TOMORROW is the feast of the Transfiguration, which can seem to be sidelined during the holiday season when church activities are at a low ebb. But that timing may not be altogether bad. Activity is not always beneficial. A holiday may provide exactly the opportunity needed to get to the heart of this mystery, even if there is no opportunity to celebrate it at the eucharist. It is, after all, a feast of the Lord, and essential to understanding that, for all who seek to follow him, the Christian life is, first of all, not one of action, but of deepening prayerful union with God. From this, action may and usually, indeed, must flow. But for some this takes an unusual form: where a contemplative vocation is recognised, the decisive move may, in fact, be withdrawal from a secular lifestyle so as to be more open to God in the depths of one’s personality, and to be a wellspring and refuge for others who lead hard or chaotic lives.
On the other hand, contemplation may be the preparation for public work and, perhaps, profound suffering in the world. So it was with our Lord. A 20th-century Anglican religious, Fr Andrew SDC, wrote of the beauty of Christ’s shining face after “one of a succession of God knows how many nights of profound and perfect prayer. . . He sees completely what the Father’s will is: that out of the human nature He has taken shall shine forth over the ages and over the whole universe the revelation of Love; and that that Love can only be shown by sacrifice, by going to the last length to which Love can go.” The beauty derived from the perfect choice; and the perfect choice, of “the bitterest path a man can know”, was possible because of the prayer (Meditations for Every Day, 1934).
In the troubled early 21st century, something of this experience may come to Christians in Western Europe as it came to those of Eastern Europe in the Soviet era, and as it has come recently to many Christians in the Middle East. An event such as the murder of the priest in Rouen last week would not have been expected by him or the congregation, even though the French people in general can hardly be said to be unaware of the current dangers. There could be no preparation in the sense in which Christ deliberately prepared for his confrontation with the authorities. But the Church’s faith is that a life that has been lived close to God after the example of Jesus on the mountain, however sudden or distressing its end, does not share in the futility that is seen in lives that lack mercy and love. If it has embodied faith, hope, and charity, it continues to speak. The transfiguration leads on to the Cross, but it has, as Fr Andrew sees, a beauty of its own: the prayer and the choice that it models have a meaning that nothing can take away.