Sometimes on retreat I give lumps of potter’s clay to people and ask them to make various symbolic forms. Making things with clay is an unusual manner of making. Usually we make things either by addition or by subtraction: if you are building a wall, for example, it’s by addition of brick to brick; if you are carving a figure, it is by subtraction. But with clay you have the same amount of material from start to finish; there is no addition, no subtraction; instead there is transformation. To experience this day after day can lead to an awareness of personal transformation.
‘Transfiguration’ would be another name for it. We need an occasional transfiguration. Our ordinary life, without addition or subtraction, needs to be suffused occasionally with what the Eastern Churches call “the light of Tabor.” We have tended to identify Christian doctrines with their formulation in fixed words, and then to describe everything else as ‘subjective’. We do so badly need the light of Tabor.
“Imagine all the people...” sang John Lennon. He imagined a perfect world: “Nothing to live or die for, and no religion too.” But Viktor Frankl, recounting his experiences in a concentration camp during the Second World War, wrote, “One can endure almost any kind of how if one has a why.” He had seen people die, he said, from loss of meaning. In affluent countries the suicide rate is climbing drastically. When you have everything except meaning, you have nothing to live or die for; and that, far from being a perfect world, is an unendurable one.
See how a person’s face brightens when he or she sees the meaning of something, even if it’s only the meaning of a joke, or a puzzle. Imagine what it must be like to know the meaning of life itself! (We all say we do, but we don't really.) We would be transfigured.
We need small daily transfigurations. In moments of stillness, of prayer, the divinity surrounding us is glimpsed. The chores, the ordinary things we do, while remaining what they are, are transfigured with meaning. The advertisers try to persuade us that we can grow only by addition: by constantly acquiring new products. But I have to make something of my life moment by moment: I have to work with what I have, moment by moment. Otherwise I will never change.Isn't the Transfiguration a joyful theme? Why are we reading this passage in Lent? (2nd Sunday). First, because Lent is a joyful season! (the Preface of the Mass calls it “this joyful season of Lent”). And second, because very little transfiguration ever happens without self-denial of some kind. The world tells us that the richer we are the happier we will be; but look at someone who is ten times richer than you are and ask if he is ten times happier, ten times more alive. Look closely at the face, at the eyes. Riches may improve a person’s clothes, but they do not transfigure his or her person. Real transformation or transfiguration is from within. It usually happens when we are in a crisis, at our limit, at the end of our resources. Jesus was. Immediately after, he began to speak of his imminent suffering and death. The glory shines through when we are fully at grips with life and death, and not when we are trying to insulate ourselves from them.