let us try to make a little extra time to meet the Lord in the realm of His heart, as His mother does. Just adding a few minutes a day to spend time with Him in prayer can transform our own hearts into abodes of love. Spending time with Jesus helps us to maintain peace in difficult situations and to bring peace to others as well. It can help us to weather storms and to make difficult choices in an uncertain world. It can help us to help others, even if it is simply by our presence in a seemingly "unsolvable" situation. It is our calling to grow in holiness. And the best way to grow in holiness it is by spending time with the Lord in order to learn the ways of the heart, to be empowered by Love just as His mother was. Mary was so empowered by Love that at the end of her life, Love reunited that which was divided by death, and carried her bodily into Heaven.
That is what Love does, and that is why celebrating the Assumption of Mary is so important: it teaches us anew that Love conquers everything, even death. This is why Jesus died and rose: it is the power of Jesus’ resurrection, for which all of us, (except Mary who already has it), wait. One day our souls will be carried off by Love, and then we, too, will be reunited with our bodies once again.
Until then, may we pray to be filled with Love so as to be ready for the day of our own entrance into Heaven! May Love heal all that divides and may Love enable us to be unifiers! May we be able to enter into the realm of Love with Mary as our guide! May we be imitators of Mary, interceding on behalf of our world! May we be ambassadors of the way of peace and love, drawing on the power of the Spirit of Love! And may we be filled with gratitude for the gift of Mary, our mother! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus, which is the realm of Love, along with Mary! Peace!
All the icons on this page are by Rev. William Hart McNichols.
The top one is The Dormition of the Mother of God and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=188
The second one is called Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=323
The icon to the left is called Mother of God Given Eagle's Wings and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=110
I chose this last one because it depicts what is in the first Scripture reading in the liturgy for the Assumption of Mary (Revelation 15).
A reminder: I do not receive any benefits by promoting the work of Fr. Bill McNichols on my blog site except the joy of sharing his wonderful work with others!
Entertaining Angels Unaware
Recently I wrote about a mountain climb I experienced. I had no intention to revisit the story or the theme of that post any time soon; that is, until something came up this week. Many people have heard about the car accident that took place in Missouri in which a priest appeared out of nowhere and prayed with a young woman trapped inside the car, and then seemingly disappeared. The story has gone viral and yet no one seems to know the priest, where he came from, or where he went. Many have speculated that quite possibly he was an angel who came from heaven in response to the prayers of both the injured woman and the first responders whom she asked to pray out loud for her. So what is the connection between my mountain climb and this incident? The connection is that I had a similar experience while descending the mountain spoken of in my previous post. Therefore I have reflected upon it once again, and would like to share more of that story.
As previously mentioned, the climb up the mountain was part of a spiritual pilgrimage. The climb was difficult for me, but after a deeply moving experience at the top in which I felt enveloped by God, I found that I was no longer afraid about the height we were at. I was transfigured, in a sense, by the Holy Spirit; it was a very intimate experience. I wrote about the journey on the way up, because it was very difficult and I was really struggling to make it to the top.
On the way down, I felt very liberated and rather exhilarated. But I was still careful, as well I should have been, since the climb down was going to have challenges of its own. Much of this was because one uses many different muscles on the way down than one uses on the way up. Just as we were descending, the most experienced climber in our group, who was near the lead, fell off the side of the mountain, or at least that is how it appeared. Many of us heard his yell and saw him tumble head over heels (literally) and then he disappeared. A heart-wrenching second later we heard him yell, "I'm okay." There were seven collective exhalations from the rest of our group. When we got to him, he was on a ledge which saved his life. (I think it was because we were on a pilgrimage in which we were very much in prayer that he had this miracle!) He seemed relatively uninjured, except for one of his legs, which was swelling badly. He did not bleed a lot, which turned out to be a bad thing later on, and we were doubtful he could walk. We did not have anything to help him, except some ibuprofen for the inflammation, and I gave him my walking pole, without which I would never have gotten to the top in the first place.
Two members of our group, one of whom (ironically) was a nurse, were so far ahead that they never knew there was an accident until much later. One other man and I were dispatched to go down as quickly and safely as we could to get help. (On a comical note, my descent partner was more terrified of heights than I had been, so I tried to make him laugh all the way down to ease his fright.) As I looked back, a man appeared out of nowhere and went to where the injured one, my husband, and our pilgrimage leader were. Where this climber came from was a complete mystery: we had climbed up that mountain all the way to the top and there was no one else there. This man was clearly descending the mountain, so where did he come from? It was astounding to us. Not only that, but he just so happened to have a first aid kit with gauze and tape for the injured man's leg. He spoke Italian and our leader, who spoke English and Italian, was able to converse with this man. Our leader told me later that the man said he would go down the mountain with us until we were to safety.
