At Jesus’s transfiguration (Lk 9:28b-36), Peter and his companions have a number of different experiences: they see Jesus in dazzling clothes; they fall asleep; they wake up; and a cloud overcomes them. In the cloud they hear God’s voice and then fall silent. At one level, the passage is one that the Gospel authors use to affirm Jesus’ divinity and his connection back to the prophets, especially to Elijah and Moses. At another level, it also shows how many different kinds of spiritual experiences there are in the encounter with God. Peter and his companions have experiences that are very active: full of imagery, sight, sound, voice. We also have experiences of God where we know God’s presence through something active: whether an internal voice “heard” in prayer or gazing at rock and ocean, when we see something of God in creation.
Peter and his companions also have an experience of God that causes them not to see and not to experience: they enter into a cloud and at one point they fall asleep. But it’s at the point that they fall asleep in the presence of God that they afterwards become “fully awake.” This description of their experience reminds me of other kinds of prayer that are less reliant on the imagination. At a certain point in one’s prayer life, it’s possible to grow tired of imagination based prayer, or prayer that is full of words, and to find that this path is no longer as appealing as it once was. Then God draws us into a different mode of relation—one that at first glance is so subtle that it might seem to be dryness or a lack of anything happening in prayer, though much is happening beneath the surface.
In this other way of praying, one’s attention is simply offered to God in silence, and thoughts, words, images, with consolations accepted but not clung to, so that one can rest in simple presence. Much like being with a friend that one loves and knows so well that there is no need to talk, but just spend time together, silent prayer is a place to which God beckons us with sweetness and interior peace as its fruits.
If you have never tried it, the prayer is very simple: to just let go of all thoughts, words, images, concerns, or experiences, and to return one’s attention to God whenever it strays into these other mental acts. (One can use a single word or breath to gain refocus, or just “look” at God again, ideas that Thomas Keating and others have offered.) It’s like gently paying attention to a friend with a receptive and open heart, when one keeps oneself out of the way as much as possible, so that the friend can do what he needs to do. Our only job is to be attentive, and very gentle with ourselves in refocusing our attention on God when that attention naturally strays away. As Keating describes it, the silence is always relative (one never has no thoughts at all for an entire prayer period). However this doesn’t matter, because prayer is always about relationship and never about performing the “right” technique. The point is the deepening of intimacy and relationship.
Here, God is relating to a person’s soul not so much through the imagination and affect, but in another part (traditionally, named as the intellect). When God is present to this part of the soul, the experience is much like being in a cloud, or perhaps more like resting in a gentle mist, being unable to say or describe anything about the object of one’s attention—although somehow one knows that God is there. The closer God gets, the less prayer is about our own words, thoughts, imaginations, and so on. But as these things are cast aside, the more room there is for God beyond word and image. We give up control so that God can do the work that God needs to do in our souls; we release a little more of our “selves” to make room for God to enter in.
Peter and James, too, encounter the divine first with a spectacular looking Jesus, but later they find themselves in a cloud. (At times they are even asleep!) Their response to the divine presence is silence. And it’s their experience of silence, of something deeper than sight or sound, that leads them to become more “fully awake.” What does it mean to be “awake” in this way?
I suggest that Jesus’ friends take with them their experience of the transfiguration back into their ordinary lives when they descend the mountain again, and return to the “real world”. Surely, the whole world appeared differently to them after this experience of Jesus, and in their discovery that they, too, are invited into the relationship between Father and Son, invited into a mystery much bigger than they are. They take what was received in mystery, into history.
While none of us can ever stay with our own mountaintop experiences—whether in nature, in word and imagination, or in silence—those experiences of the divine also affect our everyday lives. We walk along our own winding paths, and find that the holy is ever with us in the ordinary, too. Indeed, a sign of good prayer is not how much is happening in one’s experience, or whether one has big experiences or none at all, but rather whether prayer opens us up to love, compassion,mercy, and renewal.
It’s not only Jesus who is transfigured, but also we who are transfigured when we surrender ourselves in prayer simply in order to be with God, and let God do all the rest.