Transfigurating Practices

by Aristotle Papanikolaou  |  ру́сский

On the day of our Lord’s Transfiguration, whose feast day is celebrated on August 6th, Jesus took with him three disciples, Peter, John and James (Mt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36).  They are at the ‘high’ mountain, which is often a place of revelation in the Bible, and at this mountain Jesus is transfigured. St. Matthew tells us, “He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.” St. Luke narrates that the “appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening.” St. Mark says, “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.”

The story, in short, teaches us about what the Church has affirmed for centuries:  the divinity of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the God-man, truly God and truly human.  As Rowans Williams so eloquently puts it, “Jesus’ human life is shot through with God’s life, he is carried on the tide of God’s eternal life, and borne towards us on that tide, bringing with him all the fullness of the creator” (The Dwelling of the Light, 6).

The other thing that we learn from the story of Jesus’s transfiguration concerns us, our humanity. The story of the Transfiguration teaches us what we are called to be, the reason for our creation. We must never forget that in Jesus not only do we see God, but we see humanity.  Not just any humanity, but humanity as it was meant to be.  In Jesus we must see ourselves and what is possible for us.  In short, we are called to be transfigured, to reflect the divine light through our very bodies, to love as God loves.

How is this goal possible, how are we to be transfigured? Without our noticing, we see examples of transfiguration all around us, practically everyday. One example is the person suffering from substance abuse who admits her problem, receives treatment and is able to manage her addiction. Somehow the sober alcoholic feels differently, acts differently, and experiences life differently.  A person in a therapeutic relationship, who in and through this relationship is able to experience healing is then able to be with others and with oneself in a different way. I think of people who have been blessed to experience a loving relationship. When discussing love, I often ask my students, ‘do you think that the love shared by people who have managed to be together for so long is the same as when they first met?’  ‘Do you think those people are the same?’ There is a transfiguration of who we are that we experience in relationships of love insofar as who we are depends on the people who love us and those whom we love.

The common thread in all these everyday examples is that transfiguration depends on practices. We cannot experience transfiguration unless we are willing to engage in the practices that lead to transfiguration.  If we are impatient and we wish to be patient people, then we have to perform acts of patience before we think of ourselves as patient. The alcoholic has to engage in certain practices, perhaps a 12-step program that entails the practice of truth-telling, before he transfigures himself into sobriety.  Loving relationships cannot endure unless certain practices are performed, such as the practices of trust, self-sacrifice, self-reflection, empathy, and forgiveness, to name a few.

If we want to experience the transfiguration of our being that comes from being with God, as we see in Jesus on the mountain, then we have to engage in certain practices.  We have to first perform the practice of faith. We have to believe that such a transfiguration is indeed possible and desirable. Now faith is a tricky thing. It’s not something that one can simply turn on and off.  We can’t wake up tomorrow and say, “today I’m going to have more faith.” Faith is something that happens to us.  Doubt often accompanies faith, and in the face of doubt, we must try to persevere in the hope that we may grow in faith.  We grow in faith when we experience God more, but that can’t happen unless we persevere in the faith that we have, however weak, and we engage in the types of practices that allow God to be present with us. Faith is confirmed through the practice of faith.

There are two other types of practices that immediately spring to mind. During the first fifteen days of August devoted to the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, Orthodox Christians fast.  Fasting is not something we do to score points with God. Fasting is that practice in which we moderate or give up something that consumes us so that we can somehow make space for God to be with us. Fasting is also a practice that fends off forgetfulness of God, especially since fasting is linked to something we have to do every single day—eat.  During periods of fast, when I pass a Five Guys, I think of God when I normally wouldn’t. I’m not being flippant:  one cannot deepen a relationship with someone by ignoring or forgetting about that person. The Church understands that the real spiritual problem is not disbelief but forgetfulness. A relationship with God can potentially transfigure us, but not if we are constantly forgetting about God.

The one practice, however, which is crucial to our transfiguration is the practice of prayer. Prayer is something we need to learn to do, something we can’t force, something which must come from our hearts, and something which needs to begin in small quantities and allow slowly to be more a part of our lives. If we persevere in prayer, slowly allowing it to be more a part of our lives, there is absolutely no question that one will start to see oneself transfigured by noticing that we actually want to pray more—a sure sign that we are being transfigured by God’s increased presence in our lives. The saints are those advanced in prayer, who could often pray no matter what they are doing, it just sort of gushes out. In Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom tells us that this is an advanced level of prayer that only comes with time and perseverance.

The story of Jesus’s transfiguration is the story of who Jesus is as God’s Son, it is a confirmation of God’s presence in Jesus, but it is also a confirmation of God’s promise to be with us. It is a testimony to our ability to be transfigured by God’s presence. It points to what is possible for us. Transfiguration is not an out-of-body experience; it exists in and through the body and the measure of our transfiguration is how we relate to others and to our selves. According to St. Maximos the Confessor, if we are less angry, less hateful, less fearful—then we are transfigured. In the end, insofar as it manifests itself in ordinary, daily patterns and routines, transfiguration is quite mundane; but, that is exactly the point of the Christ’s Incarnation and Passion, the irony of all ironies—earth has become like heaven.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.