When we got to a plateau near the end of the climb, but not yet finished with the hike, it was clear that the injured man could continue to the cable car and get to some medical attention without further assistance. He and my husband were a bit behind the rest of us, due to their slowed pace. The mystery man told our leader that since we no longer needed him, he would leave us. Then he looked at me, straight in the eyes, and in German said, "Auf Wiedersehen!" I am not at all fluent, but I took 4 years of German in high school. How did he know that? While lots of people know what 'auf wiedersehen' means, why did he switch to German when he had been speaking Italian and knew we spoke English? It just seemed a bit too coincidental and intentional to me. But the real shocker was that suddenly he was gone. It was as if he simply vanished. We looked to see where he may have gone and he simply was not there. There was nowhere he could have gone in which we would not have seen him walking away. Shortly afterward, the three of us who were there when this man vanished said that we felt like he must have been an angel. I still believe that.
I believe that we do "entertain angels unaware" (Hebrews 13:2) more often than we realize. There are many biblical references to angels coming in human form, such as the three angels who conversed and then dined with Abram and Sarai, (Abraham and Sarah), telling them Sarai would bear a son in her advanced age. My favorite story is of Tobias and the angel Raphael in the beautiful book of Tobit: the Archangel Raphael appeared as a man, saying his name was Azariah, and traveled incognito to help answer the prayers of Tobit and a young woman named Sarah. I believe that these experiences are not limited to biblical times. They still do happen, as the recent incident in Missouri seems to indicate.
Regardless whether one believes that angels do appear in human form from time to time, humans can and do act like angels sometimes. There are plenty of first responders who have been angels for people in distress or whose lives are in danger. There are clergy who have saved many a life by their intercession. And there are countless stories of ordinary citizens who were at the right place, at the right time to help someone in need. Additionally, there are people who volunteer their time and talent who can be as angels for the lonely, sick, dying, aged, poor, marginalized, etc. I would venture to say everyone reading this right now has acted as an angel for someone, whether they knew it or not. God can call any one of us to act as His angel and any one of us can respond and act as such at just about any time. But I do believe that real, 'bona fide' angels exist and act in our lives all the time.
The Church teaches us about angels and that we all have a Guardian angel. I do not need any more evidence in my life to believe this is true, because we have a God who loves us dearly and who wants us to be protected sometimes bodily and always spiritually. I do not understand why sometimes He allows bad things to happen to us which cause us pain, and I do not understand why one person has a miraculous occurrence and another does not, but I do believe He is with us the entire time especially when we need Him most. Maybe God sent an angel to help the woman in the car accident so as to help us all by giving us a sign that He is indeed with us. I do not know. But I do know that I believe in His never-ending love and protection for each of us in no matter what form it takes. Whatever took place in Missouri, I do know there was an angel there to give a loving touch to all of us who have heard the story, and most especially to the young woman.
May we be enabled to see the angels around us whom we may have been entertaining unaware! May we have the faith to believe in God's never-ending love and protection for us! May we call upon our guardian angel when we are in trouble, trusting that God will send us the help we need! And may we be inspired to be as an angel to another person who cries out for aid! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Loving God who sends us angels when we need them! Peace!
The man on at the top left is the "angel" in question. It is the only picture anyone got of him. I have blurred the photo intentionally to keep the identity of the injured person private. My husband is the man on the far right.
The icon at the top of the page is St. Michael the Archangel by Rev. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=46
The second icon is Guardian Angel with Little Elijah, also by Rev. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=255
I will never forget the mountain climb my husband and I experienced in 2009 while on pilgrimage in Italy. Even though it was an optional part of the pilgrimage, I found it to be both an exciting and terrifying prospect. It was exciting in that I have always been an adventurous sort of person, though I suppose as I have gotten older I am adventurous in theory more than in practice. And it was terrifying because I have always been scared of heights. But the adventurous part of me seemed to win out over the terrified part. Truth be told, when we got there I felt that I had gone all that way and needed to complete the pilgrimage. I knew that for me the mountain climb was really not an option, since I had promised to offer it up for the health needs of a special person. I could not chicken out, even though the temptation was very great at a few points. And deep inside, I knew that there was something in store for me on this vertical journey, such that I really needed to climb that mountain to find out what it was. After all, I was on a pilgrimage, and surprises from God are what pilgrimage is all about.
I suppose that climbing Mt. Mucrone is analogous to what it must have been like for the apostles. To follow Jesus was both an adventure that was exciting, and a terrifying prospect; it was very much a pilgrimage full of surprises. They were no doubt excited about John the Baptist pointing them to Jesus, saying that Jesus was the Lamb of God who was more important than he was, so they should follow Him. (John 1:35-37) But every time they thought they had Jesus figured out, he would do something terrifying like calm a raging sea, heal a blind man, teach some difficult lesson, or raise a dead man. The apostles really struggled to figure out what Jesus was all about because He said and did things no one else said or did. His lessons were not always clear to them, especially not the one about dying and rising on the third day.
