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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Second Thoughts: Transfigured by prayer—C2L

St. Anne was privileged to have Bishop Joseph Tyson of the diocese of Yakima, Washington, present with us for the Second Sunday of Lent. Our parish's Lenten almsgiving targets a specific charity each year. We've recently partnered with a parish in the Congo, for instance, or with Nuestros Piqueños Hermanos, an organization that builds community-schools for orphans around the western hemisphere. This year, after a visit with Fr. Jack Wall to Yakima, our pastor chose the Catholic Extension Society as our communal almsgiving focus. Yakima is one of ninety-four dioceses in 37 states that benefits from CES.

Bishop Tyson preached at three of our five masses, so I was able to assimilate his message better than usual, even after having a particularly late dinner with him on Saturday evening and getting up to provide music for mass at the (literally) ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. (God: "Enough with the racket. We're trying to sleep up here.") It was the way he articulated one aspect of the particularly Lucan transfiguration story that caught my ear and helped me to connect it with other ruminations through the week, particularly James Alison's about prayer, which was the focus of our Thursday evening gathering to hear and discuss Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. Bishop Tyson reminded us that Luke's account was the only one in which Jesus goes to the mountain to pray.
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white. (Lk. 9: 28b-29)
While "coming down from the mountaintop" has become almost synonymous with "getting back to work" after an elating time of respite, the bishop reminded us that Luke 9 begins with Jesus turning from his Galilean ministry and "resolutely setting his face toward Jerusalem," the verse that originally inspired my song, "Jerusalem, My Destiny."

If you read my "Second Thoughts" piece for Ash Wednesday (The Pantry), you remember that Alison was teaching that "going to your inner room" was a process of disconnecting from the "social other," the voices of family, friends, political parties, nations, advertisers, and the whole matrix of reality that shapes our identity from the outside to create us for its own good. Prayer, he says, is a kind of detox from all those voices that want to keep us from being what we really might be, that is, part of God's recreated world, part of God's project of universal reconciliation and unity, in which we reject every attempt to define ourselves over against the weak or create scapegoats for our problems. In that "inner room," the larder or pantry Jesus refers to in Mt. 6, we disconnect from those voices and allow God to speak through our own inner longings, as St. Paul puts it in Romans, the Spirit prays for us. Alison, in fact, uses the example of the desert sojourn of Jesus as a specific example of this kind of "detox." The risk Jesus runs by his use of his marvelous gifts and transparently attractive persona is that he will come to want what the crowd wants for him. He will come to be run by their desire, rather than the desire of the One who calls him "my beloved son, my chosen servant." The story of Jesus's encounter with Satan in the wilderness is exactly about this kind of inner struggle for the self-identity of the Messiah.

My thoughts, then, this Sunday went to how prayer enables transfiguration. If we imagine that, in prayer, by finally disconnecting all those other influences (over time, of course) that want to run our lives and keep us bound into the competitive, ever-escalating rivalry of human desire, we are actually able to be "possessed" by Another who is deathless, beyond all rivalry, who only wants what is the very best for us, who loves us in our arrogant, sloppy, disaster-prone humanity, and who, right in the face of our hoarding and insurance-buying desperation against imagined scarcity, declares (Alison again, invoking Genesis) "Something wonderful out of nothing! Something wonderful out of nothing!", what might become of our visage, our age, our place in time, even our geography? If we were to encounter and be possessed in prayer by the Holy One, might transfiguration not only be possible, but inevitable?

And more important, don't we already know this? Aren't our lives full of encounters with people whom we call "holy," who radiate an inner light, and whose presence evokes memories of heroes and prophets from other times and places? The last two novels I've read, which can in no way be thought of as "Christian" or even specifically religious, contain just such characters both monks, one in The Glass Bead Game, by Hesse, and the other in the more recent Ishiguro effort, The Buried Giant. I met a man like this on an airplane flight two years ago, and was so moved by the experience that I wept in the airport after he left, or, really, disappeared. I wrote about it in "God's 'Mystic' Assignment" here. We instinctively know when a person's true self is shaped not by the adulation or scorn of the crowd, but by the loving desire of the Holy One that always creates in its own image, creating desire for the good of the other in each one who opens self to that possibility.

