The Uncreated Splendor of this Day

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Transfiguration, Fra Angelico. Convento di San Marco, Florence. (Source)

I am currently engaged in an argument on Facebook over whether the Transfiguration or Pentecost is the most Sophiological Feast of the Church. Although I hold that the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon Our Lady and the Apostles in the Cenacle is, in fact, the most Sophiological event commemorated on the Kalendar, I’m willing to concede that today’s liturgy is refulgent with the splendor of Eternal Wisdom. I had the opportunity to attend a Solemn High Mass, complete with asperges and vesting at the chair. All the propers, all the readings, and all the prayers were as so many lights set one by one upon the altar, until their glow was consumed in the Uncreated Light of the Eucharist.

Consider the Propers. At the Introit, we pray:

Illuxerunt coruscationes tuae orbi terrae: commota est et contremuit terra. Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! concupiscit, et deficit anima mea in atria Domini.

Your lightening illumined the world; the earth quivered and quaked. How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul years and pines for the courts of the Lord.

Here, the Church introduces us to one of the great motifs of this holy feast: light. And not just any light. A totally beautiful, all-pervading illumination. The whole of creation responds to this light, and we who have the grace of observing it are inspired to think of the eternal “dwelling place” and “courts of the Lord” [Ps. 82:2-3].

St. Peter takes up this theme, writing to us in his epistle:

And we have the word of prophecy, surer still, to which you do well to attend, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. [2 Peter 1:19]

The Prince of the Apostles knows that the Light of Lights, glimpsed first on Tabor, enkindles the hearts of all Prophets. That is why Our Lord appears there with two of the greatest Prophets. That is why the Holy Ghost, “who has spoken through the Prophets,” descends upon the assembly to announce the voice of the Father [Nicene Creed]. Yet even the light of Tabor will fade before the dawn of the Eschatonthe “morning star” of the Holy Spirit that “rises in your hearts” [2 Peter 1:19].

Moving on, we come to a Gradual in which the words of David are taken up by the whole Church as she addresses her Spouse with intimate delight:

Speciosus forma prae filiis hominum: diffusa est gratia in labiis tuis.
V. Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum: dico ego opera mea Regi.

Fairer in beauty are You than the sons of men; grace is poured out upon Your lips.
V. My heart overflows with a goodly theme; as I sing my ode to the King.

If you wanted to make the argument that the Transfiguration is the most Sophianic feast, the Alleluia would be particularly pertinent. For we pray the words of the Seventh Chapter of the Book of Wisdom (words, I might add, that are usually read in the feminine and applied to Our Lady):

Alleluia, alleluia. V. Candor est lucis aeternae, speculum sine macula, et imago bonitatis illius. Alleluia.

Alleluia, alleluia. V. He is the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror, and the image of His goodness. Alleluia.

These prayers are like steps to the Temple. For, can we not see in all of these verses the very picture of the Last and Glorious Day? Are we not cast off into a vision of the Heavenly Courts, and of the Everlasting House of God? The Offertory confirms our path and calls to mind our mystical destination, where, by the Epiclesis and Consecration, we shall soon worship the Eucharistic God. We pray the words of Psalm 111:

Gloria et divitiae in domo eius: et iustitia eius manet in saeculum saeculi, alleluia.

Wealth and riches shall be in His house; His generosity shall endure forever. Alleluia.

But the Communion Verse warns us with a passage from St. Matthew:

Visionem, quam vidistis, nemini dixeritis, donec a mortuis resurgat Filius hominis.

Tell the vision you have seen to no one, till the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

Whenever we are privileged enough to enter into a Sophianic mystery, the Blessed Mother is never far away. Nor can she be ignored in this, the month of her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart, the month in which we celebrate her Glorious Assumption and her Queenship over all Heaven. We should be extra attentive to her quiet presence. Thus, in this Communion verse, we learn to be like Mary. For, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” [Luke 2:19 ESV]. That is the rule Jesus teaches to the Apostles who witnessed His Transfiguration. This, too, is an expression of Holy Wisdom, in the virtue of Prudence. An experience of such mystical consolation, like the Mustard Seed we learned about in Monday’s Gospel, would one day grow into an enormous tree where “the birds of the air come, and dwell in the branches thereof,” [Matt. 13:32]. But first, it had to be watered by the Blood of Christ.

So must we. If we are to make good use of the many graces we receive, we must offer them back up to Christ to receive His Blessing. Only He can make our hearts Eucharistic like His own; only He can send the Spirit to enkindle our souls with charity and wisdom; only He can impart the Uncreated Light that He first manifested on Mount Tabor.

 

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.