Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Transfiguration and Divinization

Father John J. Lombardi

Jesus says: "Abide in Me and I in you. I am the Vine and you are the branches." (Jn. 15: 4, 5).

"One thing I ask of the Lord/this I seek: to dwell in the Lord's house, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord. I long to see the face of God" (Ps. 27:4).

"Divinity empties itself so as to be graspable by human nature. Human nature, in its turn, is rejuvenated, divinized by its mingling with the Divine."
(St Gregory of Nyssa).

What do Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," the book "The DaVinci Code" and the rise of Gnosticism and new age spiritualities have in common? Answer: They all are presenting, however subjectively, a kind of "experience of God". Ok, so one is a novel ("Code"), and one a movie ("Passion"), and the other genre is sometimes "out there" (new age Gnostics), but they are all finite expressions of a search and hunger for the infinite God. Not just believing in, but actually encountering Him directly.

We, as Catholics, are blessed to possess many good, holy principles and ways to meeting God--not just trusting in doctrines but embracing Divinity, not only studying spiritual ways but becoming one with The Way (as in the Eucharist-see Jn 6). In his famous book, "Life of Union with God," Fr Saudreau writes: "The end of the spiritual life, the goal to which it tends, and to which it leads usually if the soul is faithful, is an intimate communion with God. It is a state wherein, being enlightened…as to the divine perfections becomes united to God by acts of very perfect love." Jesus Himself says: "Blessed are the pure of heart: they shall see God" (Mt. 5:8)…Are you desirous of this Holy Communion with God? Are you, correspondingly, ready to die and live for it (Lk. 9:23)?

Regarding Mr. Gibson's movie he has said he wanted to make it as true to the experience of the Bible as possible-as visceral and violent as the torture of Jesus was. According to some sources he also relied upon Ann Catherine Emmerich's visionary "The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ." He is presenting the viewer with a passionate passion. No holds barred. Whether you see the movie or not, the important matter is, actually, immateriality, not celluloid stimulation, but interior meditation-brining the Passion of Jesus within- "Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell within you" (Col 3:16). This is, really, a kind of trans-temporal, continual "sharing of His sufferings by being conformed to his death" (Phil. 3:10) as Catholic saints practiced throughout the centuries: an encounter with The Passion of Christ we all need-not just once, but consistently.

Meanwhile, "The DaVinci Code," proposes to a vulnerable America, an "alternative Jesus" and relationship with others in novelistic, false and dangerous ways. Though it is a novel, it is, in its own way, subtly, is proposing an experience of Jesus. Beware. Instead, how can you read and enjoy a holy diet of spiritual food -the Bible, Catechism, science of the saints, regularly, to feed your hungering soul. Garbage in, garbage out. Holy food in, holiness radiating with-out.

Gnosticism is a spirituality which stresses inner spiritual experience, and is found in many forms today from new age seminars, to books like "Talking to Heaven" and "A Course in Miracles," and thru publishing and popularizing of older Gnostic tracts like "The Gospel of Thomas." All these share the tendency of a spirituality without religion, which is arcanely-knowledge-based, is monist (God is all, all is God), and anti-traditional. The movement stresses illumination--that we are all one with God already, and need only wake up from ignorance and eschew any spiritual dualities…How are you, instead, seeking holy, devout teachers to lead you, as St Bonaventura says, to the Divine Teacher, the bridegroom Jesus Christ?

Directly or indirectly, everyone is looking for some kind of experience of God, but, with all these true and faulty spiritualities, just who can you trust? Jesus speaks clearly to seekers: "I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life" (Jn. 14:6).

Along with Jesus Himself, we can also trust the Catholic Church. Our Church has many answers, treasures, and lessons of The Path to help you. It is "the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth" (I Tim 3:15). Amidst a relativistic world of varying opinions, if we really search the Church's rich tapestry of spiritual wisdom, we can find varied helps to inspire us to love, experience, and worship God. St Paul counseled the Thessalonians, and us: "remedy the deficiencies of your Faith…may God Himself and Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself direct our way" (I Th. 3:10-11).

