I remember, or maybe I was told, how one day Little Nick clung to his mother’s leg for dear life. It was the first day of kindergarten, and I suppose I was wondering something like “What kind of madness is this? Am I supposed to leave the warmth and safety of Mom for a strange and scary world?” I don’t want to go.
Later, waking up one morning, and feeling a new love pressed close under the cozy blankets, I begin to think of certain responsibilities. “Do I really need to go to work today? Can’t I just stay here in bed, wonderfully entangled with my beloved under the covers. The world seems so cold and cruel by comparison.” I don’t want to go.
Later, Jesus invites a few friends to be alone with him on a mountaintop. They revel in the bright, radiant Sun, grateful for a view, beautiful beyond words. But then they sense a pull, down to the valley below where the view seems to dim and the Sun seems farther away. They don’t want to go.
Mother, lover, and glorious Sun — each a moment of blessed union feeling so good and beautiful and true, it may be difficult to leave behind. Poor Peter wants so much to stay with Jesus on that mountaintop he offers to build places to stay for a while. Of course, Jesus knows better, and pretty soon is escorting everyone back down the mountainside.
It reminds me of the time Elijah spent the night in a cave at Mount Horeb. He didn’t want to go, either. He had spent forty days and nights alone in the wilderness, and his time in the cave, resting securely in God’s loving embrace, seemed a welcome respite. But twice the Holy One asks “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And after Elijah explains himself, God is very clear that he needs to leave the cave so to continue the work of the Lord.
An experience of oneness with a beloved, mother, lover, or glorious Sun, is like the recognition of the transcendent in the immanent, the object of our attention being transfigured before us. Peter, James, and John, for example, see Jesus as transfigured, although there might be something else going on behind that recognition.
In the 7th century, Saint Maximus the Confessor offered the interpretation that it was the senses of the apostles that were transfigured, enabling them to perceive the true glory of Christ. And for some early theologians this was considered part of deification, the process by which the image and likeness of God within us is purified and made manifest as we recognize God’s glory within and without. Importantly, though, the process of deification doesn’t end there.
As Olivier Clemént, in his book The Roots of Christian Mysticism, writes: “Deification transfigures not only the [senses] but also the whole person who has become a [child] of the resurrection’, caught up into Christ’s ‘visible theophany’. But deification culminates in ‘unknowing’, in darkness, where the human person transcends even [the senses] to unite… with the living God.”
I take great comfort in this, because it means that we don’t really need to fear missing the loving presence of transfigured union, whatever its source. Something much deeper within us may be transformed, deeper even than what seems like visible, tangible experiences of God’s transcendence. And in that place, deep within our hearts, a kind of knowing by unknowing is born, a kind of luminous darkness we carry with us. Our very identity is transformed. And then, as we live in union with the Holy One, there’s simply nothing left to make any distinction between mountain and valley, because the peace, joy, and love of Christ are simply wherever we happen to be.
So, in truth, it’s not really about a choice between staying on the mountain or going down into the valley. There’s another way, a way where a part of us stays and a part of us goes, leaving only mother, lover, and glorious Sun.