In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.

 

Transfiguration: Reflecting the Glory of Christ

 

In the account of the transfiguration, Jesus is not merely lit up by glory from outside himself, nor introduced into it. It is his own glory; when the disciples awake they see his glory (Lk. 9:32).  In Matthew too it is not only the garments of Jesus that are radiant but his face that shines like the sun. At the moment of the Incarnation, the divine light was concentrated on Christ, “in whom dwells the whole fullness of the godhead bodily”.  That is to say, throughout his earthly life, Christ always shed forth eh divine light, which however, remained invisible to most men.  The transfiguration was not a momentary happening: Christ underwent no change at that moment.  But a change occurs in the awareness of the 3 apostles who received the ability to see their Master as he was, resplendent in the eternal light of God.  Hilary of Poitiers says the miracle is rather that for the other days of Jesus’ life he suppressed the natural radiance of his body.  As Gregory the Great says, “Why be surprised at the radiance of Christ on Tabor? Everything he ever did was radiant with light.”

 

 

 The transfiguration of Jesus and of the world on which he shines is the promise and first installment of the eschatological transformation of the world as a whole; and for St Paul this truly begins with living the Christian life--as a reflection of the glory of Christ--in a way that is both visible and invisible: "All of us gazing on the Lord's glory with unveiled faces, are being transformed from glory to glory in to his very image by the Lord who is the Spirit" ( 2 Cor 3: 18).

 

The aim of Christian life for the early fathers is the acquisition of the Spirit of God, or deification.  St Basil described man as a creature who received the command to become a god; and Athanasius said that God became man that man might become God. The final goal of every Christian is to attain this divinization.  For the Fathers, it was another way of expressing salvation and redemption.  Behind this lies the idea of man in the image and likeness of God, and Christ praying that we may share the life of the Trinity (Jn 17:21); the idea of personal union with God, God dwelling in us and we in him, is a constant theme of St John's gospel.  We also find it in St Paul who sees the Christian life above all as a life in Christ.  And St Peter in his second letter refers to us becoming partakers of the divine nature.  There is no question here, of course, of union with the divine essence; we remain creatures while becoming partakers of the divine nature by grace.

 

Now this deification is something that involves the body, as Peter the Venerable tells us the lectionary reading for the Feast of the Transfiguration: "Today, by the brightness of His face and clothing, the Word made flesh demonstrates the deification of that same flesh He united with Himself."  Since man is a unity of body and soul, and since the Incarnate Christ has redeemed the whole man, it follows that "man's body is deified at the same time as his soul" (Maximus the Confessor).  In that divine likeness which man is called to realize in himself the body has its place: "You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is within. . . ."(1 Cor 6:19);  "And now, brothers, I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1).  The full deification of the body must wait until the last day, when the inward splendour of it "comes out from within" (Macarius, V, 9). It is this transfigured Resurrection body which the icon painter attempts to depict; that's why he deliberately avoids making a realistic and photographic portrait.  To paint men exactly as they now appear is to paint them in their fallen state, in their earthly not heavenly bodies.  "Icons," wrote Nicholas Zernov,  "were pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one.  The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory; it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit.  Icons were part of this transfigured cosmos" (Russians and their Church). 

 

But even in this present life, some saints have experienced something of this visible and bodily glorification, “the overflowing of the soul’s glory into the body, “as St Thomas Aquinas called it, this foretaste of the Resurrection (Summa, IIIa, 7, 4, ad 2).  The face of St Antony, the father of monks, we are told, "had a great and indescribable charm. . . It was not his stature or his figure that made him stand out from the rest, but his settled character and purity of soul.  For his soul was unperturbed, and so his outward appearance was calm.  The joy in his soul expressed itself in the cheerfulness of his face, and from the body's behaviour one saw and knew the state of his soul" (Vita 67). One of St Seraphim's "spiritual children" described what happened on winter day as the two of them were talking together in a forest.

 

  "Why don't you look at me?"

  "I cannot look, Father," I replied, "because your eyes are flashing like lightning.  Your face has become brighter than the sun, and it hurts my eyes to look at you."

  "Don't be afraid," he said. "At this very moment you yourself have become as bright as I am.  You yourself are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God; otherwise you would not be able to see me as you do. . .don't be afraid; the Lord is with us."

  After these words I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe.  Imagine in the centre of the sun, into he dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you.  You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his body, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and lighting up with its brilliance the snow which covers the forest glade. . .

 

There are other examples from early monastic tradition:

--Abba Arsenius:  "A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenius at Scetis.  Waiting outside the door he saw the old man entirely like flame. The brother was worthy of this sight." (Arsenius 27)

 

--Abba Pambo: "They said of Abba Pambo that he was like Moses, who received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone.  His face shone like lightning and he was like a king sitting on his throne.  It was the same with Abba Sylvanus and Abba Sisoes." (Pambo 12) (cf Sisoes 14; Sylvanus 12).

 

These stories show how sanctification includes the body: it is not their souls only, but their bodies which are transfigured by the grace of God.  Nor, at least in the case of Seraphim and his disciple, can they be said to be in a state of ecstasy; both can talk in a coherent way and are still conscious of the outside world, but both are filled with the Spirit; divine light takes visible form, outwardly transforming the body. The  transfiguration fo created nature  is a pledge of the new heaven and the new earth, the entry of the creature  into eternal life, even before death and resurrection. 

 

This lies behind the Church's reverence for relics, because the body is sanctified, transfigured with the soul.  The grace of God present in the saint's body during life remains active in relics when they have died, so that God uses these relics as channels and instruments of divine power and healing. The cult of relics are not the fruit of ignorance or superstition but spring from a highly developed theology of the body.

