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

 A Novitiate Conference

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.

 

Although the Fathers sometimes say that Tabor was meant to strengthen the apostles’ faith before the trial of the Passion, their main concern is unquestionably Tabor as a theophany, a revelation of God. The godhead revealed is not so much that of the Father speaking from the cloud as that of the Son transfigured in light.  At the moment of the Incarnation, the divine light was concentrated in Christ, the God-man, “in whom dwells the whole fullness of the Godhead bodily,” as St Paul says.  That is to say, Christ, during his earthly life always shed forth the divine light, which however remained invisible to most people.  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 power to see their Master as he was, resplendent in the eternal light of God.  Hilary of Poitiers says that miracle is rather that for the other days of Jesus’ life he concealed the natural radiance of his body.  As Gregory the Great put it: “Why be surprised at the radiance of Tabor? Everything he ever did was radiant with grace.”

 

 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).

 

Sharing in God’s Life

 

The early Fathers of the Church liked to say that the aim of Christian life is the acquisition of the Spirit of God, or deification, participation in God’s life, the sharing of the Christian in the very life of God. In his Prologue to his Rule St Benedict speaks of opening our eyes to the “deifying light”: the light that comes from God, the light that makes us like God.  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. St Thomas Aquinas summed up the tradition in this way: “The Only-Begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers of His divinity, assumed our nature, so that He made man might make men gods.”

 

This participation-by-grace takes place through divine adoption, another key theme of this feast.  Divinization is a divinizing adoption: we become by grace what Christ is by nature, not just God, but God the Son.  Jesus is the true and natural son; we are sons by adoption.  The redemption of the body which we see in the transfiguration points to the resurrection which will be the final revelation of our adoptive sonship.  As children of God and members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, we are partakers of the divine nature.

 

Transfigured by grace

 

Now this deification is something that involves the body, as Peter the Venerable tells us in the lectionary reading for the Feast of the Transfiguration (III Noct, Year B): "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".  Just as the body of the Lord was glorified and transfigured resplendent with divine light, so also the bodies of the saints are luminous, transfigured by divine grace.  Our ultimate destiny is not merely an intellectual contemplation of God; if that were the case the resurrection from the dead would be unnecessary. The blessed ill see God face to face in the fullness of their created being.  That is why even now the body is called to experience the blessing of the world to come, “the overflowing of the soul’s glory into the body,” as St Thomas called it, the foretaste of heaven. 

 

The Saints

 

Even in this present life, some saints have experienced something of this visible and bodily glorification. One of St Seraphim of Sarov'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, in the 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: "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)

 

 "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. This transfiguration of created nature is a pledge of the new heaven and new earth, the entry of creation into eternal life even before death and resurrection, a conscious life in light in communion with God. 

 

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 is not the fruit of ignorance or superstition but springs 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).

 

 

The outward form of the lives of monastic saints is often a bit like the sacramental species: not much to look at, but beneath the simple, commonplace experiences narrated there, a reality of a transcendent order breaks through.  Here is William of St Thierry describing a group of monks:

 

These are Thy simple servants, with whom Thou art wont to talk familiarly. . .Thy love itself finding them simple material on which to work, so forms them and conforms them to itself in both affection and effect, that besides what is hidden within--namely the glory and riches of a good conscience--the inner light is reflected in their outward appearance, and that not by deliberate effort but by a certain natural connection. . . the very sight of them sometimes moves even barbarous and boorish souls to live Thee.  Nature indeed returns in such people such as these to the fountain whence it sprang; . . .they are ready to be taught by God, and when the Spirit helping their infirmity, their spirits pass to the divine affections and their sense are controlled by a certain spiritual discipline, a certain spirituality appears even in their bodies, and their faces acquire an appearance that is more than human and a singular and peculiar grace.  Through devotion in good practices, even their flesh that is sown in corruption begins already to rise again to glory; so that heart and flesh together may rejoice in the living God. . .For the blessed meek posses the earth of their own body . (Meditations, 12)1

 

What William sees in these monks is the simplicity of the poor of God  who are bearers of God's revelation.  Being simple, they return to the simplicity of Adam in paradise ("nature returns to the fountain from which it sprang") and already they taste something of the blessedness of the age to come, so much so that the fullness of the inward reality overflows even onto the outward appearance of their bodies; and there is even some slight hint of resurrection of the body.  All this beneath the humdrum of ordinary monastic life!

 

Two modern saints could also be mentioned:

 St Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort (1873-1716) was also transfigured by uncreated light: “It came to pass that as he was speaking, there shown down upon him, as of old on the face of St Stephen, a reflection of the glory of the transfigured Lord.  Of a sudden, his worn and wasted face, from which all the ruddy glow of health had passed away became luminous.  Rays of glory seemed to go forth from it, and it was so transfigured in eh light of God that even those who were most in the habit of seeing he knew him nor more save by his voice.”

 

One of Charles de Foucauld’s young cousins, much given to pleasure, changed his life on seeing the deep joy and radiance of the saint of the Sahara:

 

He entered the room and peace entered with him. The glow of his eyes and especially that very humble smile had taken over his whole person. Aside from that intelligent, searching look, tempered if not belied by the determined self-effacement so etched into his face, nothing remained of the Charles de Foucauld whom I remembered. .. There was an incredible joy emanating from him who had given all, showing me the superiority of that which constituted his essence–stability, continuity. Having tasted ‘the pleasures of life’ and able to entertain the hope of not having to leave the table for a good while, I, upon seeing my whole sum of satisfactions did not weigh more than a tiny feather in comparison with the complete happiness of the ascetic, found rising in me a strange feeling, not of envy, but of respect.

 

The Transfiguration and Us

 

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, making us members and co-heirs of Christ, and thereby we receive, from the overflow of His grace, a share in his divine sonship.  Those who live in Christ are truly a new creation and are caught up into the intimacy of Trinitarian life.  As the three Persons dwell in each other by nature, so they dwell in us by grace and we dwell in them.  By faith, hope, love, by the sacraments, the transfigured life is already a reality, one that will be perfected in the life to come by face to face vision.  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.

 

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. Baptism gives us the image of God, causes the image of God to shine in us.  Likeness to God needs our cooperation. Christians are changed men, charged with becoming perfect men.  The real change effected by Baptism must, with our cooperation, extend and deepen itself within us until we become what we are. 

 

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."  As the texts quoted above show, there is nothing extraordinary about methods; William of St Thierry sees their transfiguration as the full-flowering of their "spiritual discipline," their "devotion in good practices."

 

Prayer, the expression of our divine sonship par excellence, transfigures us. Indeed, according to Luke, the transfiguration took place while Jesus was praying.  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."

 

 

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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1 William of St Thierry gives another example --this time drawn from community life--of the way spiritual harmony is reflected in outer appearance, denoting unity of purpose:

 

The harmony of their lives and of their virtues and of their holy desires seems to be based not on the rules of music but on those of love.  And they offer up this harmony to God as a perfect sacrifice, perfect because it is His likeness.  In the grace which shines through all their faces and bodily movements and even flows in the folds of their garments, they show forth the presence of the love of God dwelling within them, and that presence inspires them all with delight.  And in this manner they live together like the Seraphim, setting each other on fire with the love of God. (On the Nature and Dignity of Love, 9, 35.)

 

 



 



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