The Radiance of God's Glory
On the fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time we heard a passage from Isaiah which stated that if we offer our love to our neighbors by sharing what we have, we will literally shine with the glory of God: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:8) Isaiah knew a lot about experiencing the glory of God and the effects of such an encounter because he had a powerful vision of God when he was called to be a prophet. He heard the angels cry “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts” and he saw them surrounding God seated upon His throne in Heaven. (Isaiah 6) His vision of the glory of God was so great that it changed Isaiah forever. Not only was he glad to serve God knowing fully the dangers involved in bearing a message few wanted to hear, but his love emboldened him to do exactly that. Isaiah was a man so in love with God, so in awe of God, it affected every word that came from his mouth. That is, in seeing the glory of God, he could now speak His word with a brilliance, or radiance, that continues to shine for us today.
Two other major prophets from that era also had life changing experiences of God’s glory similar to that of Isaiah. As a young man Jeremiah was called by God while praying in the Temple in Jerusalem. God came to him in a vision far too great to be described in any detail, though he did write that God’s hand touched him on the lips, putting His word into Jeremiah’s mouth. (Jeremiah 1:4-10) His lips literally burned with the radiance of that touch, empowering him to serve God even in the face of the suffering he endured as a prophet. Ezekiel also had a vision at the beginning of his prophetic ‘career.’ Already in captivity, he was praying at the banks of a river in Babylon when the glory of God shone all around him. Ezekiel was so overwhelmed by the radiance of God that he could only describe it in terms of fiery wheels and the cherubim that accompanied them. (Ezekiel 1-3) Ironically, God had him prophesy while completely mute. That is, he had to act out all the messages to a people who were not listening to God. His experience of God’s glory enabled him to endure the humiliations which came as a result of his actions. And when his prophecies came to be reality and all the people were enslaved by the king of Babylon, Ezekiel finally spoke words to them, words of consolation and God’s mercy, filled with the radiance of God’s glory.
Of course, the Transfiguration of Jesus is the most exquisite manifestation of God’s glory expressed in radiance. All three synoptic gospels say that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor and became so resplendent that He glowed intensely. His divinity shone as He was surrounded by the brilliant cloud of the Spirit while the glorious voice of the Father declared Jesus as the Son to whom they should listen. In being transfigured before them Jesus shared the most intimate expression He could offer his friends. Although at the time they were so overwhelmed that Luke says they were speechless, (Luke 9:36) the glory of this moment stayed deep in their hearts, perhaps enabling them to preach sermons filled with love and joy after the resurrection of Jesus (of which they were also witnesses through their encounters with the radiant Risen Christ). The fire of that love touched many people, enabling them to also accept Jesus as their Lord.
While there are many Christian saints who radiated the love of God, the best example of living this radiance was St. Seraphim of Sarov, born in 1754 in Kursk, Russia. At the age of 18 he entered a monastery to live an ascetic life, fasting frequently and withdrawing into the forest with permission from his starets (a spiritual elder renowned for wisdom) in solitude, prayer, and contemplation. He was ordained in 1793 and further withdrew for contemplation, eventually coming to be regarded as a starets in his own right. What makes him most remarkable however, are the stories of the radiance with which he was filled. Seraphim spent so much time in contemplation that he eventually became imbued with the radiance of God so as to seem to ‘catch fire.’ The most famous of these episodes was detailed by a close follower named Nicholas Motovilov. According to Motovilov, St. Seraphim was teaching him about the Holy Spirit one particular day, “but Motovilov still did not understand. The elder then firmly took him by the shoulder and said to him, "We are both now, my dear fellow, in the Holy Spirit." It was as if Motovilov's eyes had been opened, for he saw that the face of the elder was brighter than the sun. In his heart Motovilov felt joy and peace, in his body a warmth as if it were summer, and a fragrance began to spread around them. Motovilov was terrified by the unusual change, but especially by the fact that the face of the starets shone like the sun. But St. Seraphim said to him, "Do not fear, dear fellow. You would not even be able to see me if you yourself were not in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Thank the Lord for His mercy toward us."” * In opening his eyes to the radiance of God in Seraphim, Motovilov also opened his heart and therefore he, too, was aglow.
It seems that when we have an intimate relationship with God we cannot help but respond with great joy which gives us a type of radiance. We cannot hold it in any more than the prophets or St. Seraphim could withhold the words which burned in their hearts, radiating the fire of God’s message of love to His people. And, this radiant glory is catching! Isaiah wrote, “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” [Isaiah 58; Italics mine] Jesus taught about this generous love in many of his sermons, particularly the passage found in Matthew 25:31-46. In other words, if we share the love of God, which is His glory, by works of justice and by reaching out to the suffering, whether their affliction is poverty, sickness, loneliness, alienation or mourning; if we feed those hungering for a place to call home, or longing for food, clothing, or relationship, then the light of love, the symphony of goodness and mercy, and the radiance of God, will overcome the darkness.
