Years ago, an Oxford don, not rare as an eccentric but singular in his way of being one, kept in his rooms a small menagerie including a mongoose to whom he fed mice for tea, and an eagle that flew one day into the cathedral and tried to mate with the brass eagle-shaped lectern which was cold and unresponsive. It is claimed that the choristers at that moment were singing “O for the Wings of a Dove” by Mendelssohn, who had recently dedicated his “Scottish Symphony” to Queen Victoria. No dove is safe around an eagle, and the dove and the eagle represent in iconography very different aspects of the spiritual life. The oldest eagle lectern in Oxford is not in the cathedral but in nearby Corpus Christi college chapel, and there are eagle lecterns all over the world, symbolizing Saint John whose record of the saving Gospel soars on wings not of this world.
Curious it is then, that Saint John is the only evangelist who does not record the ethereal mystery of the Transfiguration, and especially so since he was there: “…we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (1:14). Some of the mystical writers explain that the entire Fourth Gospel is one long and radiant Transfiguration. If the event is a lacuna for John, he makes up for it by being the only evangelist to record the Marriage at Cana, which in some ways is a prototype of the Transfiguration. Before both events, Jesus had assured his apostles that they would see a great glory, and on both occasions he spoke of an approaching hour that was his destiny. “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11).
In a sort of yin-yang contrast, the wedding miracle is soon followed by the violent cleansing of the Temple, just as the Transfiguration leads to a wild encounter at the foot of the mountain with an epileptic. A Russian proverb holds that when the Lord builds a church, Satan pitches a tent across the street. The endless agony of Lucifer without the Light is that he cannot get far enough away from the eternal brightness, and yet he is helplessly drawn to it, like an ugly moth to a lovely flame. There is some of that tension in those who talk incessantly about why they will have nothing to do with the Church. A Christ who does not inspire will seem to haunt. But only ghosts haunt and Christ is not a ghost, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as he has. This strange obsession is from a darker source.
The Church Militant, which in its weakest moments may seem like a scattered and tattered regiment of the Church Triumphant, has supernal guarantees that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. Any reformation of the Church that is not a transfiguration by the light of that confidence becomes a deformation. With the best intentions, sectaries spring up to fix the cracks they see in the Rock which is Peter, using some principle other than his power to bind and loose. This is not to impune the moral protocols of those denominations, which often excel the practice of Catholics. Ronald Knox observed, and almost boasted, that only Catholic churches had signs saying, “Mind your umbrella.” But the Catholic Church, by being Catholic, cannot succumb to polemic, for she is not founded on any theory, and when Anti-Christ attacks in ways carnal or psychological, his battering rams only bolster the barricades. Sinners in the Church’s ranks sin most easily when times are easy, while martyrs, apologists, and doctors flourish best in the worst times.
Christ’s glory filled the sky as he predicted his death, to strengthen his disciples for the time when the sky would be darkened. Peter wanted to stay on top Mount Tabor in its afterglow, like a fly in amber. Christ had more in mind: not nostalgia, but tradition, which passes the glory on to the disciples, filling them “with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). Nostalgia is the climate of Quietism, the anemic spirituality that basks in God’s goodness without doing anything about it. It does not go down from Tabor to go up to Jerusalem. It inverts the Christian life by being of the world but not in it. This is religion as a virtue turned into religiosity as a vice, confusing grace with rectitude and sanctification with perfectionism. The perfectionist wants to be good, and that is a subtle blasphemy: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). This same Christ, who cannot contradict himself, had already said: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Goodness is from within, while perfection is from without. The perfectionist wants to make himself good, better, and best. But the Perfect Man said, “…apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). That is why He gave us the Church as His Body, and by so doing saves mortal man from the degradation of trying to feel good about himself.
Perfectionists are easily scandalized by what is not good. Saints are scandalized only by what is not glorious. We may say in cliché, “nobody’s perfect,” but the fact is, saints are perfect, and they are precisely so because they do not try to be good, better, and best. The more they are transfigured by the Light, the more they seem to themselves bad, worse, and worst. Perfectionists resent the weaknesses that saints boast of: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). The perfectionist misses this whole point and so, like the narrow kind of Pharisee, he casts a cold eye on the failings of humans, as if the failings abolish the humanity. The saints, having seen the glory on the mountaintop, do not gaze at themselves, but “see only Jesus” who, rather than transforming them into goodness, transfigures them into glory. From his own lofty height, Saint Maximos the Confessor could say, “All that God is, except for an identity of being, one becomes when one is deified by grace.” And he was not the first to say it. Peter, who wanted to tarry on the mountain would soon enough be speaking of “precious promises” by which “you might be partakers of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:4).
In clumsy hands this language would become superhuman rather than supernatural. Under wrong impressions and bereft of inspiration, the Mormon version thinks it means becoming another god with a personal planet. This requires a heavy editing of the Word of God. A “Bible Dictionary” of the Latter Day Saints notes that “the Cambridge University Press granted the Church permission to use its Bible dictionary as a base, to be amended as needed.” In that editing, the Mormon dictionary says of the Transfiguration: “Few events in the Bible equal it in importance. A similar event occurred on April 3, 1836, in the temple at Kirtland, Ohio, where the same heavenly messengers conferred priesthood keys upon the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.” Unconvinced as I am of this, I am persuaded that the Transfiguration illuminates the salutary crisis of the Holy Catholic Church in our time, with Christ flanked by Moses and Elijah, shedding light on law and learning.
In his last Angelus address, Benedict XVI said that he is now going up the mountain as did Peter, James, and John, and there he will pray. He knows that at the foot of the mountain are all kinds of noise and foaming, and these are the growls of the Prince of Darkness paying the Church a tribute he pays no other reality: his hatred. While he mocks men and scorns their pretensions, he reserves his bitterness for the Church, which is the only thing he fears in this world. His backhanded compliment is the distress, gossip, and corruption he sows among the disciples. This is why dissent within the Church can be far more raucous than assaults from without. Those who never discovered Catholicism are not as caustic in their disdain as are those who claim to be recovering from it. Georges Bernanos said, “We do not lose our faith. We simply stop shaping our lives by it.” The life that has lost its shape can be more destructive than the life that was not shaped at all, and this accounts for the “recovering Catholics” who are more bitter about why the Church is wrong than those who never thought the Church was right to begin with. Those who knew not what they were doing were forgiven from the cross, while the man who knew what he was doing hanged himself. The same Paul who told the Athenians that God overlooked their ignorance of the Gospel, cursed those who twisted the Gospel (cf. Acts 17:30; Gal 1:9). Christ can be double-crossed only by those who once were marked with his cross.
When things seem especially confused in the Church and scandals abound, that is a hint from Heaven and a murmur from Hell that something profoundly blessed is about to happen. Christ prays for Peter when the Devil tries to sift him like wheat, so that when Peter survives, he will confirm the brethren in a lively tradition of glory. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ but we had been eyewitnesses of this majesty…We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Transfiguration” painted by Sanzio Raffaello in 1518-20.