A few years ago, a one-woman show premiered on Broadway and later on film. “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe” was performed by Lilly Tomlin and written by her life-partner, Jane Wagner. Tomlin plays a number of characters, including “Trudy” a “bag lady,” who though somewhat touched in the head (as the saying goes) also is the voice of wisdom throughout the show. Trudy utters one of the greatest philosophical questions/propositions of all time: What is reality but a collective hunch? Trudy goes on to say: I gave up reality a long time ago, and my days have all been jam-packed and fun-filled.
I have to admit, I feel a growing appeal to find a way to leave reality behind. I’m not talking about anything dramatic, such as taking up hallucinogens or moving to a dessert island somewhere. Though I will admit, the recurring fantasy of moving to Canada or maybe even the south of France popped into my head again a couple of days ago. But running away is rarely a useful solution. Still, I bet there are many of us who might feel a little bit worn out by too much reality. We are being bombarded by a seemingly new reality in which “facts” are distorted or ignored, what is real is presented as fake and vice-versa, and our various forms of media seem to present us with at least one catastrophic event on a daily basis. And it just seems to keep on coming! Keep your seatbelts fastened folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Who might have imagined just a few years ago that we would be facing the reality of our current political divides in this country? And along with the confrontation of certain realities, I’ve detected a growing sense of dread. Increasingly I hear from parents and grandparents about their sense of remorse, fear and anger about the world they are leaving to their children. Many of us are dreading the next election.
It is, in fact, extremely hard to take in the full scope of reality as it imposes itself upon us. It is easier to live in our bubble and keep busy as the time passes. I recently suggested to someone in spiritual direction that she might consider a practice of daily contemplation as a Lenten discipline. As someone with a long commitment to ministry in the city but now retired, I suggested that she might take some time each day to stop and consider some aspect of urban life that we often don’t see or try to see, whether that be someone on the street, sleeping in a Septa station, or otherwise living in extreme poverty. But such a contemplation would not only help to make real the true extent of suffering in the world, but would also reveal many instances of grace: incidents of deep kindness, heroic resilience and persistent hope. This exercise came to mind in light of an organization I am apart of which provides pro-bono psychotherapy to those in or beyond foster care. If you want a heavy dose of “the real,” talk to someone who grew up in the foster care system in the city of Philadelphia! Indeed, there are many tales of woe. But there are also tales of courage and persistence which teach us a bit more of what it means to live with adversity.
There is a special grace in being able to live within the paradox of great sorrow and great joy; to hold both the awful and the awesome. We can become fixated on the bad news, but in the next moment have our breath taken away by an experience of sublime beauty or even a small act of human kindness.
Still, we can become weary. I’m sure that Peter, James and John were somewhat worn out after traipsing around the countryside with Jesus for some time. They must have looked forward to going up the mountain for a bit of respite. Of course, it didn’t turn out to be any kind of picnic. Instead, it was an experience that knocked them to the ground. Far from seeming real, it much of seemed surreal to see their companion transformed into a figure of dazzling light and then be joined by two of the greatest luminaries from the Hebrew tradition. Then, to top it all off, a voice from the clouds pronounces Jesus as God’s own, the beloved, and commands the awe-struck humans to “listen to him.” Then comes the kicker, as they stumble back down the mountain, when Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about what happened. (Obviously, someone told, or we wouldn’t have the story we have.)
Folks have long debated what is going on in this scene. It is, by far the most dramatic—short of the actual resurrection—of the many epiphanies of the Christ, in which something is revealed about Jesus which goes beyond ordinary perception. Some think this might have been akin to a shared hallucination of the disciples. Theologically, the symbolism of the event is not subtle. Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, which is a pretty good way to establish his bona fides, not to mention the additional endorsement of the voice from the clouds. Still more interesting and controversial is the instruction what the disciples should keep this experience secret until “the chosen one had risen from the dead.” You would think that this would provide great publicity to strengthen recognition of the itinerant preacher, and maybe even prevent the tragedy of his death on a cross. But I think that Matthew, at least, is making a point. The full reality of who Jesus is cannot be grasped outside of the full sweep of events from the incarnation through the resurrection. After all, it is really the death and resurrection of Jesus which fully reveals his nature as the “Christ of God.”
We might each take it upon ourselves to determine the reality of this scene, though we should pay attention to the truth of it. Whatever we make of Jesus, we need to come to terms is that the reality of Jesus is always more than we can grasp within our relatively narrow category of the real. And this might lead us toward a greater capacity to engage the reality of the world and our lives. When Jesus comes down from the mountain and continues to walk toward Jerusalem, he does what he has always done: loves courageously and fiercely. And we are asked to do the same. We are called on to inhabit a love requiring not only courage but imagination. We need to be able to see the “other” through the eyes of God. To see the opportunity to engage when we might want to escape reality. To find God in all things.
Mountains may be obstacles. They may be foreboding and dangerous. But they are also often depicted as holy places—the thin places between heaven and earth. The challenge is less about moving mountains or even crossing them. It’s what happens when we come down from the mountain, particularly after having been knocked over for one reason or another. Jesus and his companions went back to the ordinary and challenging world to go about their business. But the “ordinary” would henceforth always be framed by the extraordinary experience of having been close to the divine holiness. In fact, to quote Gerard Manly Hopkins, The world is charged with the grandeur of God…. God continues to transfigure the world and transfigure us, if we can only sustain our attention toward this reality. May we feel energized by the real opportunities for right action which are continually offered to us, and transformed through the acts of courageous love which we are invited to experience and enact.
Quoting Hopkins again
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.