Our Celtic forebears in the faith understood the importance of thin places. These were more often than not physical places of intersection between the temporal and spiritual dimensions. The Hebrew Bible identifies mountaintops as thin places, locations where a dimensional interpenetration resulted in a revelation that changed the course of development.
Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai was a transfiguration experience after which his face continued to shine so brightly with the divine energy that he had to veil himself in the presence of the people. The encounter between Moses and God resulted in the birth of a new and different kind of relationship with profound results echoing down the millennia. On Mt. Tabor, in the presence of the disciples Jesus’s appearance shone with a radiant illumination. Illumination is a metaphor for direct and unmediated human- divine encounter.
On Mt. Tabor, the disciples were witness to Jesus’ encounter with Moses and Elijah. Theologically, this is an encounter that reveals the continuity of authority from the Covenant God made with Moses and the Israelites flowing into the New Covenant God makes with Jesus and humanity. The presence of Elijah identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Through the enchanted images of the mountaintop experience, the theological identity of Jesus as the Messiah is confirmed in the presence of key human witnesses.
From a literary perspective, the Transfiguration marks the midpoint in all three synoptic Gospels. Up to this point, Jesus has been establishing his ministry in Galilee among the mixed gentile-Jewish populations of the north. The descent from Mt. Tabor marks a turning point in tone and action. Jesus now sets his face towards Jerusalem and his inevitable confrontation with institutional religion and the forces of empire.
The 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term peak experience to refer to experiences of transfiguration. We no longer live in a society that takes the idea of thin places very seriously. A world of enchantment in which supernatural events are encountered in the here and now is no longer part of our mindset. Instead, we have traded belief in the super natural for the certainty and predictability of the mundane. We find ourselves living in a rational world of disenchantment.
Enchantment and disenchantment are the terms that Charles Taylor uses to show the steady historical movement from a religious worldview of the Bible to that of our own secular and cynical age. The avenues leading back into an enchanted universe are now blocked off for us. No matter how hard we may wish it was not so, a pre-Enlightenment mindset of enchantment is no longer available to us.
Our modern dilemma
Unfortunately, the loss of enchantment has not rendered redundant our longing for transcendent experience. Consequently, in desperation, we cast about for experiences of transcendence that for a brief moment release us from within the prison walls of our disenchanted mindset. We have arrived in a world that Ken Wilber calls the flatland, a disenchanted world of arid rationality in which we become increasingly focused on finding ways to break out from the mind-numbing reality of post-post modernity.
Our modern quest takes on the quality of increasing desperation to find transcendence within the confines of the mundane. Our desperation makes us vulnerable to the addictions that promise us peak experience.
Our longing for the release of heightened sensory experience snares us in the addictions of modern-day life, which are many and varied. But they all share one characteristic – they compel us to misplace our hopes and dreams in substances, processes, behaviors, and technologies that promise more than they can deliver. It can take us a lifetime to discover that momentary escape is not a solution to the experience of living in flatland. Yet, increasingly we resort to the technologies of virtual or fantasy reality, substances that offer mind-altering or pain-numbing escape, and the all-pervasive patterns and behaviors of materialist self-medication.
Peter said, Lord it’s good to be here, let’s make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – not knowing what he said. Peter’s unknowingness reveals the human longing to chase and capture peak experience. This is a failure to understand. Peter wanted to make the experience permanent. He no sooner expressed his desire than puff it all evaporated. If we are unlucky enough to have religious peak experiences it makes living in this world even more unsatisfactory as we become consumed by the search to repeat what always remains an elusive experience.
Properly understood, the nature of peak experience opens our eyes to the bigger picture. It offers an ah-hah moment glimpsed and then gone. But a glimpse is enough to bring about realignment in the direction of finding not escapism, but satisfaction.
Descending the mountain – life on the flat(land)
The disciples and Jesus did not ascend the mountain in order to spend the rest of their days there. They ascended to encounter God and then descend down the other side. As they descended Jesus advised them to keep schtum, a popular British expression derived from the German word for silent. In effect, Jesus was telling them that it’s enough to have glimpsed the intersection of the temporal and divine dimensions lying within the secret heart of all reality. But glimpsing is the only possibility for transfiguration moments are elusive and unrepeatable.
As they came down Jesus, Peter, James, and John became instantly embroiled in heated encounter as the disciples who had remained at the bottom of the mountain had unsuccessfully tried to cast out a demon from a boy who we recognize as probably suffering from epilepsy. They must have wondered had their experience on the mountain changed anything? Apparently not, at least at the surface level of reality.
It didn’t last, it could not be repeated, and yet for Peter, John, and James, their experience at the mountaintop changed something. They now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who Jesus really was. This knowledge became the central organizing principle for the rest of their lives.
Disenchantment in the flatland must be confronted and not escaped from. within a lived encounter with a story that was expansive enough to enable them to experience the interpenetration of the spiritual and temporal dimensions. Despite the magical imagery of the enchanted world our mothers and fathers in faith experienced the divine within the heart of human reality much the same as we can. God is at the center of the future through an endless succession of present moments. In other words, God is active through history and the only moment is now.
Today, the best antidote to our profound sense of disenchantment is not to crave escape into pseudo states of re-enchantment, but to live lives motivated by curiosity, creativity, and wonder.
The words of W.B Yates seems to capture so much of our present predicament. In The Second Coming, he penned:
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
The mount of Transfiguration offers no magic solution to the unfolding events that would lead Jesus, Peter, James, and John into the future. Yet, we can only believe that the experience on Mt. Tabor changed something that enabled them to come through the tumult of their future into the birth of a new way of experiencing the world.
We are powerless to dramatically change the way the world is. Yet there are moments of transfiguration in individual lives. When taken together these contribute to those moments of transfiguration in our common life together. For me, transfiguration is not defined so much as a peak experience, though sometimes it may be. Transfiguration lies in those moments when we experience the ah-hah-ness of glimpsing a more expansive backdrop against which our daily lives are lived out. We come to a new appreciation of the otherwise ordinariness of life. We become encouraged or inspired to renew allegiance to that expansive story that leads us to rediscover that decency, faithfulness, and courage remain available to us.
We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
Howard Zinn, historian
I might say that to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is to participate in the reshaping of transfiguring experience.