A few times in my life I have experienced something I might call a “shimmering silence.”
One of those times was during a visit to Taizé, a spiritual community in rural France. Taizé was founded during World War II with a mission of reconciliation, and a particular desire to reach out to young adults. Young people come from all around the world to visit Taizé, and to pray with the monks there three times a day. The most famous part of their prayer is the chanting—short, simple, melodies, repeated again and again, as a meditation. My experience was that the chants, though beautiful in themselves, were a way of leading us toward something else, readying us to participate in a long communal silence. At first, kneeling and sitting on the hard floor of the church three times a day, I was simply impatient, cold, and profoundly homesick. But after a while, the prayer took hold of me. I became aware of a thirst for it, a need for it. One morning, as the singing ended and the silence began, I closed my eyes, and it happened. The shimmering silence. The darkness inside my mind vibrated with joyful energy. I sensed peace and love holding me, hovering above me and all around me. Time just paused. I rested for a long time, in the moment. Though my conscious mind was quiet, I felt I was being led. Insights flooded to me about some struggles in my life, and I felt drawn toward some new next steps along the path.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration is told in Matthew and Mark as well as Luke. These three Gospels are called the “synoptics,” because they were composed from common source material. However, each Gospel was also shaped by its author’s particular social location, culture, theology and understanding of Jesus’ identity. Luke’s version of the transfiguration is unique. The other Gospel writers don’t say, as Luke does, that Jesus and his disciples went up the mountain to pray, or that the change in Jesus happened “while he was praying.” In fact, more than any other Gospel writer, Luke gives us a Jesus who makes prayer a priority. Jesus prayed after his baptism, and it was then that the Spirit descended upon him and the voice named him God’s beloved. He spent a whole night prayer before calling his disciples. He prayed in the garden before his arrest and from the cross.
Entering into the world of prayer with Jesus, the disciples saw, heard and felt extraordinary things. On a mountaintop, the moment shimmered. For a brief time, God’s glory was made visible, in Jesus. The appearance of his face changed. His clothes turned a dazzling white. The prophets of old showed up to validate both Jesus’ continuity with Israel’s history and the new prophetic path he was blazing. Luke’s Gospel is the only one that tells the reader what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah. These three great figures apparently didn’t dwell on God’s works in days gone by—on parting seas, manna from heaven, or the defeat of rival gods. Instead, they focused on the thing that was about to happen—the surprising, even shocking, way God intended to act through Jesus. They discussed Jesus’ “departure,” or in Greek, his “Exodus”; in other words, his coming death and resurrection.
This conversation is important because it suggests that God’s glory is not revealed only in our shimmering moments, our awe-inspiring spiritual peaks. This glory, is in fact, most complete, and most powerfully liberating, in the lowly, tired valleys of our lives, in Jesus’ ministry with humble people, poor people, people crushed by oppression, in the way that leads to the cross. God’s glory is not something that swoops in from on high to rescue creation. This glory walks with us in saving solidarity. It weeps and laughs with us. It is entangled in our misery and our hope. Peter wanted to build three dwellings to capture the shimmering moment, to enshrine and institutionalize it, but that was not possible, or even desirable.
Prayer, as Luke points out, was essential for Jesus, as it is for those who wish to follow him. The purpose of prayer; however, is not to insulate us from the world. It is to give us courage, hope, and perspective as we travel deep into the world’s heart and soul. In fact, the very instant Jesus and his disciples descended from the peak, they were overrun by an enormous crowd of people in need, including a man wailing for Jesus to heal for his only son inhabited by a demon. Prayer is crucial because it connects us with the divine reality shimmering within all people, all creatures, all circumstances. It’s like the poet, Christian Wiman, says: “I saw a tree inside a tree rise kaleidoscopically as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” On the one hand, he muses, this tree, with birds soaring out of its branches, had not changed. “That old tree stood exactly as it had and would.” But, at the same time, the poet sees and experiences the tree differently in that shimmering moment. He explains:
And though a man’s mind might endow
Even a tree with some excess
Of life to which a man seems witness,
That life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.”
The tree, the poet comes to perceive, is alive with God.
I meet periodically with a group of pastors—people I love, respect, and learn from. The other day, we were talking about indicators of congregational vitality. What should we measure to know how healthy the church is? In the conversation that day, we looked at a number of different models and factors. But the thing that really, really struck me was something our group’s facilitator said. She has worked with a lot of churches seeking renewal and growth—progressive and conservative congregations, congregations located in a variety of areas and with many different worship styles. There is a particular kind of prayer that is needed, she explained, if a church is to flourish. Vital, growing, alive churches are those who are willing to be led. Their culture is shaped by a prayer for God’s guidance, a prayer that surrenders their own agendas in favor of God’s, a prayer that expresses willingness to cooperate with whatever it is God wants to do among them and through them.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” I hear this as a call to be led, to listen to one who, himself, listened, to that shimmering glory of God that is everywhere and in everything. We are to listen not only with our ears, but listen with our feet, listen with our lives. Following Jesus, the spiritual path we walk is both ordinary and incredible. It is grimy and dazzling. It is a dull routine and a transcendent vista. It is prayer and action, action and prayer. It is the mountain and it is the valley. It is the cross and it is the resurrection. Amen.