About four years ago I had the experience of climbing a mountain in northwestern Italy while on pilgrimage. I cannot say it was a complete joy, because it was not, at least not until we got to the top. It was one of the most arduous, scary things I have ever done. I hate heights. I must have been crazy to even consider it! On the other hand, it was not horrible either. It was scary, but it was also was one of the most eye-opening, moving experiences I have had in my life. As I said, I was on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is more than just a trip; it is a time of learning about oneself and God. And believe me, I learned a tremendous amount about both on that climb.
The climb seemed like it would be no big deal when I was told about it. (That thought should have been a “red flag”!) I knew it would not be easy: I thought it would be more like a difficult uphill hike. I could not have been more off the mark. Mt. Mucrone was very rocky, with trails marked by little red paint marks here or there to give a hint that we were on the right track. It had few real paths and one or two snow/ice fields to negotiate. (It was July 4th!) There was a lot of pulling up with our hands, and we had to use all those “hidden” muscles in our arms and legs. Trust me, I found all those muscles when they ached for days afterwards! But the point of the climb was to get to the Cross on top of the mountain. It was where Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati liked to pray from time to time. We were on a pilgrimage in his footsteps, so the climb was part of the experience. (Thank God he liked mountain climbing and not skydiving. I have my limits!)
Most of us have "done" Lent before, so we can often approach it the way I approached my climb, like it is "no big deal." We know the drill: fasting and abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving. We think it will be a challenging hike, but once we start on the journey and it gets a little harder, it is easy to be tempted to give up because we underestimated the journey. Such as any climb, Lent requires commitment because our love of God is a commitment. It means we must more give time to prayer and good works. Sometimes prayer gets rocky and the path is not all that clear. Sometimes we have to work our muscles a bit. But if we are going to be transfigured with the Lord, such as we heard in this past Sunday's gospel, we have to go to the top of the mountain with Him. Moses did not find God at the base of the mountain, and the apostles did not witness the Transfiguration until they had climbed with Jesus to the top. There was no easy path and there was no tram to take them up. They had to make the arduous climb by hand and foot. I am sure at least one of those men was like me: a bit queasy when he looked back. But the only way to the glory was by making the climb. We have to look ahead, not back.
In order to experience the glory of the Lord in our prayer we need to take that extra step in our faith life, such as going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and facing our own sinfulness in order to let it go and be transfigured by God's grace. It is in the Sacrament that we are given the strength to avoid the sins we habitually fall into. It is not enough to want to be cleansed: we have to want to change, to desire to become stronger and holier. We do this every year because it is something we need to work on our entire lives. We grow gradually. I do not believe the apostles were ready to see the Transfiguration before they climbed that mountain. They had to work hard to make it to the top in order to go through the transformation they needed. Once they got there and experienced the glory of the Lord through and in Jesus, they no doubt understood better why they needed to climb in the first place. They were not the same going down as they were going up.
I thought I was really good at trusting until I was on that mountain. I realized I trusted a lot better on flat, solid ground than when I was clinging to rocky surfaces trying to go to the next level. At some point I began to see that I was trying to do it on my own power. Once I let God have more control and began to totally rely on Him, a funny thing happened: the climb got easier. The best part came at the top. Once there, the rest of the group went across a small land bridge to the Cross (in the top photo). I stayed back to take some pictures of them from the top, but it also gave me the alone time I so desired for prayer. It was during this time that I had what I have called my "Moses experience" because the cloud rolled in and I felt enveloped by the presence of the Lord. It was an experience of deep consolation which is very difficult to put into words. When our group was about to descend, I realized that I no longer feared being up so high (approx. 7,660 feet). Most people said the climb down was more difficult. Not me! I found it was much easier. I had transfigured with the Lord in a sense, and was so moved by the experience that I had a joyful climb down.
I think this is why we hear about Moses going up the mountain and the Transfiguration of Jesus so early in Lent. It is important for us to realize that the Lenten journey can be very challenging. However, we do not make the journey alone. God knows the graces we need and also what we need to release as we climb. If we are really serious about this, we can expect some hard work. However, the rewards are so great that it is all worth it. I say, "if we are really serious" because I know how easy it is to cruise through Lent without really entering into it. The point of this season is to help us to be ready to meet Jesus when He comes, not just at the end of our life or in the Second Coming; it is to be ready when He comes every day in the "disguise" of the poor, the stranger, the lonely, the sick, the challenging, the inconvenient, the annoying, the emotionally needy, etc. He comes to us daily in our families, whether it is our spouse, sons, daughters, or an aging parent. He comes to us in our friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Often the climb feels uphill as we learn how to love in new ways and try not to let our love grow routine or lukewarm. That is the real challenge: to let our love grow ever new and ever deeper. It means we have to let go of old habits and old ways of thinking. It means we have to let Jesus lead us and that we have to truly trust Him by taking the risk of the climb. But believe me, the view from the top and the enveloping presence of the Lord is worth more than the discomfort of the journey: at the end we discover that having persevered leads us to joy.
Let us rise to the challenge and take the next step on our journey, adding a bit more time for prayer in order to let the Lord reveal to us what keeps us from transfiguring with Him. We need to let Him guide us. Let us trust Him enough to lead us across what seems insurmountable in our lives. Let us let go of all that holds us back, especially fear. He will always keep His promise to be with us and He will never force us to the top. More than anything, He wants to share His glory and the heights of His love with us.
May we let go of fear and continue to take another step each day of our Lenten journey! May we trust that even if we hesitate or stumble, Jesus will help us to get up and keep making the journey to our goal, which is a deeper relationship with God! May we have faith to trust in God, hope to not give up on the Lenten commitments we have made, and love to motivate us to get closer to the Lord who wants nothing more than to have the same intimate friendship with us that He had with Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John! May we continue to meet in the midst of the cloud where Jesus transfigures, so that we, too, may be transfigured by Love! Peace!
The top photo was one of the pictures I took while on Mt. Mucrone. The cross was actually a little lower than where I was, on an outcropping across the land bridge.
The image is The Holy Spirit, The Lord, the Giver of Life, the Paraclete, Sender of Peace by Rev. William Hart McNichols. At the Transfiguration the voice of the Father is heard and the Holy Spirit comes as the Shekinah, the protective presence of the Holy Spirit.
If you are interested, you can find the image at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=189.
Heart Speaks to Heart