Transfiguration & Peak Experiences

Preaching, Theology

Perhaps you’ve been to the mountaintop yourself. Perhaps along the trail of your life’s journey you have happened upon a clearing in the woods on the side of a hill from which you could behold the entire landscape you have traversed thus far, and the entire way leading to peak for which you are destined. Perhaps you’ve had one shimmering moment in your life which felt infused with the transcendent, something as simple as the green-golden light of dusk which makes the reds redder and the songbirds sing for evening, something as robust as certainty that God is with us. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called these peak experiences, and in his work he argued that they are the stuff religion is made of. Maslow studied the way peak experiences have often been the domain of the isolated, renegade prophet, a figure set apart from society whose revelations from God are often too hot for the rest of the world to handle, too frightening with their truth-telling and life-altering-expectations. Religion, then, becomes a system by which the rest of the world handles these fiery deliveries. Religion becomes the thing that contains and transmits the prophecy or vision or revelation to the ordinary folks who aren’t willing to risk getting burned. By this model, if you think of the peak experience as fire, the prophet or visionary is the coal or wood which lets it burn, and religious practice and tradition is the furnace which contains it and transmits the warmth to those who gather around. Maslow, working from the perspective of humanistic Third Force psychology in the 1960s warned of the dangers of relegating these peak experience to a priestly class, or prophetic professionals, if you will. He believed that peak experiences could be a domain occupied by many more people than religion might be comfortable with, or the secular world for that matter. Maslow saw peak experiences as, “an integration of the realm of Being with the realm of the concrete,” and thought it’s capacity included psychotherapy, poetry, art, music, naturalistic religious experience, creativity, symbolism and play. Playing with fire could bring more energy, more light, but the question remains of how we tend to and contain it. How do we distribute the warmth throughout our whole lives? How do we train something potentially destructive into being a source for creativity?

My friend, the late Marcus Borg, wrote about his own peak experiences in his final book, Convictions. Of the handful of life-altering experiences which he details in the book some tend towards the practical side of revelation, and some to the more mystical. One of the more mystical experiences happened for him on a transcontinental flight. At some point before the meal service began, time stood still for Marcus. The plane felt suffused with glowing light, and everyone aboard seemed more beautiful to him than he could have ever imagined, including one man whom he had been sure before the flight began was one of the ugliest people he had ever seen. He isn’t sure how much time passed before the light faded, only that by the time it was over dinner had long since been served. It was almost like a trance for him. For Marcus, this experience was relegated to a few moments in his life, I certainly don’t believe that he felt enraptured by timelessness and the essential beauty of every creature all the time. But I can tell you that most of the times when I was around Marcus he suffused the space he occupied with warmth and light. He was a jovial man, he was kind, and he took an interest in the people he listened to which made you feel absolutely seen and valued. This energy stuffed the books he wrote as well, the passion with which he took to writing, the vision he held of clearing a path to Jesus within the modern world, and those books brought light to hundreds of thousands of people who met Jesus again for the first time in them.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had something like a peak experience myself. But I do have moments of clarity. I remember walking home from an undergraduate class one evening when I was studying child development, and suddenly everything about where I had been in my life and where I was headed made sense to me. After multiple failed attempts at acquiring a degree, I was finally studying something where the theory made sense to the daily work I was already doing with young children. I had ideas, I could see my whole future laid out before me, the doctoral work I wanted to do in children’s learning environments, the programs I could imagine developing for training other teachers. For one crystal clear moment, I could see how all the struggles and all the efforts I had made fit together into one cohesive whole. A few years later, when I was in the trenches of a Head Start program for at-risk four-year-olds in the low-income housing districts of my city, the whole picture wasn’t so clear. I walked home most days in tears, totally defeated by the crush of need, unsupported by the administration of the program I worked for. The warmth of that passionate fire I had felt in my study was not enough to power me through my darkest days. I lasted one year in the program, my ninth as a teacher at large, and by the end of it I was completely burnt out and chose to quit the profession entirely.

I can only imagine that Jesus led his followers into peak experiences many times throughout the course of his earthly ministry. The healings, the miracles, the clever things he said at just the right moment, all the times he inspired some ragged fisherman to lean back and nod, “man, you are good!” Perhaps the story we hear of today, the story of literally a mountain top experience, is a kind of culmination of all those other circumstances, all the minor revelations. Because even in the minor revelations of this world, there is doubt. Maybe he casts out so many demons because he has a demon himself. Maybe he didn’t so much multiply those loaves as have a really good caterer, or inspire everyone to share a little more and be content with a little less. The Transfiguration, though, dazzles with the unquestionable light of heaven. Some have called it a prelude to the Resurrection. Certainly every action from this narrative peak onwards in the Gospels leads to Jerusalem and the cross. Certainly the cross leads to the ultimate darkness and doubt, the ultimate revelation that the one we hope will save us is as subject to the pain we’ve made out of this world as ordinary flesh and blood. If any fire could have kept hope burning strong in those darkest moments, surely it would have been the voice of God himself resounding from the heavens, “this is my beloved son.” You’d think a revelation so powerful, so sure, would have echoed through their ears and strengthened them during such a trial, yet at the cross the disciples flee, Peter having long since abandoned the idea of building a tabernacle at his master’s side, and Jesus himself cries out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Warming our whole lives with the brief, fleeting glimpses of light and fire which we are given is no easy task, it is sure at times to falter and fail. Yet because we are a people of Resurrection, a people whose hope is that our darkest trials are bookended by a good beginning and a gloriously unrecognizable end, we persist in building houses where that fire can be rekindled and tended again. So my question for you, St. David’s, is where is the fire, and what container are we building to house it? We are on a journey of our own right now in this place, we occupy a liminal time as we reflect on who we are as a community, and what kind of leader we want to call into our midst to be the next permanent rector. Our profile committee is helping shape this work, and soon we’ll each have a role to play and a voice to raise in that work with the all parish survey coming up. As you do this work, I encourage you to reflect on these questions. What, in your experience of this place, has shimmered with the holy? What has dazzled with its vision of clarity and wholeness and purpose? What about your experience here has fortified your trust that God is with us? Your answers will help shape the way we forge and mold this church into being a new container to hold that holy fire. We pray that God will continue to dazzle and illuminate us in this work, and that we will be led onward by that light to the glory he has promised.


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