Why does it seem so often in life that what is “really” happening is hidden from us?  We go to the theater and when the curtain closes for intermission we know all sorts important stuff is happening behind the curtain.  In the movie The Wizard of Oz, the climax of the movie was discovering what was really happening with the Wizard behind the curtain.  How many times have you gone to social or family events sensing the event was hiding some reality behind the scenes?

Today in the story of the Transfiguration we get a glimpse of what is hidden in the spiritual life.  We get to see what really happens when the curtain goes up and we can see what God is up to and what we look like in God’s eyes.  St. Paul famously said at the end of the love poem in the letter to the Corinthians that now we “see in a mirror dimly.”  But we do get glimpses of reality.  If we can learn from what we see in these moments we can adapt our behavior to join in what is happening behind the curtain.

Union Revealed

If we were to travel down the road to Louisville, Kentucky, to the corner of 4th Street and Muhammad Ali Blvd., we would see a plaque describing another experience of transfiguration.  On March 18, 1958 Thomas Merton was doing errands when he experienced a moment of transfiguration, a moment when the curtain over reality was lifted.  He did not see Jesus transfigured, rather he saw ordinary people on the street transfigured while going about the routines of their day.  He writes “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved these people…  I saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.  To me they seemed to be walking around shining like the sun.”

Our text today, Merton’ experience and perhaps glimpses of our own, tell us what is going on behind the curtain to help us participate in reality even though we cannot see reality clearly.  In the gospel the lifted curtain reveals Jesus in union with Moses and Elijah across time.  It reveals God saying to all who would listen “This is my Beloved Son.”  Lifting the veil has Merton loving people he does not know, feeling connected to strangers on the street.  Transfiguration for Merton exposed the myth of separateness.  Everyone has life within that shines like the sun.

James Finley says glimpses of transfiguration always share at least one characteristic – they call us to greater union with God and others.  Always.  But what does union feel like?  How do we know what conduct to pursue?  He tells this story to help us recollect:

Imagine a child that very much wants a present that is too much to hope for.  Her mother decides to buy the present and she is filled with anticipation the day the present will be given.  The mother watches the child’s face as the present, too good to be hoped for, is opened.  As the child removes the lid on the box and her face erupts in joy the mother is lost in her face, lost in the union with the child’s delight. Love makes her forget herself for a time, but this loss is pure gain.

Choosing Union

This is just one way to put language to the union that is being expressed behind the curtain.  We can practice such union in worship, in meditation, in forgiveness and in human intimacy.  Musicians and artists tell us about being lost in the art and the music where they are out of control, out of their heads, one with what they are doing.

The disciples in the gospel present an almost humorous contrast to this union.  They think their little worlds are the real world and thus, are threatened and terrified of reality.  While true union promotes silence, Peter needs to fill the wonder with words and concepts.  (Notice how God can’t bear it and interrupts him!)  Peter then tries to control the uncontrollable with separate shrines to contain the union he is experiencing.

Choosing to mimic the union we see behind the curtain affects more than our relationships and devotional life.  Years later Merton recounted the Louisville experience in his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”  He explained that seeing others transfigured was for him like waking up from a dream of separateness.  He confessed he had fallen into the folly of thinking he had been living a life superior to others as a monk.  He was humbled by seeing people as they really are.  He now knew superiority was a lie, he was one with others.  This oneness meant we are not as insignificant as we feel.  If reality is one we can send ripples that move through reality.  Merton then began writing about the Vietnam War and racial injustice.  He remained a monk and lived much of his time in solitude, but he now knew his solitude was not his own anymore!  His solitude was for others, for union.

Tonight we are asked whether we have faith in our glimpses of reality from Scripture, from the testimony of others and from our own experience to join in the union behind the curtain in small ways and large.  If so, we can use this Lent to practice union.

In a few minutes we will do something here that looks small and insignificant.  But there is something bigger going on.  We gather around a table of radical equality, of radical communion, to practice the union behind the curtain.  In doing so we send a ripple of reality into the ocean of life.


George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

Saturday Evening, March 15, 2014

Focus text:  Matthew 17: 1-9 (The Transfiguration)

Photo by Edinburgh International Film Festival on