The saints are a heroic human record of striving to the Divine Lord-following Jesus to the Blessed Trinity. They show us we are call called, not only to be saints, but also to "taste and see the goodness of the Lord"-whether garbage collectors or Grotto gardeners. St. Augustine, wayward youth, looked for God everywhere in the world and discovered, "Late have I loved the, O God…You were within me, but I was outside (in created things)." He shows us that, despite our sins and contamination by the world, we can overcome and attain at least a partial bliss. Eastern father St Diadochus can remind us that, even amidst crying children, bad jobs or difficult relatives, our true heart's desire is fulfillable, and says: "For the soul, intoxicated by the Light desires only to enjoy the contemplation of the glory of God." St Bernard of Clairvaux helps guide, correctly, in a honey-sweet way (his "spiritual nickname"), our naturally loving hearts, suggesting the soul and God are involved in spousal communion: "When they are perfectly united, and this they are (by love), God is in the man and the man in God."…Bl. Henry Suso encourages a modern, human race about the "Real Race" and embrace we are frantically sometimes unconsciously living: "For then the soul is absorbed into the only One, and flows back into that ocean of all Good from which it came, and, as St Paul says: 'He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him' " (I Cor 6:17)…St Teresa of Avila can inspire shy, intuitional people, describing the soul as an "Interior Castle" with Christ in the middle…St John of the Cross helps all who deny themselves (in family life, at work, in sacrifices), by counseling that when we give up all (nada)we come to the All (To-do). Think about it: the mystics blended the majestic and the menial perfectly, while we think they are opposites! Upshot: all these had some kind of "experiences of God"-so: how can this Mystical Treasury help you?

Today, there is a wide spreading of mystical spiritualities -inside and outside the Catholic Faith, to influence seekers. Thru all this, though, there are downsides: a kind of "nouveau mysticism" is marketed and packaged according to materialistic standards; it is sterilized and stripped from its "original vehicle"-Religion. Some pseudo-mysticisms denigrate the importance of purification ("dark nights"), and give a sometimes-substitutional mysticism, via messages, gurus, mystical events, to seekers as a vicarious experience, thus possibly and subtly addicting them. And so, as much as we want to see, feel, and "taste" God, we must be very careful, maybe not paranoid, but prudent.

In this Sunday's Gospel (Lk. 9:28-36), the Apostles (Peter, James and John) have a kind of "mystical experience": they see Christ "unveil" His Luminous Divinity-to prepare them for the Scandal of the Cross, to show them He is the Messiah and the continuation of Old Testament and Moses and Elijah (thus: the moral and the mystical should be integrated). Essentially, the Transfiguration teaches us that Christ is God, that He wants to reveal Himself to us, and, as described by St Gregory Nyssa: "God comes to live in the soul and the soul migrates into God."…How will you, like the Apostles, "migrate to God" and allow Him to dwell in you? Are you making the spiritual journey by taking prayerful and practical steps, or are you sluggish, unconvinced, and too busy with other, so-called important things? In this article we will explore some of the most important themes of the Spiritual Life-- and afterlife!

  1. What does the Bible teach about experiencing God? Read the following, with meditations, and realize we are to encounter God:

