From time to time, I hear statements like: “Father, I think I might have eaten meat on Friday,” or “I think maybe I missed Mass while on vacation,” or “I probably lied to a family member recently.”
I’m tempted to laugh when I hear statements like these, because there is no real possibility for uncertainty about any of those situations. Either you ate meat, or you didn’t. Either you skipped Mass, or you attended. Either you lied or you told the truth. A conflicted conscience notwithstanding, these are choices you made, or not; there is no middle ground. I would suggest this as a perspective for us to use to understand the event of the Transfiguration recorded in today’s Gospel.
In the ancient world (Jesus’ culture, in this case), ecstatic experience was considered to be a normal, routine aspect of everyone’s religious life. It remains true today in pre-industrialized societies that ecstatic experience (altered states of consciousness), are routine and considered normal.
The trances experienced by shamans, the visions seen by youths during coming-of-age rituals, and the apostles’ vision of Moses and Elijah fall into this category of normal religious experience in pre-industrialized societies. If, for example, I saw Moses and Elijah appear, I would assume that someone nearby was using an LED projector. The three apostles, on the other hand, would have assumed that it was a perfectly normal occurrence for the long-dead Moses and Elijah to show up and spend a few minutes on a hillside in Galilee.
Sociologists of religion are quick to point out that western society today is the exception to the norm rather than the norm. The fact that we (in western culture), do not consider altered states of consciousness, visions, prophetic dreams, locutions, and the like, to be a normal aspect of life is an anomaly. The pre-industrialized societies that routinely experience these ecstatic states represent the norm for human history.
Although we, in the west, are an exception to the norm, we are obliged to take seriously our unusual experience of religion. This, to me, is another example of something that is “either, or.” Either we believe in visions and ecstatic experiences as normal in all aspects of our lives, or we believe that ecstatic experiences are not normal for us; there is no middle ground.
If you are confused or troubled by the fact that the event of the Transfiguration appears foreign or implausible, then there is good reason not to worry. The Transfiguration was a normal experience for the apostles, but not for us; these cultural differences have no effect on the validity of our religious experience or the strength of our faith as long as we choose to act consistently with our own state of existence. By this, I mean that there is no reason to make an exception for religion that we do not make for the rest of life; if visions seem out of place in your professional life, they are also out of place in your religious life.
If you choose to embrace two contradictory approaches to different aspects of your life, you put yourself in the position of straining to see truth in either place. To embrace concurrently both a modern social life and a pre-modern religious life is to choose to have a divided heart, a conflicted mind, and a fragmented faith.
I put very little value on visions and locutions. Talk of demons and evil spirits is pure superstition in my estimation. Altered states of consciousness are signs of overdose or disorder. I’m very convinced of the appropriateness of these judgments for the same reason I am convinced of the value of my smartphone. Technology isn’t magic, and neither is religion.
The point of the Transfiguration is plain to see; it is stated clearly in God’s words, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” (Mk. 9:7) The manner in which we hear these words is inconsequential; the manner in which we live these words is crucial. Listening to Jesus means forgiving our enemies, praying for our persecutors, reconciling sinners, welcoming outcasts, feeding the hungry, and protecting the powerless.
The vision the apostles had on the mountain did them very little good; until after the resurrection, they continued to misunderstand Jesus, and ultimately, they betrayed him. Ecstatic religious experience, in itself, is of no particular value; the only thing that constitutes faith in Jesus is to live according to his teaching.
We are no poorer in western society today because of the lack of ecstatic religious experience. The whole world is poorer, however, if we do not listen to, and live according to, the words of Jesus. If you want a life-changing and thoroughly valid experience of God, spend some time during this season of Lent reading, and listening to, the words of Jesus.