Throughout our human story mountains have been places where people have often chosen to go, or felt attracted to go, to wrestle with the deep questions of their existence. What is it about mountains that does this? Perhaps, it is their “closeness” to the sky? Perhaps, the thinness of the air makes for clearer thinking? Or maybe their height enables a sense of perspective?
Whatever the reason, mountains are very important places in Scripture. They are the places where people seem to encounter God. They are places where covenants between heaven and earth are forged. The encounter which people have with God on the mountain top, however, also occurs alongside the encounter with their own selves. The solitude and the wilderness of the mountain confront people with their own selves. There is nothing to distract them. Alone on a mountain, all the forces within a person come to the surface. Somehow it is in this confrontation, that God is truly met.
In today’s Liturgy of the Word, we hear of two mountains: the mountain which is pointed out to Abraham upon which he must confront the deepest desires of his life; and the mountain on which Jesus is transfigured. The juxtaposition of these two mountains is not accidental.
The story of Abraham ready to sacrifice his dear and only son Isaac that we hear about in today’s First Reading is not about a sadistic God who pushes people beyond what is human. It is a dramatic account of how Abraham, the person of deep faith, confronts the intense longings of his own heart, of how he confronts the priorities of his life. On the mountain, all his desires are brought out into the open.
We hear this story just after we have begun our Lenten journey because in this time we, also, are invited to ‘go up our own mountain,’ as it were, and to hear once again what most deeply motivates us, what pushes and pulls us. It is the time to ask, “what do we really want in our life, what are we really looking for in our life?” But something happens as struggle with these questions and hear again the priorities of our life: it is the very possibility of transfiguration as indicated in the story of the gospel we hear today. The Lenten struggle has one aim: that, like Jesus in today’s gospel, we might realise in a new and deeper way the beauty that lies deep within us and which the Spirit wishes to shine out.
The late Irish writer, John O’Donohue suggested that Transfiguration is a wonderful metaphor for understanding what the Christian ideal of perfection is all about and how we might come to such perfection. As he observes,
The Christian life has always been a struggle towards perfection. Yet the recommended models of change have been very damaging: either metamorphosis, where the old self was somehow expected to graft onto a supernatural level and become abruptly sanctified; or moral surgery, whereby the undesired dimensions of one’s life were cut out. Such existentialist violence is always resisted by the psyche’s organic and inclusive spiritual instinct.
O’Donohue suggests, however, that in the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus in today’s gospel, we see another paradigm for change, “the only trustable form,” as he suggests. In this pathway of growth nothing is denied, excluded or forced.
Attention is focused reverently on the whole complex of one’s presence. In the light of this reverence to one’s self the places of entanglement, limitation, blindness and damage gradually reveal themselves in ways that suggest and invite changes in the configuration of one’s heart. In this way, false and destructive configurations loosen and the depth and intensity of one’s inner life finds new configurations which heal, clarify, and challenge one’s longing. This is slow soul-work where rather than forcing one’s soul to submit to the arrogance and interference of neon-analysis one keeps back from getting in the way of the soul’s luminous instinct and wisdom. The soul is the best guide to its own wells of wisdom and healing.
So, in this way Lent is a gentle time for us to become before ourselves, but to do so not with too much anxiety. Rather, we are to keep our gaze on that gentle invitation which is Jesus’ own gaze upon us, just as he kept his gaze on his Father’s love. We, like him, might then experience how this gaze on something other than ourselves slowly coaxes forth that inner luminosity and beauty that lays within each of us.
There are mountains in all our lives – the mountains of unforeseen circumstances that seem to suddenly discover us, the mountains of seeming insurmountable obstacles looming in front of us, the mountains of real challenges coming to greet us, the mountains of our own limitation and inadequacies. We can try and run from the mountain, or we can face the mountain and slowly begin our climb. Whatever name it might have in our life, if we allow the mountain to reveal us to ourselves, as it did for Abraham, then we can truly begin that process of Transfiguration.
Whilst keeping our gaze on God, the source of our hope, we might find that the places of entanglement, limitation, blindness and damage within us, begin to loosen their hold and new possibilities suggest themselves. It means letting go of what covers over our deepest desires and letting our deepest desires rise to the surface. Thus, we allow what covers our inner beauty to fall away, and allow that beauty within to shine. This is what it means to be caught up in Jesus’ own transfiguration.
 John O’Donohue, “The Priestliness of the Human Heart” The Furrow, 45
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