We can seek to grow in the ability to know God’s glory through our prayer by asking to see and hear with the eyes and ears of faith. During the prayer most likely our experience will not be the same as the overwhelming glory experienced by the prophets, apostles, or St. Seraphim, but by opening the door to God we enable our ability to begin to see God’s glory outside of the prayer time through creation and especially in His people. Anytime we have an experience of God, whether it is through love, beauty, or radiance, the joy of it propels us outward in love toward others: we simply cannot hold it in. In other words, God’s glory is something we can impart to others. God chose to share His glory with His intimate friends like Abraham, Moses, Deborah, Ruth, David, Elijah, Esther, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; and with John the Baptist, Mary, Elizabeth, James, John, Andrew, Peter, Paul, and the countless saints like Seraphim of Sarov who came after them. And these men and women shared it with us through their writings or actions because they wanted to make a response to God, but they also wanted us to share in what they had experienced. They could not contain it since God’s glory begs to be shared!
The glory of God is the love which binds us together as a people, and subsequently it also brings God great joy because we are His. Thus we, His church, are beautiful in His eyes and are indeed nothing short of His glory. If His love and beauty have been entrusted to us, who are His glory, we cannot but share it with the waiting, hurting, longing, hungry world with whom He counts on us to share. Let us seek to become God’s glory more deeply, that we might shine like St. Seraphim so “light shall rise in the darkness and the gloom shall become like midday.”
May we spend time in prayer so that we might open ourselves to discovering the glory of God in our daily lives! May we ask for the gift of experiencing God’s glory through love, beauty, or the radiance of joy! May we make a response to the Lord in gratitude for His great glory by reaching out to those in our midst who are in need! May we recognize and accept the love of God who loves us as His Church, individually, and as One Body! And may we allow the presence of God to reside deep in our hearts that we might share the Gospel message in word and deed, touching the hearts of our brothers and sisters! Let us continue to meet in the radiant heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next entry will be March 13
* This quote is from the testimony of Nicholas Motovilov and was found at the following link:
https://orthodoxwiki.org/Seraphim_of_Sarov. The complete testimony of Motovilov is found in a very lengthy article which you can find here if interested: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx
1. This is a photo which I took at Boothbay Harbor, Maine. At the time I took it, the reflection of the setting sun on the clouds caught my attention; the golden radiance upon everything truly reflected the glory of God.
2. I took this photo in Big Bend National Park in west Texas. This is a small offshoot of the Rio Grande River on the border of Texas and Mexico. It seemed to be a fitting example of what it may have been like for Ezekiel to be praying at the river in Babylon, perhaps struck by the beauty of the place just as the glory of God began to break through to him. I chose this particular shot because it captured the radiance of the early afternoon sun reflecting upon the water; but also there is a streak of light, a reflection from the overhead sun, caught by the lens of the camera as if God was beginning to reveal His glory as to Ezekiel.
3. This is The Transfiguration of Jesus by Bl. Fra Angelico. This painting, which resides at the convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy, captures the radiance of the event. He paints an egg shaped cloud, the Shekinah (the Holy Spirit's presence) around Jesus. I also love that he added the faces of Moses and Elijah who also experienced the glory of God, and that he added St. Dominic, who for Fra Angelico was a luminary. Fra Angelico was a Dominican priest and therefore St. Dominic was his spiritual father. Finally he added Mary, to whom he had a great devotion. (To be clear, Mary was not present at the Transfiguration, nor was St. Dominic of course!) This explanation might help, also: http://idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.com/2011/03/fra-angelico-transfiguration-in-cell-6.html
4. This painting depicts St. Seraphim radiant with joy before Nicholas Motovilov. I do not know who painted this, but I found it at the end of the page at https://orthodoxcatholicmonastery.com/tag/st-seraphim-of-sarov/
5. This is a modern version of a Russian icon and was written by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is called Umilenie Icon Joy of All Joys. This type of icon was a favorite of St. Seraphim. It seems he had a great devotion to Mary as depicted here and that it was he who referred to the icon as "Joy of All Joys." In fact, it is said that he died while kneeling before it. I chose this one because it truly does convey the radiance of God which filled Mary. Her joy became the joy of so many who have come to know Jesus. You can find this icon at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/umilenie-icon-joy-of-all-joys-156-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. This is a painting called Dawn Over Riddarfjarden by Eugène Jansson, (1899) a Swedish painter. I chose it because it captures the beginning of a sunrise and so the sun is just beginning to illuminate the sky and surrounding area. Jansson captured the slight glow of the sun in reflection upon the water, a touch that is masterful. It reminds me that God's glory can come in something as 'ordinary' as a sunrise. It does not have to be something dramatic to convey God's glory; we simply need to learn to see.
7. I took this photo in Boston while walking in a public garden. Once again, it is a reminder that the glory of God comes in many forms. This simple rose gave me joy in that it spoke of the glory of God reflected in that which He has made.
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Heart Speaks to Heart