August 6, 2016

The Experience of the Transfiguration in the Life of the Athonite Monk (2 of 5)


Morning having come, after the Liturgy and a sober and fraternal meal shared out in the hermitage of the Mother of God a little below the peak, the pilgrim comes back down from the mountain in silence and joy, and bearing - not on his face like Moses coming down from Sinai (Ex. 34:30) - but in his heart the reflection of God's glory. For the participants, this feast was not simply some commemoration of an event that took place long ago, but a true actualization of all the mystery of Christ, of which everyone becomes the bearer who participates in the Holy Eucharist. They come down from the Mountain with Jesus. They have clothed themselves with Him. They have been filled with the Bread of Life, and with the continual invocation of His name, in order to continue their journey, within the context of their monastery (or skete, or hermitage), toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

For the monk the monastery is the place of his crucifixion and burial, the unique place where he can live out heaven on earth - for every monastery is, in itself, the New Jerusalem "coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God" (Rev. 21:10-11). Of course, every monastery is also a human society with all the imperfections which that implies. It is a part of the community of the Holy Mountain, and each one is different from the others, but still it remains the expression of the Church in all the fullness of her mystery. Nothing in the world provides a more perfect and living image of the Church than an Athonite monastery. It is the product of the entire tradition of the Church which has organized its least detail, the architecture, the organization of space, the canonical statute, the routine of its daily life, and so forth in such a way that the monastery can offer its members the best possible conditions for the accomplishment of the mystery of salvation: to find God among men, and men who are, as it were, already living in heaven. Just as in the eschatological city of God, there is nothing crude, nothing worldly or carnal: "Nothing unclean shall enter it" (Rev. 21:7). All things there are both human and divine. While preserving their created nature, they are yet filled with divine activity and convey the life of God. Having voluntarily renounced the world and worldly things, crucified to the world as the world is to them (Gal. 6:14), the monks no longer live enslaved to fate or to necessity, but as the free sons of the Most High, as sons of the light (Jn. 12:36), as the "bright children of the Church"8 whose "commonwealth is in heaven (Phil. 3:50). In the monastery they live a liturgy without interruption, a daily transfiguration of the world, of matter, of space, of time, of movement, of human action and society.

The Transfiguration of Christ. When, before the crucifixion, the God-man took His three chosen disciples with Himself up the mountain of Tabor, He was not Himself transfigured before them. He did not put on some other form, or in other words become something that He was not already. He did not shine with a glory that was forbidden to Him. His Person, perfect and divine-human, underwent no change or transformation. Rather, according to the Holy Fathers, Christ at that time opened the eyes of His disciples, and "made them pass from the flesh to the spirit," as Saint Maximus the Confessor wrote.9 Saint John the Damascene explains: "He is therefore transfigured, not in taking on what He was not, but in showing His disciples what He was, opening their eyes - they who were blind - and making them see."10

He permitted them to contemplate for a brief instant the glory of His divinity which was united to His own Person, "without confusion, without change, indivisibly and inseparably,"11 to His human nature. This Glory of God, inaccessible and unbearable for the created being, Christ had during His earthly sojourn covered, out of condescension, under the "veil of flesh,"12 the shadow of His body.13 It is now that He reveals it to the "open" eyes of the Apostles. As Saint Gregory Palamas teaches, He then revealed His flesh to be as transparent as crystal: "The divine power shown as through panes of glass, resplendent for those whose hearts are pure to see it."14

He reveals, for an instant, the permanent state that His body would have after the Resurrection, and that the bodies of the saints possess in the Kingdom of Heaven, in order to confirm the Apostles and prepare them for the test of the Passion. "Before Your Crucifixion, O Lord, You took Your Disciples with You to a high mountain and were transfigured before them, making the rays of Your power shine on them; in Your love for man and Your sovereign power. You wished to reveal to them the splendor of Your Resurrection."15

This uncreated light, this unique glory and energy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, "the beauty of the everlasting age to come,"16 springs from the body of Christ as from a source of light. It becomes the "reflection of the flesh which is like God," 17 and allows them to see now the Kingdom of God come "with power," as the Lord had promised them before taking them with Him to the mountain: "But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come in power" (Lk. 9:7).

And, as in the invisible world, the sun's light is poured out on all creatures to give them life, so this uncreated light communicates itself to the clothes of the Lord, which become "white as the light," because the union with God "according to the Person" is one thing, and another is participation in grace according to His uncreated energy: "His face shines like the sun, because He is identified, according to hypostasis, with the immaterial light, and it is for this that He became the Sun of Righteousness; but His vesture becomes white as the snow because it receives glory by vesting and not by union, relatively, and not according to Person."18

According to Saint Maximus the Confessor, this vesture which is resplendant with a "dazzling whitness" (Lk. 9:29), comprises the logoi of creation, that is, the ontological roots of created being, which have found their fulfillment, their recapitulation, in the divine-human Person of the Word of God incarnate.19 The elements of the natural world, freed from the weight of the flesh, no longer cover Christ like the heavy clothes of winter, but become supple, luminous, bearers of the Spirit, and convey thus to humanity the radiance of God's glory.


8. Ninth Ode of the Canon of Pentecost.

9. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua 28, PG 91, 1195D.

10. John of Damascus, Homily on the Transfiguration 12, PG 96, 564C. It is the common opinion of the Church Fathers which was taken and developed by St. Gregory - cf. his own Homily on the Transfiguration, PG 151, 433AB.

11. Definition of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod (Chalcedon).

12. St. Gregory the Theologian, Homily 39 13, PG 36, 39-1; and Letter 103, PG 37, 188.

13. "You therefore have come covering the splendor of Your divinity with the shadow if Your body. For how could mortal perishable nature be united with the nature which is inaccessible and imperishable, if the shadow of the body had not interposed itself as the mediator of the light for us who dwell in darkness?" St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily 4 on the Song of Songs, PG 44, 838.

14. St. Gregory Palamas, First Homily on the Transfiguration, PG 151, 439C, and with a text from St. Basil in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts II, 3, 21.

15. Second stichera of the Great Vespers for the Transfiguration.

16. Gregory Palamas, Defense of the Holy Hesychasts 2:3, 20.

17. Ibid. St. John of Damascus also says: "And the body shone like the sun; it is to the body, in effect, that the glory of the Transfiguration belongs." Homily on the Transfiguration, PG 96, 565C.

18. John of Damascus, Ibid. 4; PG 96, 552D. A little further down he also says: "{Christ's) clothes shine with the radiance which the divine splendor communicates to them" (565D).

19. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua 28, PG 91, 1128D.