  • "God formed man out of clay and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being" (Gn. 2:7). May every breath I take be as it is: both a gift and a sign of God Himself!
  • "Then Moses said: 'Do let me see your Glory!' He (God) answered, 'I will make myself pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my Name…but My Face you cannot see'…" Ex 33: 18-22)…True, Divine Beauty allures and perjures.
  • "Lord, I love the house where you dwell, the tenting place of your Glory" (Ps. 26:8)… "One thing I ask of the Lord, this I seek… gaze on the Lord's Beauty, to visit His temple" (Ps. 27:4-5). Am I as focused as the Psalmist in seeking God?
  • "Your name spoken is a spreading perfume/ Draw me! / 'We will follow you eagerly! / Bring me, O king, to your chambers…we extol your love…how rightly you are loved! (Song of Songs- 1:3-4). Do I practically seek God's love like a sacred enticement?
  • Jesus says: "...so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one" (Jn 17:21-22). Do I really seek to dwell within that "Divine In-ness"-the Trinitarian interpenetration of Father, Son and Spirit?
  • "Through these He (God) has bestowed upon us precious promises so that thru them you may come to participate in the Divine Nature" (II Pt 1:4). Let go of sin to dwell within Him.
  • "Are you not aware that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells within you?" (I Cor 3:16). How can you awaken to this-daily thru meditation and renunciation of sin?
  • "For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Rm 8:29). How can you be more like Jesus?
  •  "All of us, gazing with unveiled face, on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit" (II Cor 3:18). Are you allowing Him to transform your thoughts, desires, passions and emotions?
  • Are you seeking the beauty of the Lord? Taking steps to unveil yourself before Him to be changed into His Image (not your own)? Do you really want oneness with Him?
  1.  What does the Church teach about union of God and man?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The Word became flesh to make us 'partakers of the divine nature': 'For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God' (St Irenaeus) "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God" (St. Athanasius). "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods" (St Thomas Aquinas; #460). These saints have read the Bible, the Holy Tradition of the Church, and see the goal-union with God and divinization-do you?

Mass: Note the prayer of the priest when blending water and wine for the Eucharist: "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity." Die to live, blend with Him to mend your sin. Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away" our sins (Jn. 1:29).

"Sacraments 'are powers that come forth' (cf Lk 5:17) from the Body of Christ… Forming 'as it were, one mystical person' with Christ…the Church acts in the sacraments as 'an organically structured priestly community'" (CCC: # 1116, 1118). Receive the Sacraments more frequently, becoming mystically one with Christ.

Indwelling Trinity: The Undivided Trinity dwells within us (cf. Jn 14:15; 14:26) when we are in a state of grace-but not when in mortal sin. This is one of the most under preached, unknown doctrines--God-within-us ("Emmanuel"). While we shouldn't be presumptuous or haughty about this divine reality, we should neither ignore it. Johannes Tauler describes avid souls for this Immanent Divine Presence, who "enter into union with the supreme Being, and…having neither attraction nor desire for anything but the loving outpouring of the Divinity… prepare a way for God in their hearts." Are you?...

God in Others: Catholic saints have found Jesus "in disguise," in the poor, sick and dying, (cf. Mt 25:35ff). Mother Teresa of Calcutta stressed to her sisters-and others-to find Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and also in the poor. Encounter God passing thru this world in suffering souls, continuing the Passion.

  1. What are the pitfalls and dangers of the spiritual quest for Union with God? We often cling to an anti-God way of life; to self-preservation and egoism. St Paul counsels, oppositely: "put off ... the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24). Union with God will not come with sin and selfishness. The Israelites experienced God only after forty years in the desert, and the saints embraced union with God only after much suffering, and so should we undergo trials to be purified of inordinate desires. St. John of the Cross, counsels we must detach ourselves heroically in order to attain blissful union: "In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, Desire to have pleasure in nothing. In order to arrive at possessing everything, Desire to possess nothing. In order to arrive at being everything, Desire to be nothing."… Our modernist tendency is to downplay working out our "salvation in fear and trembling" (Phil 2: 12 ), but shouldn't we do just that, if it is God we desire?

We also sometimes mistake a pointer to God for God, a sign for Divine Reality; we think we have grasped or experienced God, but it is not really Him, but only a vestige of Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes a distinction between experience and pointers to experience: "We do not believe in formulas, but in those realties they express, which faith allows us to touch. 'The believer's act of faith does not terminate in the propositions but in the realties they express"- q. of St Thomas Aquinas; #170). Move deeply from the doctrines of our Faith, the Bible, and the saints, to the experience they point to-God. "From His fullness (Jesus') we have all received, grace upon grace" (Jn. 1:16). May the doctrines we Catholics believe in lead us to the Realities they express! St. Mark the Ascetic says: "Knowledge of created beings is one thing, and knowledge of the divine truth is another. The second surpasses the first just as the sun outshines the moon.

