Memory and Transfiguration

Our memory is not logical or journalistic or rational. Lewis compared it, in his book on 16th century English literature, to the difference between going on a train and growing as a crop.

Ride a train and you reach a station, which you then leave behind for the next, and then again you leave the next behind for the succeeding station until you arrive at your end.

On the other hand, when a plant grows, it carries with it everything it has experienced, converting it into itself.

Human memory is more like the crop.

We don’t just recall facts from previous events. In fact, most of our memory is not even conscious and some of it is never brought to the level of consciousness.

But everything that ever happens to us, everything we ever do, everything we experience quite literally becomes part of the substance of our selves. We can view it all as the means by which God creates us.

It seems to me that we must not neglect this fact when we think about “soul formation” – our own or those we are responsible to nurture. In other words, all parents, teachers, heads of school, bosses, and civic leaders need to consider this carefully.

It actually makes our job easier.

When Peter, James, and John saw Christ transfigured, Peter was so taken with the experience (after all, here was the Christ revealed, the apocalypse (unveiling) of the kingdom of God) that he wanted to keep it. “Let us build some tabernacles,” he said.

I so love Peter’s impulses, maybe this one more than any other. Here he sees Moses in his glory, Elijah glorified, and Christ Himself transfigured from our disfigured state of human nature to that glorified state He attained through the resurrection (Romans 1). They’re all taken into a cloud of radiant glory, the energy of the eternal God surrounding them with His uncreated light.

Of course he wants to stay. Have you ever seen anybody whose face shone like the sun and whose clothes were as white as light? “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” he says in one of the more obvious statements recorded in human history. “If you wish, let us make here three tabernacles.”

He knows perfectly well that everything else in his life has just faded into the quintessence of vanity. He knows that there is nothing else worth looking at or thinking about or doing. He wants to stay.

But he’s not quite responding the way he ought, so he is silenced.

“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”

Imagine how much Jesus much have enjoyed hearing those words. The disciples, on the other hand, were terrified and fell on their faces.

“But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise and do not be afraid.”

The moment was over. “When they  had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

You can imagine how excited they were. I can see Peter turning to James and John saying, “Wait till we tell the others about this! Thomas won’t believe it.”

But Jesus even blocks this desire. “Tell the vision to no one,” he says, “until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

“The what!” I picture Peter saying. If he doesn’t yet quite get it, he’s probably thinking, “That could be thousands of years. I can’t wait that long!!”

In fact, he does get it, because his question is much more profound. “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”, which is their way of saying, “Oh, so you are the Messiah. But what about this point?”

And then they get down from the mountain and ran into a man whose son had epilepsy but the disciples couldn’t cure him. They lacked faith, Jesus tells them, and this kind of demon requires prayer and fasting.

I cannot imagine that Peter, James, and John did not experience this miracle differently from the other nine. They had been in a glorious train station with all the radiance of ineffable light. Now they were in a little train station where the lights were off and no one was on duty.

Only, they brought the first train station with them. They had been changed. Not, by any means, completely. But by witnessing the transifiguration of Christ they too had been transfigured.

Not many of us have been in the presence of the transfigured Christ, but most of us have experienced some sort of ineffable moment in which some trace of Christ’s glory shone on us. Probably we tried to repeat the experience, the way we do with a soul-breaking song or a heart-lifting conversation.

It can’t be done. We can’t build a tabernacle for the experience.

But we can carry the experience with us. Yes, we can remember it with our conscious mind, and that’s a good idea. But it’s also necessary that we absorb the experience into our souls and that means attentiveness. It means being wholly there when He visits us.

For example, during communion, if our mind is elsewhere the experience will barely touch us. If our body is uninvolved, the experience will glance off us. If our spirit is consumed by anxiety, He will find no doorway into our souls.

We must be present, to be there for Him, to receive Him.

Every time we are there for Him, He takes possession of a tiny corner of our selves. And with each portion He inhabits (I am speaking to the weakness of our flesh), He enlarges our souls to make more room for Him. And oh how radiant is that tiny corner He inhabits, how He resurrects it, how He His love overflows from our hearts through our hands and into the souls of those we love.

We find that we agree with the Father who called Him His beloved Son, “in whom I am well-pleased.” When we are given a glimpse of a shard of His glory reflecting into some distant corner of our souls, we always agree with Peter, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

And when He says, “Yes, it is. But you have to go pray and fast and, like Me, endure suffering and crucifixion before you can be transfigured,” we carry that goodness in the deepest core of our selves. We are changed by it.

That is how our souls are formed, or better, healed. And that is the power of the memory He has empowered us with.

Come, let us rejoice,
Mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues
Let us be transformed this day into a better state
And direct our minds to heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety
According to the form of Christ.
For in His mercy the Saviour of our souls has transfigured disfigured man
And made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor.

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2 Responses

  1. I happen to be an atheist, but in the following quote I see the great insight and power that religious training brings to the human condition. You said: “But everything that ever happens to us, everything we ever do, everything we experience quite literally becomes part of the substance of our selves.”

    In a time when tradition is casually thrown aside as irrelevant or even destructive to the individual, the notion that everything an individual does and everything he is exposed to remains in him, whether he realizes it or not, is important. Similarly, groups of individuals–a community–has a collective memory, embodied in each individual.

    To some extent, we are seeing collective memory in action in some of the responses to recent government initiatives.

    • Gloria,

      Your reply touches on something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’ve long noticed that there are insights and perceptions we can only gain through contemplation (not TM, etc. – just contemplation). But contemplation is almost always of something that we can’t discover – that’s a different mode of thinking.

      Therefore, to properly contemplate, which is necessary for us to cultivate that faculty of perception, we need something beyond us to contemplate.

      We can only find that in a tradition.

      Your second paragraph helped me clarify that point, so thank you.

      Your closing statement underscores the importance of the second.

      Thanks for the insight!

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