Transfiguration on the Other Side of Hell.

Have you ever had one of those weeks?

I just did.

It started last Friday. In the course of seven days…

  • Toxic mold was discovered in our rental home, and our landlords gave us 30 days to move so that they could clean it.
  • My wife surfaced a pulmonary embolism (a potentially dangerous blood clot), and it landed us in the ER—three times.
  • I got food poisoning, or a short-term stomach bug, and became intimately familiar with our house’s plumbing.
  • My father had a heart attack.

All. In. Seven. Days.

“It could have been worse,” the incurable optimist—or the fool—says. Thus far, our landlords and us are negotiating another way forward for mold remediation, my wife is on the mend, I feel better, and my father—thankfully—is pulling through wonderfully.

But make no mistake: This past week was hell.

And this past Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday, the way some Jesus-followers mark time.

Sunday was the first day in eight days that some fresh stressor or tragedy did not befall my family, thank God.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Sunday is seen as the ‘Eighth Day’ in Eastern Orthodoxy, signifying resurrection, new beginnings, and a whole new ordering of time.

Transfiguration, in Sunday’s lectionary Gospel reading, prefigures this Easter event, an affirmation of belovedness, and an echo of indigenous (and patristic) wisdom to “die before you die,” so that death itself loses its sting.

The Transfiguration is rightly seen as a celebration of Light, and glory; and yet I’m drawn to this drawing of avant-garde artist Salvador Dalí, ‘Biblia Sacra: Iesu Transfiguratio’ from 1964. As Maria Evans writes in The Episcopal Café,

The dictionary defines transfiguration as “a complete change of form and appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.”  It is for that reason that perhaps my favorite work of art where the subject is the Transfiguration is Salvador Dali’s version. For folks who prefer images closer to Raphael’s rendition, Dali’s appears dark, foreboding, and downright creepy.

Yet, what I love about it is a wonderful reversal.  Most paintings of the Transfiguration show white light emanating from Jesus; all the other figures in the scene are bathed in it, but they still look like ‘themselves.’ In Dali’s version, the background is white, and the dark colors of the figures in it seem to break up and shape-shift, and join the light.

I can’t help but wonder if the reason the three disciples were so darn quiet, was because in the moments of whatever happened up there on that mountain, they felt themselves joining that light and being less of the selves they were accustomed to being.  Matthew’s version says the disciples were told not to tell; Luke’s version was, ‘they just didn’t tell at the time.’  Mark doesn’t say.  One has to wonder if it was all just too overwhelming, and that no account does it justice.

Those past eight days, I’d been praying—but not on the mountaintop, in the valley. Clutching my phone’s Common Prayer app while my youngest daughter drifted off to sleep, or later during the small nightly comfort I give myself, an Epsom salt bath in a too-small tub, I begin:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return.
The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.

O God, come to my aid : O Lord, make haste to help me…

Shadows were all around me, inching closer and closer with each fresh disintegration of the status quo. But as I listened, a bright cloud began dawning in my consciousness, reminding me of what’s constant:

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

And as I tune in, I hear what this Son is speaking:

Not a facile promise of external safety, but of something indestructible being formed in me—that is me, but also transcends the ‘me’ I’ve known:

You might be decimated by life, but never destroyed.

I’m learning to see in night vision, anchored in a luminous resilience. And I have a feeling that I’m not the only one, being invited to go deeper in preparation for perilous and wondrous times.

As Evans concludes her Transfiguration reflection:

What might it feel like to become a little less of the ‘us’ we’ve become accustomed to being, and more like the ‘us’ God knows and calls by name as beloved?

What might it look it look like to witness a Transfiguration, even in the depths of our own personalized ‘hell,’ and notice that we’re becoming what we behold?

(Here is a favorite Transfiguration song of mine, by Sufjan Stevens—full of beauty and wonder.)

One Response to Transfiguration on the Other Side of Hell.

  1. David Skrypek April 7, 2020 at 2:04 pm #

    Dear Mike,
    My life has been dramatically changed by reading the works of your friend and fellow writer, Fr. Richard Rohr; whose name translates from the German- meaning “conduit” Now, I have read your piece about the “Seven Days of Hell.”
    What a comfort to me it was! We all have our stories , and sometimes life brings many obstacles. As the Lamentations confirm in many of the sacred Psalms- “”My God, why have you abandoned me?” And on the Eighth day, he rested!. There is no cynicism meant by that last comment. You obviously know the feeling as I do too. More on that in a second. Jesus said it to his Father on the Cross. God knows of our cries for help.
    About 6 weeks ago, I was diagnosed with Non- Hodgkins Lymphoma. The treatment has begun. I am 66 years of age, with three daughters and 5 living grandchildren The Coronavirus has not helped the situation. Enough complaining already! God has not abandoned me. He’s not mad at me for getting mad at Him. I wouldn’t want to worship that kind of a weak God anyway. I am still learning the lessons of my fate. As Fr. Rohr likes to say, great suffering most often brings great love with it. I now know that to be true. Hopefully, I am learning how to die before I die. I guess time will tell. Thank you Lord, for staying with me- the sinner who depends on your grace.
    David Skrypek
    Lover of St. John of the Cross’s phrase- “luminous darkness”

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