Transfiguration, Prayer and Penance (12th March 2017-03-12)
My dear Brethren,
The transfiguration was a cause of great joy for the Apostles, to such as point that St Peter said: “Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias” (Mt. 17:4). He was so happy that he wanted to remain there… for ever! So why does Holy Mother Church give us today in Lent to contemplate the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ? First, because it is a model of prayer, and secondly because it occurred just after the first prophecy of the Passion: “Jesus began to shew to his disciples, that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the ancients and scribes and chief priests, and be put to death, and the third day rise again” (Mt. 16:21).
That announce was very hard for the Apostles to accept, and Peter himself, who had just received the promise of the primacy, rebuked our Lord: “Lord, be it far from thee, this shall not be unto thee” (Mt. 16:22). Our Lord put him back in his place, saying: “Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men” (Mt. 16:23).
Then our Lord Jesus Christ teaches the necessity of the love of the Cross: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” (Mt. 16:24-26) To carry our Cross with our Lord is necessary for salvation! And to make it even clearer, our Lord refers explicitly to the Last Judgement: “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then will he render to every man according to his works” (Mt. 16:27).
Now all this seems very hard, and who could do it? Who would want to be a disciple of a crucified Lord? “Christ crucified [is truly] unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness:” (1 Cor. 1:23). And even sometimes for the very faithful, for those who are weak in the Faith, it seems that such requirement to carry our cross with Christ would lead to despair. Therefore, in order to encourage them, our Lord concludes: “Amen I say to you, there are some of them that stand here, that shall not taste death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Mt. 16:24-28). And six days later, He showed Himself transfigured to three chosen Apostles: Peter, James and John.
This is very important: our Lord Jesus Christ is very much entitled to ask us to carry our cross with Him, precisely because He offers us a reward of infinite value: eternal beatitude with Him in Heaven, seeing the most Holy Trinity face to face for ever and ever! Then we can say with Peter truly: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” (Mt. 17:4) and we will dwell there for ever, not under a tent, but in our Father’s house.
Not only after this world, the reward for following our Lord Jesus Christ is of infinite value, but already here below, our Lord helps us and rejoices our heart IN PRAYER, in contemplation. This is the beauty of the true Christian life, of the life of the Saints: it is a life of very deep friendship with God. Charity – the “love of God with [our] whole heart, and with [our] whole soul, and with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind (Lk. 10:27) above all things – and from that love flows the love for the neighbour. Now that love of God is practiced first of all in contemplation, in prayer.
Now the Transfiguration is a great model of prayer, of contemplation. If we truly love God, we pay attention to Him, our thoughts are constantly for Him: “My eyes are ever towards the Lord” (Ps. 24:15). “I set the Lord always in my sight: for He is at my right hand, that I be not moved” (Ps. 15:8). That charity, that gives a burning thirst for God in our mind, leads to prayer first thing in the morning: “O God, my God, to thee do I watch at break of day. For thee my soul hath thirsted” (Ps. 62:2). “My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God?” (Ps. 41:3).
Now prayer consists in the elevation of our soul toward God, like climbing Mount Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such elevation of course is not a material movement, but a detachment of the soul from lower things, from created things, to search for the uncreated Light where God dwells: indeed God “only hath immortality [by Himself], and inhabiteth light inaccessible, whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and empire everlasting” (1 Tim. 6:16). We could never see God unless God would give Himself fully in Heaven; having received such promise, we long for that sight; “For with thee is the fountain of life; and in thy light we shall see light” (Ps. 35:10). Here below, though we cannot have perfect vision, we can yet be illuminated by God’s light: “Come ye to him and be enlightened: and your faces shall not be confounded” (Ps. 33:6).
The way to find the Father is our Lord Jesus Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:6). Rejecting Christ, the pagans cannot find God: they find “nothing – the nirvana”, not the fullness of God! But contemplating our Lord Jesus Christ, in the mysteries of His life, listening and meditating on His words, we receive the light of Christ in our soul: “we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Prayer requires a certain preparation. There are two preparations for prayer, a long-term preparation and an immediate preparation. The long-term preparation consists in the study of the doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ, through holy readings: reading of the Gospel, of the Catechism, of the writings of the Saints and other holy writers. There is so much good things to read, you should not read junk reading: there is no enough time, don’t waste it in useless things – much less in evil readings which, of course, are out of question. Even among the good things, aim at reading the highest value, the writings of the Saints. Indeed there is something very special in the Saints’ writing: these holy men and holy women were filled with the Spirit of God, and their actions somehow breathe that knowledge and love of God. Thus there is a spiritual taste and high value in their writings which you will hardly find in other writers. So I strongly recommend the writings of the Saints. It is an excellent long-term preparation for prayer, because it fills the mind with good and holy thoughts, that easily will come to mind at the time of prayer. On the contrary, people who waste their time watching TV (not to say evil films, etc.), such useless images (or even bad images) will haunt them at the time of prayer and make their prayer much more difficult.
The immediate preparation consists in recollecting ourselves: we must put off our earthly worries at the bottom of the mountain, discharge them, and refocus on the “one necessary thing”, on God. That preparation requires a certain purification of our morals, as I shall explain below. Then this preparation should consider either the words or the scene of the Gospel on which you want to meditate, and a prayer to ask for the light, to ask for the grace of our Lord. One would do well to ask the help of the Saints who were great contemplatives: St Joseph, St Theresa of Avila and above all of our Blessed Mother.
