From Writing In The Sand: Jesus & The Soul Of The Gospels
Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother
John with him and led them off up a tall mountain. He
metamorphosed before them. His face glowed like the sun,
and his garments turned as white as light. Suddenly
Moses and Elijah appeared to them, speaking to him.
Peter responded by saying to Jesus, “If you would like,
I will build three little houses for you, Moses, and Elijah.”
While he was speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them
and a voice from the mist said, “This is my much-
loved and gratifying son. Listen to him.”
When the students heard this, they fell
face down and were petrified.
Then Jesus came and touched them
and said, “Stand up. Don’t be afraid.”
When they looked, they saw that he was the only one there.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone about this
vision until I have wakened from among the dead.”
In this mysterious story, Jesus takes three special students with him to a mountain to have a shared mystical vision, in which he is linked with Moses and Elijah. The mountain, the light, and the appearance of Moses all connect this vision to Mount Sinai and the presentation of the Ten Commandments to humankind. Elijah is the great prophet who could raise the dead and who himself was expected to return. But let’s focus on what happens to the body in this vision.
The Gospel uses the word metamorphosis for the traditional English transfiguration. Meta-morph. Change form. Earlier, we studied a key word in the Gospel teaching, meta-noia, a shift in understanding. Both words indicate that to be in the kingdom, you need to make a radical change. You have to live in two profoundly connected but distinct realms. In one, you are an ordinary person. In the other, you are, like Jesus metamorphosed, someone who can be present in the past and someone made transparent and translucent. The spark of divinity in you shines through. Your entire being is changed, as the spiritual life, so vivid and concrete, gives you a glow.
Again, Jesus is like a shaman, able to move between worlds and time periods. He takes his students on a vision quest, to a mountain, where they are apart from their friends and colleagues, where they are susceptible to the vision of transformed human existence. Historically, we have tried hard to adapt Jesus’s vision to an increasingly modernist world of scientific facts and materialistic measurements. But the Gospels ask for something entirely different, more like Carlos Castaneda’s shamanic teacher trying to get him to let go of the assumptions of the limited world in which he lives. Jesus gives his selected students a taste of transformed existence and teaches them the kind of metamorphosis of human life that takes place when you enter the kingdom.
When you finally “get” the teaching of Jesus and begin to live by a new set of rules – love, forgiveness, conviviality, community, healing, and freedom from demonic preoccupations – your clothes don’t suddenly become ultra-white and your face blindingly luminous, but you will be, and appear as, transformed. Your presence will have an electric charge. You will be different, and the effect might well be something akin to bright light.
I have known people who have achieved holiness and who I believe represent the rules of the kingdom. You sense in their presence something special and not quite human, or preternaturally human. As many stories of holiness attest, living beyond self-interest gives you the power of healing and a remarkable presence.
When I was a child, many members of my family would visit a holy man living in a monastery a few miles away in the heart of the city. Father Solanus Casey, who is in the process of being made a saint by the Catholic Church, was both ordinary and spiritually incandescent. My father tells the story of visiting him and discussing plumbing, although my father was there to find healing for a member of the family.
Father Solanus lived for others and yet fully enjoyed life. You can live the kingdom today in your world, but you have to learn the difficult lesson of being completely open to the desire of the father, to do the bidding you hear from the core of life rather than satisfy your own small needs.
Metamorphosis or transfiguration is a natural achievement within the scope of any man or woman. It is entirely different form personal power or happiness or success. These things thrill the ego, while metamorphosis sidesteps the ego altogether. It satisfies at a deep level, but in it there is no preoccupation with personal satisfactions. You don’t live life as much as life is lived through you. You have the composure and sense of meaning that this other kind of life offers, but you aren’t seeking any affirmation that you are all right or in any way better than others.
You may not see the glow of white light that signals metamorphosis, but others will. That is the psychological paradox of the kingdom: your needs are met, but you aren’t aware of that fact because your attention is not on them. This is how we might understand the invitation to humility in the Gospels: not as a masochistic, “poor me” sacrifice of self, but as an enlargement of personality to the point where ego concerns fade far into the background. Deep feelings of community and compassion wipe away anxieties about self, and you stand there identified with humanity rather than with your personal goals. You get out of the way. Your soul and spirit shine. People see an almost palpable spirit in you, and they are drawn to it in a way that they could never be attracted to an ego.
Thus the challenge of the Gospel Jesus is not to believe or obey rules or possess the truth. The real challenge is to metamorphose, an ordinary human being manifesting the Jesus nature. You will feel strong resistance against this Jesus transfiguration. It will seem impractical and self-defeating. But these feelings are precisely the price to be paid for entering what is the most fulfilling kind of life.