Every time I eat an apple I think of Ben, a student I once supervised. Ben enjoyed pondering things most of us whip past or simply ignore. One day out of the blue, Ben turned to me and said “Do you know that when you eat an apple, you’re eating sunlight?” Then Ben proceeded to explain how plants use photosynthesis to harness the sun’s energy to produce the bountiful harvests that please our palates and fuel our bodies.
I have never looked at an apple the same way since. Ben didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, of course. But what he did do was reset my vision, reminding me that even the ordinary is quite extraordinary, the mundane positively miraculous.
You and I miss so much. And for lots of reasons. Familiarity being a big one. Preoccupation is another. Sometimes our fears cheat us of seeing more deeply. As we leave childhood behind, we exchange our curiosity for certitude and trade our awe for pragmatism.
Even so, God still manages to draw back the veil, bringing us face to face with life’s many “more thans.”
If you’ve ever fallen in love, you know this. Whether all it took was a glance across a crowded room or whether it was a year of courtship, at some point the object of your affection, the subject of your love, underwent a transformation, a transfiguration. They didn’t change, of course. Your vision did. You saw the sunlight in them and not just the apple.
One day when he was off running errands for his religious community, the prolific, influential writer, Trappist monk Thomas Merton had this same kind of thing happen, not in a romantic way, but in no less revelatory way.
Here’s how Merton described his experience. “In Louisville at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…”
“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Merton’s mystical experience unfolded even further.
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed….But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.” (from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
“If only we could see each other that way all the time.”
Still, light breaks through and for a time we see. A new parent rocks her baby and we watch her downturned face become a blaze of maternal love. A wedding couple turns toward each other to exchange promises and the rest of us need sunglasses, their shining is so bright. A piece of music strikes the ear in just the right way and it’s as if the angels themselves are singing. A young poet speaks from a place of clarity and hope, and her words become sparks, flashes of light in a long season of darkness. A cool mountain stream or a high desert promontory gives rise to a sense of reality opening to reveal something more real, more holy, than mere moments before.
Light broke forth in Jesus life, too. I have to think it happened when he happened upon his disciples. He saw these men as they truly were, not their professions or hair colors or personality traits.
Surely this was true every day of Jesus’ life as he looked into the faces of the hungry, the broken, the lost. Jesus saw not the symptom, not the situation, but saw as Merton did in Kentucky that day—he saw straight to the essence of those he encountered; he saw each person’s glorious belovedness shining out from behind their circumstances.
Surely in his ministry Jesus was doing more than making the broken whole again. When he restored someone’s sight, he also restored everyone else’s, making it possible for the rest of us to see what he saw—a person’s inherent worth, their identity as God’s sons and daughter, the unalterable realities alive within each person no matter what life might have dished out, no matter what society was inclined to say.
That’s why the crowds. The chasing after Jesus. The pawing at his clothes and the clutching at his arms. Who doesn’t want to be seen? Who doesn’t want to receive the gaze of someone who sees all the way through to our bright, burning essence?
At the midpoint of his public ministry, halfway between his baptism in the Jordan and his death and resurrection on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jesus had his own moment of being seen in full.
Each of the synoptic gospels—that is Matthew, Mark, and Luke—describe this. It followed upon the heels of what had to have been a painful moment for Jesus. He had just tried, unsuccessfully, to have his disciples understand that his journey, his ministry, would not and could not shun suffering; it would not, could not, sidestep risk. His journey, his ministry would take him straight through the valley of the shadow of death and not around it, as tempting as that might be.
Of course, Jesus’ disciples resisted this teaching. Peter especially. Anyone would want Jesus to have an easier go, not a risker one.
If we humans have a hard time perceiving the sunlight in apples or the fire burning within strangers, then certainly we have a hard time picturing what Jesus was saying: that the truth of God’s love and power is revealed through suffering and rejection and even death.
Six days after their difficult conversation, one in which Jesus would rebuke Peter for tempting him like Satan had in the wilderness, Jesus led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain.
Suddenly—without warning or fanfare—these three watched Jesus undergo a radical transformation. He went from being his ordinary, usual self to being clothed in a light not of this world.
And then, again without warning or fanfare, the three saw their glory-bathed Jesus being flanked by Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet, both men every bit as alive in that moment as Jesus and his three disciples were.
Unprepared for this high and holy moment, ill-equipped to fathom its depths, Peter grabbed at the first thought that came to mind. “Let’s contain this, let’s domesticate it,” he said. “Let’s build dwellings for each of you to live.”
As much as I’d like to poke fun at Peter for his silly idea, I find myself wondering how many times I’ve rushed to contain or explain the ineffable. How often I’ve tried to put a lid on God’s majesty or power because just letting it be, just sitting with it, is just too terrifying.
And… and… too hard to translate to other people when the time comes.
One of the most marvelous parts of our worship has been on hiatus while we’ve been online. We’ll return to offering up Spirit Sightings when we’re together again at the Ute, but for now, let’s not forget how transformative these moments have been over the years.
Sharing with each other those occasions when we’ve experienced the holy in big ways and small, in life’s heights as well as its depths, has brought many moments of laugher and more than a few tears along the way. More importantly, this dedicated time of sharing has brought us together as a community of faith in ways that nothing else could do.
But these moments shared aloud also stand as clear and compelling evidence of the unquenchable light burning at the heart of all of life. Spirit Sightings have—and will again—speak to the truth that God’s presence, God’s glory isn’t a sometime thing, a reward for good behavior or an encouragement in dark times. Instead, it’s what is always there but not always glimpsed, always present but not always believed, always shining but not always perceived.
On Wednesday, the church universal will enter into a season of prayer and preparation as Jesus steps down from the mountain, as he dons his street clothes again, and slips into the shadowed streets and dark valleys of life.
On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, the church universal will step forward to receive ashes on our collective forehead as we remember our mortality and our frailty, our brokenness and our sin. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return,” priests and pastors will say as they trace dark crosses on millions foreheads later this week.
This is true. We are here on earth but momentarily. And yet—the dust that we are has its origins in the stars, as does all of life. If we are dust, we are also stardust. If we are flesh and bones, mortal and flawed, we are also made of pure light, just as Jesus so plainly was that day on the Mount of Transfiguration, just as strangers in Louisville, Kentucky, were the day Thomas Merton was out shopping for his religious community and saw what he saw.
These moments don’t last forever of course. Merton returned to his abbey and Jesus made his way down the mountain. The apple’s sunlight is misplaced in the hurry and scurry of life. And yet the burning at the center of all things does not die. Cannot die.
Jesus will teach us this and we will, each of us, come to know it for ourselves.
Let us pray: Open our eyes that we might see. See as Jesus saw. See ourselves and each other as you see us. Open us the love that beckons and binds, that we all might shine with your goodness and glory.
As words of parting, I used this from the Irish poet/priest John O’Donohue:
To the fearful eye, all is threatening.
To the greedy eye, all can be possessed.
To the resentful eye, everything is begrudged.
To the loving eye, everything is real.
Love is the light in which we can see each thing in its true origin, nature, and destiny.
The loving eye can even coax pain, hurt, and violence toward transfiguration and renewal.