Sunday 6th August 2023, St Anne’s Lewes
Luke 9: 28-35
I'm going to approach the transfiguration sideways today. But the point I'd like to start with is, how do we understand Christ's transfiguration? Do we hear it and think, that's a miraculous and mysterious story and it has nothing to say to me here and now in 2023 with a cost-of-living crisis and a global climate emergency? I think that could be a reasonable response.
I want to start with a woman called Evelyn Underhill. She was a woman who lived in London, the dates of her life are 1875-1941. She was a prolific writer on mysticism and was a spiritual director. I'm choosing her because she was one of those people, like many a mystic, who write out of their personal experience of the reality of God. She was highly concerned that the modern Church had no intuitive sense of the deeper mystical life. She wrote a letter to Archbishop Lang in 1930, 'We look to the Church to give us an experience of God, mystery, holiness and prayer which… shall lift us to contact with the supernatural world and minister eternal life.' She went on, 'God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest (but this could also apply to all of us) whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him.'
Underhill here was writing about clergy but her concern was for all who are drawn to God and her central intuition was that the Church had no way to help people experience the mystery of God profoundly and personally. I would argue this is a continuing crisis for our Church.
The transfiguration then is either a myth that we hear about, or it is describing a depth of reality which is open to us. The transfiguration is, among other things, an experience of prayer. 'Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.' Now we can read this as about Jesus but really it is about us and our prayer. What the transfiguration shows us is how in prayer the person becomes open to the depths of God. Moses and Elijah are prophets who have encountered the depths of God. Moses' face shines because he has drawn so close to God. Elijah stands on the mountain and God passes by, but God is not in the whirlwind, God is not in the fire, but God is in the 'sound of sheer silence'.
But again and again the Church, and of course the modern world in all its multiple distractions, does not invite people into the depths of God. This is Underhill again.
'We look to the clergy to help and direct our spiritual growth. We are seldom satisfied because with a few noble exceptions they are so lacking in spiritual realism, so ignorant of the laws and experiences of the life of prayer. Their Christianity as a whole is humanitarian rather than theocentric. So their dealings with souls are often vague and amateurish. Those needing spiritual help may find much kindliness, but seldom that firm touch of firsthand knowledge of interior ways which comes only from a disciplined personal life of prayer.' This remains awkwardly relevant to the Church.
What we need are people who make that journey into God. We want our transfiguration. We don't want funny jokes and well-meaning political positions of one sort or the other. I read Underhill because she (like all the great mystics of the Church) spoke and wrote out of her personal adoration of the living God, her experience of the living God in prayer. From her notebooks here is how she describes an experience of the divine, 'Such joy that it sometimes almost hurts… a direct activity of the one Love, passing right through and vivifying one, like the sea waters supporting and passing right through a shellfish.' Underhill is describing her own transfiguration.
Important to stress transfigurations need not be dramatic, or special. What matters is our openness to the depth of God in Christ. If we can be open to that depth of God, let that reality of God fill us, if we seek that depth of God, we will begin to understand the transfiguration not as a myth but as a personal reality.
When Evelyn Underhill wrote about the mystical dimension she did so not because she thought it was an elite activity for very holy people but because she thought such experience of God, however ambiguous and difficult in the midst of a complex world, was open to all of us.
I'd like to end now with a period of silence, a time for us to become that little bit more aware perhaps of the presence of the living God among us and within us. We rarely have this kind of silence in church because we are always speaking, saying something, telling people about an event that's coming up. Let's pause and just sink into this depth of silence now.
Reverend Ben Brown