“While He Was Praying...”
A sermon preached for the Feast of the Transfiguration at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, Woodstock, NY, 8/6/17; Luke 9:28-36.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus comes around twice a year, once during Epiphanytide and then again today on the Feast of Transfiguration. I’ve wondered over the years how much can be said about this passage—why are we given it twice?—but I’m beginning to think it’s pretty inexhaustible, because as we prayed it together at the Thursday night Eucharist in preparation for this morning it spoke to me afresh once again.
The line that stirred for me was right there at the beginning: “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed…” While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed. And that’s as far as I got in the text! What is it about praying that can change the appearance of our face? What is it about praying that can make us radiant with the light of God?
This whole text, this whole experience, hinges on the fact that Jesus praying. Now often we think of prayer simply as a conversation with God, and that’s not untrue. But the deeper strands of the Christian tradition have always said that true prayer is much more a state of being, a quality of presence—and that everything else—our conversations with God, intercessions, thanksgivings—are riding on the surface of that deeper prayer. And the saints tell us that deep prayer like that is tied to living from our hearts, from a deeper center, and not being so caught up in our heads. Allowing our attention to drop from our head down into our heart and our body, so that we’re open to deeper wisdom, deeper knowing.
And we’ve worked with this kind of prayer here before, but it’s something good to come back to again and again. So I invite you right now just to take a moment to let your awareness drop from your mind down into your breath and into your heart and then to rest for a moment in that presence. Drop out of your busy mental center, where we usually stake our center of selfhood, and drop into the warmth of the heart, the rhythm of your breath. Feel the spaciousness that’s always available to us. When we can be present in this way, our worship deepens, our prayer deepens. And while you’re resting in your heart, listen to these words from St. Theophane the Recluse:
When attention descends into the heart, it attracts all the powers of the soul and body into one point there. This concentration of all human life in one place is immediately reflected in the heart by a special sensation that is the beginning of future warmth. This sensation, faint at the beginning, becomes gradually stronger, firmer, deeper.
Attention gives birth to warm tenderness of heart, which in turn increases attention. They grow in strength together, supporting each other. They give depth to prayer…
And he adds that while you can add words to this kind of prayer,
If the mind becomes exhausted by saying the words of the prayer, then pray without words, bowing down before the Lord inwardly in your heart and giving yourself to Him. This is true prayer. Words are only prayer’s expression and are always weaker in God’s eyes than prayer itself.
So continue with awareness in that heart space, as you’re able, and you can open your eyes if you’ve closed them. “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.” Do you feel that your own appearance is a little different right now? When we are rooted and grounded in that prayerful place, we do change. We’ve all seen light dancing in the face, in the eyes, of someone who lives prayerfully. And we know what our faces, our eyes, our energy can be like when we’re not living prayerfully.
In place of the psalm this morning you’ll have noticed that we chanted a poem, Malcolm Guite’s sonnet Transfiguration, which of course is a reflection on this morning’s Gospel text. In it he writes that “The Love that dances at the heart of things / Shone out upon us from a human face” and he calls this seeing a “glimpse of how things really are.” What if the disciples’ seeing in this text, seeing Jesus transfigured by light, is just that—a glimpse of how things really are—if we could look with prayerful eyes. Everything shining from within with the light and glory of God. Our Christian tradition calls this “seeing with the eye of the heart.”
Now significantly, the text tells us, “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory…” “Sleep” in the lexicon of our Christian spiritual tradition is a term used to describe our conventional, constricted state of consciousness; when we’re caught up on the surface of life, when we’re selfish, shallow, impulsive—we’re spiritually asleep.
Prayer, on the other hand, is the state of wakefulness, the state of living from the heart. Prayer is letting the light shine through us and seeing the light in others. And our text says although they were weighed down with sleep, they were not asleep. And since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory. How for each of us, when we’re weighed down with the world, when the world is trying to push us into that state of spiritual sleep, of constricted consciousness, what can we do to continue seeing the light and glory of God? We come back to the heart, back to the center—we come back to prayer.
Again, the saints tell us that one of the qualities most cultivated when we live from the heart is humility—and that self-importance is one of the greatest blinders that prevents us from seeing things as they really are—one of the things that puts us to sleep. A friend recently shared a quotation with me from Thomas Merton that says this perfectly:
In humility is the greatest freedom. So long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart. As soon as you compare that shadow with the shadows of other people, you lose all joy, because you have begun to trade in unrealities, and there is no joy in things that do not exist...
As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously, and imagine that your virtues are important because they are yours, you become the prisoner of your own vanity and even your best works will blind and deceive you. Then in order to defend yourself, you will see faults everywhere in the actions of others. And the more unreasonable importance you attach to yourself and your own works, the more you will tend to build up your own idea of yourself by condemning others.
We all do this constantly. But it’s very hard to do when we’re living from our hearts and not our heads. When we’re living in prayer. “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.” I wonder if moments before, trekking up the mountain, Jesus had felt annoyed with Peter, James, and John… but then, “while he was praying…” When you feel annoyance, impatience, anger on your face, see if you can gently move into that space of the heart, that place of prayer… and the chances are, the appearance of your face will change—will soften, relax, become a bit more radiant.
I'll close with a poem by Christine Lore Weber titled “Mother Wisdom Speaks”; in it she writes about this process of being opened and transfigured by God. She writes—or better, God speaks:
Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain.
I will hollow you with knives.
I will not do this to make you clean.
I will not do this to make you pure
You are clean already.
You are pure already.
I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this for the space that you will be.
I will do this because you must be large.
People will find their way through you.
People will eat from you.
And their hunger will not weaken them to death.
A cup to catch the sacred rain.
My daughter, do not cry.
Do not be afraid.
Nothing you need will be lost.
I am shaping you.
I am making you ready.
Light will flow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light.
Your bones will shine.
The round open center of you will be radiant.
I will call you brilliant one.
I will call you daughter who is wide.
I will call you transformed.
I will call you transfigured. Transfigured like Christ whose face changed as he prayed, Christ who was filled with light as he prayed. That is what prayer can do in us—it can allow the experiences of life to carve us open rather than shut us down. It can wake us out of our spiritual sleep. It can open the eye of our hearts, so that we can see things as they really are.