 

 

In one of his last sermons on the Song of Songs, St Bernard describes the invasion of the entire body by grace, exterior beauty witnessing to the simplified and purified heart of the Bride:

 

When this beauty and brightness has filled the inmost part of the heart, it must become outwardly visible. . . .It shines out, and by the brightness of its rays it makes the body a mirror of the mind, spreading through the limbs and the senses so that every action, every word, look, movement and even laugh (if there should be laughter) radiates gravity and restraint.  So when the movements of the limbs and senses, their gestures and habits, are seen to be resolute, pure, restrained, free from all presumption and licence, with no sign of triviality and idleness, then the beauty of the soul will be seen openly. . ."(SC 85,11).

 

When Bernard describes his friend the Irish Bishop Malachy, he says:

 

In my opinion, the first and greatest miracle that Malachy presented was himself.I do not even mention the inner man.  His character and way of life showed forth his beauty, strength and purity, and he carried himself outwardly in so modest and becoming a manner that there was nothing in him that could displease those who saw him.  Anyone who offends not in word is a perfect man.  And no one who watched Malachy, no matter how closely, ever caught him idle in word or even his least gestures. Who ever saw him using wither his hand or foot to no purpose?  Was there anything in his walk, his appearance, his bearing, or his countenance that was not edifying?  Never did sadness darken his joyful features, nor laughter make him frivolous. Everything in him was disciplined, everything bore the mark of virtue, everything had the form of the perfect man. (Vita Malachiae 19:43)

 

When Bernard says that everything in him was disciplined and had the form of the perfect man, he is speaking of the formation of the whole man, the image of God restored in all its original beauty.  This idea of bodily expression of spiritual beauty, the outward manifestation of inner grace, is thus related to the theme of the restoration of the divine image in man. There are many examples of saints in more recent times who were also transfigured  by uncreated light,  such as St Louis-Marie Grignon de Monfort (1673-1716) and St Charles de Foucauld.

 

 

 

St John Climacus asks in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, (Step 30): “If the face of a loved one clearly and completely changes us, and makes us cheerful, gay and carefree, what will the Face of the Lord not do when He makes His Presence felt invisibly in a pure soul? And holy love consumes some, according to him who said: Thou hast ravished our heart, Thou hast ravished our heart. But sometimes it makes others bright and cheerful…So when the whole man is in a manner flooded with the love of God, then even his outward appearance in the body, as in a kind of mirror, shows the splendour of his soul. That is how Moses who had looked upon God was glorified. There are many examples of saints in more recent times who were also transfigured  by uncreated light,  such as St Louis-Marie Grignon de Monfort (1673-1716) and St Charles de Foucauld.

 

 

All this talk of deification and transfiguration may sound remote.  Yet we forget that baptism gives us the image of God, causing the image of God to shine in us.  Likeness to God needs our cooperation.  In the measure that we try to love God and fulfill his commands, no matter how weak the attempt and however often we may fall, we are already to some degree "deified."  By faith, hope and love, by the sacraments, the transfigured life is already a reality, one that will be perfected in the life to come.   All this simply presupposes our life in the Church, the life of the sacraments.  The Church, the place of transfiguration, "the world in process of transfiguration," as Olivier Clement defines it, and the sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby man may acquire the Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness.

 

In Christ, by eh working of the Holy Spirit we are changed.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come (2 Cor 5, 17).  In baptism we are re-born and re-made; we die to the old world of sin and death and enter the glorious new life of redeemed humanity.  We are joined in the closest possible way to Our Lord, becoming limbs of the Body of which he is the Head. The transfigured lives of the saints show that such a change wrought by sanctifying grace is a real change.  But the end is not yet: Christians are changed men and women, charged with the task of becoming perfect men and women.  The real change effected by baptism must with our cooperation extend and deepen itself within us until we become what we are.

 

 When we think of deification, we must think of prayer but also of our activity, of Seraphim's face but also of Br Lawrence who was transfigured in the kitchen, while flipping omelets. As we saw in an earlier talk, the habitual, attentive gaze directed towards God in prayer or in work has the power of transforming us, of transfiguring us by supernatural realities until one's being is possessed and impressed by them.  "By the very persistence of our inner gaze," wrote Dom Delatte, "His beauty penetrates and transforms us. It is said that certain types of marble reach the point, after a long period, of fixing the light within themselves and becoming phosphorescent under the action of the sun.  Our souls are not as hard as marble."  "The supernatural beauty on which we set our eyes with so much love enters into us little by little, penetrates and transfigures us.  Face to face with the light, we become light.  We come to resemble more and more the One whose glory we contemplate."  If we look at things from this perspective, we can begin to see the connection between contemplation and action, between abiding in God and going forth to a particular work.

 

Finally in order for this transfiguration to take place, it is necessary that we become more and more transparent before God, as Our Lord and Our Lady were--in perpetually accomplishing the Father's will, in their perpetual looking at the Father, in proclaiming the truth which they had received from God.  They are those who, not seeking themselves, permit the will, the love, the glory of God to pass through them, in a transparency that does not look for glory from men but for that glory that comes from God.  All this opens up a space in them through which God's glory may be made manifest, the space opened up by an abandonment which holds itself open to receive God's glory and splendour. Let us ask God, through the intercession of Mary, teacher of faith and contemplation, to enable us to receive within us the light of Christ, the light that shines so brightly on the face of Christ so that we may reflect his image on everyone we meet.



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