After that preparation, the core of prayer is an exercise of the intelligence by acts of faith, looking at the mystery with the eyes of Faith, of which St Paul says: “The eyes of your heart being enlightened, that you may know what the hope is of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). These acts of faith, this activity of the intelligence is very much helped by the habit of regular spiritual reading: if you never feed your mind with the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how are you ever going to be able to meditate on it at prayer time? But if you are familiar with the Doctrine of our Lord, if you know well your catechism, your missal, the holy Gospel then prayer becomes easy and all these holy truths come easily to your mind.
These acts of faith should lead to acts of charity: to express our love for God, for our Lord Jesus Christ, for our Lady and the Saints. There is an important act of charity towards God that takes its place mainly in prayer: to rejoice of God. The psalmist says: “Delight in the Lord, and he will give thee the requests of thy heart” (Ps. 36:4). And Isaias says: “Then shalt thou be delighted in the Lord, and I will lift thee up above the high places of the earth, and will feed thee with the inheritance of Jacob thy father” (Isa. 58:14). If our best friend is happy, we share his happiness; now God is our supreme Friend, and has supreme happiness; hence it is normal that we should “delight in the Lord” if we truly love Him!
That charity should be effective, and cause a real improvement of our life. A good prayer should then lead to good action, cleaning up in your life anything that is not compatible with the holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ, and promoting all virtues, to imitate our Lord, so that He may truly reign in our lives, in our deeds. It is good to draw some good practical concrete resolution and then ask the grace to be faithful to this good resolution throughout the day.
One can see the fruits of prayer and penance when considering the forty days of our Lord Jesus Christ in the desert: He fasted for forty days, this is the negative side of this holy time of preparation to His public ministry. Above all, He prayed for forty days and this is the positive side of this holy time. Then strengthened both by prayer and penance, He was ready to overcome all the temptations of the Devil. We also, imitating His example and strengthened by His grace received in prayer and fasting, we will be stronger to resist temptation and win the victory over sin. Indeed, it is not possible to win that victory without prayer. Prayer is the necessary means to overcome temptations. Hence St Alphonsus of Liguori says prayer is necessary for salvation.
Note the very special strength and power of prayer when allied with penance. Some would like to pray without penance, and this is not sufficient. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself gave us the example in the desert. He taught explicitly: “This kind [of devil] can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mk. 9:28). Our Lady at Lourdes reminded us: “Pray and do penance!”
Our Lord insists on the duty to pray: “we ought always to pray, and not to faint,” (Lk. 18:1). He commands us: “Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Mt. 7:7). Three times our Lord commands us to ask, to seek, to knock. And He promised the reward of prayer again three times: you shall be given, you shall find, it shall be opened unto you. And again, our Lord confirms His own promises: “For every one that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened” (Mt. 7:8). Therefore we pray with confidence.
The model of all prayers is the Our Father. It teaches us beautifully what to ask. We ask first of all for spiritual things, for the honour of God, that His Name be honoured by all and held as the Holy of Holies. We ask for the grace to see His face and sing His glory in Heaven for ever: this is the perfect Kingdom of God. We ask that this Kingdom be extended upon earth, and that all on earth do the Will of God as it is done in Heaven. Then on earth we ask for the “super-substantial bread” (Mt. 6:11), that is, the Holy Eucharist, which is the supreme food for our soul, the very Word of God incarnate: “Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). Then we ask for forgiveness of sin, which is the great evil to be avoided at all cost. We ask for victory over temptation and to be delivered from all other evils.
Mount Tabor leads us to Mount Calvary. The whole Lent is directed towards Good Friday and Easter. The supreme revelation of Christ is not so much on Mount Tabor, but on Mount Calvary. There truly the words of St John the Baptist take their full meaning: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). There, we discover the glory of the Father, Whose honour is restored by such perfect Sacrifice: we understand the malice of sin, that required to be expiated by the Blood of the Son of God. There, we learn to offer ourselves in sacrifice with Christ in reparation of our sins and of the sins of the world. During Lent, we ought to meditate more on the Passion of our Lord. By the practice of fasting and penance, we participate in that Passion, we strive to be one with Jesus suffering in order to be one with Him glorified on Easter. St Paul indeed said: “we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).
And this union with Christ in His Passion is the very heart of the Mass. Hence in Lent we are encouraged to attend Mass more often. I know it is difficult for you because the priest is not always there. But you could at home read and meditate on the Mass each day. Indeed there is a special Mass for each day of Lent, and it is very profitable to meditate on the readings and prayers of these Masses, which embody the whole spirit of the Church: penance for sin, practice of good works, prayer, participation in the Passion of our Lord, etc.
The best way to pray and to enter into the Passion of our Lord is to follow our Lady: her whole life was a life of prayer, and what prayer! Can we imagine what was the prayer of our Lady’s Immaculate Heart? The Magnificat is a very sublime prayer. What were her thoughts at the foot of the Cross? Already her whole life at Nazareth was a life of prayer, and then she followed our Lord leading the group of holy women during the public life of our Lord: our Lord was preaching, she was praying! And then she lead the holy women at the very foot of the Cross: again our Lord was offering himself, she was offering herself with Him as the New Eve given to the New Adam as a “helper like unto Him” (Gen. 2:18). O Mary, teach us how to pray! Amen.
Father François Laisney