Then there is the difficulty of all the sin and inordinate attachments, which affect the soul's quest for Divine unity. How can we experience God if we have so much anger, lust, fear and other sinful tendencies? We must detach from, and clean, these so as to be more pure to receive God. In his excellent book, "The Spiritual Life," A. Tanquerrey outlines the need to mortify (pacify, assuage) the interior senses--imagination and memory, of all that is not God; we must mortify the passions- love, hatred, desire, sadness, despair, anger and so forth; and the intellect which needs illumination not "toxification". All these "clouding" by sin, and cleansings by God are part of the Spiritual Path, but are you taking the medicine and steps to advance? St Paul says, in similar fashion: "If anyone cleanses himself of these he will be a vessel for lofty use" (II Th 2:21). We cannot "experience God" with polluted souls.

  1. What is the relationship of morality, mysticism and religion?

Many people today want to separate these. The Catholic Church and her saints, and the Bible keep them united. We cannot be immoral and mystics at the same time. Our morality needs moistening by mysticism, for sure; but, our mystical life needs grounding by a sincere moral life We need to harmonize the prophets and the mystics; the Law and the Spirit-that's what Catholics do, we don't divorce them into duality. Catholics can't be spiritual and homicidal (kill children thru abortion); they can't contracept and commune with the Lord; they can't be outlandish materialists and meld with the Divine Mind. St Paul lists serious sins which will block people from the kingdom (Gal.6:21). Study it and avoid evil and do Good. Make your prayer informed by your workplace, family and social life. They formulate a holy continuum-your morality and mystical life affect everything and should be in balance. Jesus says: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48 ).

  1. What are some false views of mysticism today? Relativism emphasizes that all experiences of God are alike, that there is no real difference among Christians and other religious experiences. Our "job" as Catholics is to respectfully challenge such relativistic views, to educate ourselves and others, and, as Vatican II says, to evangelize -bring others to Christ, "Who is the Way and truth and Life" (Jn. 14:6). Pantheism teaches God is in all, is contained by, and depends upon, all created things. Monism proposes God is all, with no created order or creations separate from God. Experientialism stresses internal experience at any cost, without doctrines, the Church or spiritual guides or principles to support, correct or help the seeker. Subjectivism makes error of forgetting objective truth, which lies outside me, in God and in His church. (Gnosticism relies on these latter errors to perpetuate itself). Contrarily, Catholicism and the Bible stress the balancing of the immanence and transcendence of God. Mystical ascent and holy encounters helps recognize His "beyondness" the more it realizes His "within-ness".
  2. What are some kinds of prayer that lead to a Union with God?

A. Teanquerey describes these "different preparations": Mental prayer-is like a meditation-to revolve in our mind, a spiritual subject thru an intellective process…Affective prayer-use acts of the will and devout affections to link with Divine realities, for instance: the indwelling of the Three Divine Persons in our soul and their paternal action in our regard.

Unitive prayer: Prayer of Simplicity (as described by Bouset), prayer of recollection (St Teresa), is also called prayer of "simple regard." Its essence is to embrace the simple presence of God or a simple committal to God ("acquired contemplating"). "Infused contemplation is a simple, loving, (intuitive) gaze upon God and divine things, under the influence of the Holy Sprit and of a special grace which takes possession of us and causes us to act in a passive rather than active manner." Today: take steps to progress along the way to more interior and passive, prayer. What spiritual disciplines do you need to do to acquire the sacred practice of meditation and contemplation?