Until Jesus, God had approached us obliquely, as the author of Hebrews put it at the beginning of that letter:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word...
For us who believe that the very human Jesus was somehow, mystically, the incarnation of this loving God, it is not hard to imagine that such a breakthrough in prayer, at this critical juncture of his life, after the baptism by John, after the voice from the clouds, after wonders of healing and exorcism, after fasting, after a turn toward Jerusalem and the opposition he fully expected to face from powers fully invested in another god named Tiberius and in the mechanism of temple sacrifice and accommodation to Rome, that such a breakthrough in prayer might cause a physical change, light, and the conjuring of ancient memories and cosmic allies. But even for Jesus, whatever happened on Mount Tabor, the experience was, however intense, momentary and relegated to the continuum of his days. The journey to Jerusalem continued for Jesus. For Peter, James, and John, as well as the other disciples, the journey to Jerusalem was not to be the end but another beginning. The encounter with Jesus, transformed by the prayer-encounter with the Holy One, while a future-shaping event that reordered their lives, did not cure them of doubt, nor did it give them clarity about the nature of this leader or the direction in which he was leading. They still saw him as Satan had desired, a charismatic wonderworker who might lead an overthrow of oppressive outsiders and clean up oppressive Jewish insiders. Like us, they too were plugged into the desire of the crowds, of their own families and their history. They too, though breaking bread with Jesus and sleeping around the same fire, needed to "detox" in the pantry, needed their own prayer and time away, in order for the Holy One to break through when they would, finally, open the door to a new story about themselves.

The same for the boy Saul, at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel, burning with zeal for a shadow of the God he did not yet fully encountered. Paul, that missionary Jew who opened up the scriptural covenant of God's love to all nations along with the Jews, was ultimately able to write about faithfulness to another empire, about being a colony in Caesar's world of God's empire, awaiting change to its true self:
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.
Those were my "second thoughts" on the transfiguration this Second Sunday of Lent. Encounter with a bishop can do that to you, especially one who does Sunday mass on Wednesday in the migrant camps with the obreros and their families, filling them with God's word, and being a sign of God's love through tacos and rice, and the sweet laughter of children crackling through the air like candy out of a piñata.

I recorded Bishop Tyson's homily, which was very powerful, with his permission. There are two versions. The 9 a.m. version is about three minutes shorter, but the 11 a.m. version is a little more passionate. Both are excellent. Somehow my camera missed the last few seconds of the 11am homily, but you can hear he is winding down, saying some "thank yous" to the parish. Enjoy.

Bishop Joseph Tyson, 9 a.m. homily, 2/21/16 - Second Sunday of Lent
11 a.m. homily, same day.


You may also find this passage from Jesus the Forgiving Victim helpful in understanding how our general understanding of prayer (i.e., I somehow tell God what I am and what I want) is different from what prayer actually is (i.e., God inviting us into a project bigger than ourselves, that is way better than what we actually think we want.) I will never stop encouraging you to try Alison's wonderful "Introduction to Christianity for Adults."

"I remember standing on a hill overlooking Lake Titicaca and watching the local Yatiris, shamans or priests, plying their wares. You could go to them, and for an appropriate offering, they would then light candles around little portable shrines, burn incense, and say the requisite prayers or incantations, which were in an amazing mixture of Latin, Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. The prayers or incantations were for a fairly repetitive list of things: protection from a neighbour’s evil eye, quick riches, death of a troublesome mother-in-law, to get an unwilling prospective love-match to fall for me, various forms of vengeance. 
The pattern seemed to be simple: God, or the gods, are a sort of celestial Las Vegas slot machine, full of amazing bounty, but inclined to be retentive. So prayer is the art of conjuring this capricious divinity, by exactly the right phrases, repeated exactly the right number of times, into parting with some of its treasure. As if the priest were a particularly expert puller of the slot-machine handle, one who could ensure that three lemons, or five bars, line up and so manipulate the divinity into disgorging its riches.
What this presupposes is a pattern of desire where we are subjects who are in control, and God is an object who must be manipulated: we are back to the blob and arrow picture of desire.  
What Jesus is teaching is exactly the reverse of this. In Jesus’ picture it is God who is the subject, who has a desire, an intention, a longing, and who knows who we are and what is good for us; and we who are capricious and somewhat inert slot machines who are always getting our handles pulled by the wrong players. In this picture it is precisely because our Father knows what we need before we ask him that we must learn to pray: our Father’s only access to us, the only way he can get to our slot-machine handle, is by our asking him into our pattern of desire." 

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