For three of the apostles Jesus provided an especially surprising experience which involved climbing Mt. Tabor. Everyone knew that God revealed Himself on mountains, so just the thought of climbing a mountain with Jesus must have made them wonder. When this occurred, that they knew Jesus was God is highly doubtful. They had shown all sorts of signs that they really did not get it. In the three synoptic gospels where this event is recorded, Peter had already stated that Jesus was the Messiah, but did not seem to really understand what he had said. Nowhere does it indicate that anyone understood Jesus to be the Son of God at this point in time. Such a thought would have seemed blasphemous.
Nonetheless, Jesus asked Peter, James, and John to accompany Him up the mountain, and once to the top, He transfigured before them. That is, He changed in appearance such that He shone brilliantly with a radiance that they had never experienced before. Moses and Elijah appeared as a cloud covered everything, and all three conversed while the apostles watched in awe, not comprehending what they were witnessing. Then a voice from Heaven was heard who said: "This is my Son. Listen to Him." Suddenly everything went back to normal. Or did it? How could anything seem normal after seeing all of that? Yet as they trudged down the mountain, maybe still in a daze, Jesus asked them not to talk about it with anyone until after He had risen. More confusion! However, the men who went up the mountain were no longer the same, even though they did not yet realize it. Something had begun to shift within them, way beyond their ability to understand at that moment. But one day it would all become crystal clear.
In my own experience of climbing a mountain, I know that something did happen to me on the journey to the top. I did not see a transfiguration, but one did occur. It occurred within me. I, too, was enveloped by a cloud which settled on the mountain and it was a very consoling experience. But the transfiguration actually began on the climb up: it culminated at the top. In the four years since this experience, I have realized that I was somewhat different coming down then I was going up. Additionally, I have come to recognize that we have many transfiguring experiences in life, but like the apostles we can fail to recognize them, or simply not understand them until hopefully at some point we are ready for the message the experience contains.
The apostles who ascended that mountain realized later that Jesus was not the only one who transfigured. They saw that while He transfigured physically and externally, they began to transfigure interiorly. Little by little all the experiences they had of Jesus which had terrified or confounded them began to blossom into an interior understanding. They may not have comprehended the very mystery of it all, but they knew with their hearts and with their faith. They did not need to have intellectual understanding of these experiences, but they found that they had an inner peace and an expansion of love. What transfigured were their hearts and souls, way beyond the ability for expression in words or thoughts. And yet they were able to share it in preaching, teaching, and actions after their transfiguration was complete. That is, after Jesus died and rose, they were transformed enough to become His representatives on earth.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to witness the transfiguration of Jesus? What do you think that would be like? If you had been there what would you have done? On the way back down the mountain, would you have comments or questions? Would you even be able to speak? If for a while we can imagine what it was like for the apostles to experience this event, we might begin to understand what the transfiguration was about. As I said earlier, it was not Jesus alone who transfigured. The men who went up that mountain also began to change, and so will each of us if we recognize the transfiguring moments in our own lives.
Every challenge that comes our way is an invitation to transfigure. Every mountain we have to climb and every cloud that enfolds us is an invitation to transform and grow, especially when we feel like the road is very difficult and we are not sure we can make it. If we rely on Jesus to get us up the mountain, we can experience a change deep within our hearts and souls. The more difficult the climb, the more we can learn about ourselves and the call to holiness we each have. We can be empowered and changed deep within if we let Jesus be revealed before us and if we let Him reveal to us something new about ourselves.
Think of the moments of joy in your life, such as graduation after long years of study, your own wedding, the baptism of a child, going on a fantastic, long awaited trip, winning a prize, a birthday, getting a promotion, making a new friend, whatever it was that brought great joy, and realize that after the experience you were changed in some way. Every experience of beauty is an opportunity to become more beautiful. Every experience we have of love is an opportunity to become more loving. Jesus offers us transfiguration every time we are forgiven our sins and every time we receive a sacrament. The opportunities are always before us. But I do believe that when He reveals Himself, it is not just about Him, just as it really was not just about Him on Mt. Tabor. It is about us being changed so that we can experience His love all the more and share it all the better as His disciples. That is the key to understanding the event on Mt. Tabor that we celebrate today. It is about us accepting His presence and His great love for us, coming to know Him a bit better, and allowing ourselves to be changed by this experience. That is the way of holiness: becoming more like Jesus by allowing ourselves to be enfolded in Love to become Love.
May we open ourselves to transfiguration! May we invite Jesus into our hearts every opportunity we get, which is every moment of every day! May we have the trust to follow Jesus both up and down the mountains of transfiguration in our lives! May we see His presence in moments of challenge as well as in moments of beauty! May we be enfolded in His love and in His glory! And may we become transfigured into holiness just like the apostles! Let us continue to meet in the radiance of Love, the very heart of Jesus! Peace!
All the photos are mine. The first and second photos were taken on the way up Mt. Mucrone in northwestern Italy. The third photo is of the Gulf of Mexico transformed by the setting sun. It signifies for me a change in perception. Everything transfigured from blues, greens and whites, to reds, yellows and gold.
Heart Speaks to Heart