  1. What is "everyday mysticism"? We may say it is the ability to see as God sees, to sense His Presence upholding and uniting the visible order by His invisible grace, to do all things for His glory. St Angela of Foligno writes:"... in a vision I beheld the fullness of God in which I beheld and comprehended the whole creation, that is, what is on this side and what is beyond the sea, the abyss, the sea itself, and everything else… I could perceive nothing except the presence of the power of God, and in a manner totally indescribable. And my soul in an excess of wonder cried out: 'This world is pregnant with God!' " Are you seeing God in all things? How can you see creation as His handiwork (cf. Dn 3). How can you make every action-walking or playing, working or recreating-a manifestation of God's glory? "Investigate, Meditate, Contemplate, and then Imitate by willful approach to spiritual exercises." (J. Miklusak). As Spring approaches, may the beauty remind you of God's divine, luminous allure; may the perfumed smells and earthy mists remind you of His Breath into Adam; may the flowering and reviving creation remind you of Eden, which means delight. Find God in all things!
  2. What are wrong ways to "experience God? There are many: drugs, new age and Eastern forms of spiritualities, Christianity without Christ, the Cross or the Church, or with wrong, unhealthy spiritual guides. We need grace-God's life shared with, and into us. We cannot become God-like or holy without His initiative and grace. And this comes as we seek God for His glory, and not for our own, or for what He can do for us. Our spiritual motives should always center on God.

Never total- We should also realize, that in our "experiences of God," there is always more of Him to experience, both here below and in Heaven. We must avail ourselves of the capacities to receive ever more of Him.. Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasaar, describes St Gregory of Nyssa's spirituality this way: "Between desire with satiation and possession without desire, created spirit realizes that paradoxical synthesis of a desire that can only grow in joy, because the infinity of the object loved increases and rejuvenates in it for all eternity an impetus that tends toward an end that cannot be attained." Read over, slowly, prayerfully, for this describes you: Sacred desire increases the more we taste of God. St Gregory calls this epekteia. Embrace it.

  1. What about darkness?-I'm not like all those "holy rollers" having illuminated experiences. In St Therese of Lisieux, we have an answer. Jean-Francois Six, a French author, critiques a sometimes-overly sentimentalist interpretation of "the Little Flower". He charges that a "gloss over" of her gritty, dark struggles, (i.e., photographs and diary altered, her deep struggles misunderstood and re-interpreted-by a kind of unfortunate "spiritual cosmetology"), downplay how she can really help all who struggle today. St Therese' real, darker struggles and agonies (not publicized or popularized) can help others-both people in "existentialist" or everyday trials. St Therese really shows us: God may allow us trials and darknesses far greater than we usually plan for; the desolation we must undergo to experience Divine consolation; and that even holy persons (fellow Carmelites of St Therese, and devotees) do not know all the ways of her path, or of The Path, and the truer Way may be skewed when we fail to find the true St Therese of Way of the Cross. This more grounded, and "less sterilized" St Therese, can help all because everyone suffers, has struggles with doubts, and encounter God's seeming "silence" and "absence," and His mysterious Providence. All of which St Therese struggled with. But she kept Faith and embraced the Royal Cross, showing us: The saints ere real people-and heroic!

Conclusion… What to Do/How to respond

Hans urs Von Baalthasar, writing about Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, says "we are called to share in the near movement of the Trinity…Elizabeth always looked on the Trinity as a "space where she entered and was absorbed." Okay-now:

Empty out: evil and hard-heartedness.

Fill up: with His divine Graces and Light.

Spread His graces you have received everywhere you go. Be an instrument. "It is the heart that gives, the hands merely let go."

"As soon as I myself in God transmuted be,

Then God impresses me with His own effigy." +Angelus Silesius

Briefly noted

Bible Readings: Gn 15:5-12, 17-18; Phil 3:17-4:1 Lk 9:26-36. From "The Catechism of the Catholic Church":

"For a moment Jesus discloses his Divine Glory, confirming Peter's confession. He also reveals that he will have to go by the way of the cross at Jerusalem in order to 'enter into his glory.' Moses and Elijah had seen God's glory on the Mountain; the Law and the Prophets had announced the Messiah's sufferings. Christ's Passion is the will of the Father: the Son acts as God's servant; the cloud indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. 'The whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice; the Son in the man; the Spirit in the shining cloud.' (St Thomas Aquinas). 'You were transfigured on the mountain, and your disciples, as much as they were capable of it, beheld your glory, O Christ our God' (Byzantine Liturgy)…The Transfiguration 'is the sacrament of the second regeneration': our own Resurrection (St Thomas)…the Transfiguration gives us a foretaste of Christ's glorious coming" (CCC: #555-556).

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi