What remains after the transfiguration

by Brian Harper

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Has a book ever changed the way you look at the world? A recent discussion with a friend brought us to the same answer: Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello's Awareness. Published after de Mello's death in 1987, it is an easily digestible yet ahead-of-its-time manifesto on mindfulness. My friend and I both described it in similarly effusive terms, noting the simple yet profound quality of its author's encouragement to "wake up."

After praising the book, I disappointedly shared that while it felt revolutionary while I was reading it, I inevitably regressed to the same old habits, only occasionally remembering a line or anecdote to help me in a situation that called for the non-judgmental observation de Mello advocated.

My friend indicated she more or less felt the same, but her outlook was more hopeful. She explained that while we may lose the shock and awe of a new discovery -- such as that found in a book -- we still bring something significant and enduring back to "real life." Even when we lose ourselves in the minutiae of the ordinary, we can never entirely lose that which changed us.

I think most of us have felt something tilt our world's axis, altering us in ways that make any return to how things used to be impossible. Whether it is a conversation, a book, a professor, or a chance meeting, certain people and experiences separate our lives into definable periods of "before and after."

We also know these feelings tend to wear off. The 1,000th day in a new city does not have the same exhilaration as the first. We lose touch with what it was like when everything was new.

This constant cycle of revelation and forgetting is at play in the Gospel, perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in this Sunday's passage: Jesus' transfiguration. What could have been more stunning to Peter, James, and John than to see their teacher and friend transformed into dazzling white, speaking with Moses and Elijah? I imagine that for His disciples, this dispelled any lingering doubts or questions about who Jesus claimed to be.

But life went back to "normal." Mere chapters later, Jesus is arrested, tried, and killed, while His apostles scatter, deny, and abandon Him. Was their fear simply more powerful than what they saw on the mountain? Did they forget?

If the Gospel ended here, my initial misgivings about the staying power of a eureka moment would hold true. As we know, though, the disciples' brief betrayal is followed by renewed efforts to bring Christ's message to a wider audience and build the church. Death was ultimately no match for life, and what they remembered was stronger than what they temporarily forgot.

Lent can be about many things, but in the end, I think of it is an invitation to allow the God of surprises to infiltrate our lives. We commit to a practice or refrain from a habit, hopefully turning our attention to God as a result of these absences or additions. It is probably no accident that we are more receptive to God's startling grace in this season; in throwing a wrench into the humdrum of our routines, we are more inclined to take notice of the hidden graces within our patterns.

In some ways, Lent's impact is like that of an eye-opening book or any other epiphany. It astonishes, but it eventually dissipates, particularly because it comes every year like clockwork.

Like my friend, however, I need to believe that in spite of any amnesia that comes after an enlightened experience, something true remains. We may not be able to control when or how we remember, but if we pay attention and, as is our custom during Lent, have the faith to occasionally shake up our lives with something new, we can trust that God stands ready to surprise us when we least expect it. 

[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. His writing has been featured in America magazine, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the National Catholic Reporter, and various other publications. You can find his work at brianharper.net.]

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