The Transfiguration: becoming 'an open singing bowl.'
‘Stay with the music, words will come in time.’
Carmelite nun, Jewish born philosopher Edith Stein was killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1942. A young Jewish woman travelling with her, Etty Hillesum, recorded in a letter to her sister from Westerbork, (the transit camp enroute) that she had met two German nuns, ‘What an extraordinary impact they made on those who met them even just for a few moments on the train.’ It’s also reported that at Westerbork Edith Stein had been offered an escape plan by a Dutch official. She refused, saying: "If somebody intervened at this point and took away [her] chance to share in the fate of [her] brothers and sisters, that would be utter annihilation."
A single person by an action or their words, can have the capacity to enable others to re-see the geographical and emotional landscape surrounding them, and in so doing can totally change their way of being in the world. Words, even those of a stranger, can turn the perception of others around as if re-designing their very environment.
In the story of the Transfiguration, the disciples are taken away by Jesus to a remote place. They already know him and are prepared to lean in, listen to his teaching, follow his way. Their hearts are open to trust him. The Transfiguration, this great unveiling of God in Jesus, isn’t about the witness of power and might of a superhero. Suffused with a white light, there is no version of white supremacy here. The revelation is an affirmation of the divinity and humanity of God’s love. The long narrative of God’s Love is galvanised into this one moment. And will continue from. The hearts and minds of the disciples are blown away. It’s terrifying. Although the experience makes sense to them at one level, it also leaves them puzzled and questioning. They want to build three tents to memorialise this momentous revelation, but also know they need time to reflect on it. “Tell no-one,” says Jesus. Meaning, think about it. Not only that, but most especially, live it. As Bp Graeme Rutherford likes to say, ‘Walk the talk.’
We can be tempted to think of Transfiguration as a one-off, dramatic and life changing event. Over the top. But surely one of the messages in this story about Jesus, is as Desert Father Joseph said to Abba Lot, that we are each asked not only to say our prayers, keep our fasts, meditate, but also ‘be transformed into fire.’
More often than not, in reality those ‘transformed into fire’ are not the ones making the sweeping changes in the world. They are the persons going about their ordinary lives in the most simplest of ways. Not perfect, but somehow at home in their skin and seemingly at one with circumstances around them. They are easy to be around. They possess a profound capacity to listen. What we most remember later, and it usually is later, is the way that they helped us re-see our environment. This is not so much because of what they did, but because of something they allowed to shine through them. They may not have even seen it themselves so aligned have they come to be in practising God’s action through them. Our world seems a whole lot better. They shine peace.
‘Become an open singing bowl,’ the contemporary English poet Malcolm Guite tells us. If we stay open, the heart of God is given space to move inside us. Just as the great transfiguring heart of Jesus was in Edith Stein when she moved amongst the Jewish people in the train on their way to Auschwitz in 1942. Just as the whole experience of pain, hardship, injustice, suffering, power imbalance was reconfigured for those three disciples of Jesus at the Transfiguration. A new courage, a new hope, a new way of understanding what the love of God means, can be born anew.
In waking up to such reality, Malcolm Guite encourages, 'Stay with the music, words will come in time.’
see: The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press, 2013
painting by : Philip Harvey, during Lockdown, Melbourne, 2020