by Maria Evans
In our Gospel reading, the Luke version of the Transfiguration of Christ, what seems striking is how once Peter, James, and John have seen the Transfiguration, they’re pretty darn quiet about it. The fact that it shut Peter down, the guy who was previously going, “Woo hoo! It’s great to be here! Hey, I get it! Let’s make booths! Rock and roll!” is evidence enough that something really big and tough to figure out had just happened. It’s human nature to ponder those sorts of things in silence. They realize they didn’t get it–and something much bigger had taken place.
The dictionary defines transfiguration as “a complete change of form and appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.” It is for that reason that perhaps my favorite work of art where the subject is the Transfiguration is Salvador Dali’s version. For folks who prefer images closer to Raphael’s rendition, Dali’s appears dark, foreboding, and downright creepy. Yet, what I love about it is a wonderful reversal. Most paintings of the Transfiguration show white light emanating from Jesus; all the other figures in the scene are bathed in it, but they still look like “themselves.” In Dali’s version, the background is white, and the dark colors of the figures in it seem to break up and shape-shift, and join the light. I can’t help but wonder if the reason the three disciples were so darn quiet, was because in the moments of whatever happened up there on that mountain, they felt themselves joining that light and being less of the selves they were accustomed to being. Matthew’s version says the disciples were told not to tell; Luke’s version was, “they just didn’t tell at the time.” Mark doesn’t say. One has to wonder if it was all just too overwhelming, and that no account does it justice.
Fast forward again to Salvador Dali.
An interesting sidelight to Dali’s version of the Transfiguration is that when Dali began drawing lessons at age 10, his first works were rooted in the rage-filled outbursts he committed against family and friends. He learned very early on to channel his own dark nature into his art, and to create meaning for it, to shift it piece by piece into something bigger and more profound than himself. Despite the fact Salvador Dali lived a long, eccentric, and troubled life, the truths he revealed within himself, transfigured into canvas and sculpture, became touchpoints in the transfiguration of other lives through appreciation of his art. Transfiguration, in whatever form it takes, is the real deal.
A sad reality of life is that we too often settle for being “the selves we have become accustomed to being,” rather than the selves that God knows and loves. Too often we lead lives that are strangely similar to the character Odo on the old Star Trek Deep Space Nine series–maintaining a shape that doesn’t provoke or challenge the status quo, yet lived at such a high cost we have no choice but, after a period of time, retreat privately to our true nature simply to survive. This can come at a perilously high cost, and without a real recognition of our self-worth, can spiral into depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and harmful life choices. At the very least, we become empty or numb to the possibility that God loves us beyond our wildest dreams.
Finally, the cloud is just a big a piece of transfiguration as the display of white. I suspect when we are witnesses to moments of transfiguration, we, like the disciples, are unsure what to make of it. It likely silences us, as it did the disciples. We don’t know what to make of it until some amount of time passes; only through the retrospectoscope do we have a chance of it making sense. If we’re lucky, we can see the change through a backward glance–even if we don’t see it, it still affects others in ways we can’t comprehend.
What might it feel like to become a little less of the “us” we’ve become accustomed to being, and more like the “us” God knows and calls by name as beloved?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.
Image: Iesu Transfigurato (Mark 9:4f) Salvador Dali