Saint John Vianney tells the story of a parishioner of his who, after Mass, would sit in church staring up at the tabernacle. He asked him one day, “What is it that you are doing when you pray?” The man answered, “I look at Jesus, and he looks at me.”
There are few definitions of prayer as simple yet as beautiful as that. Prayer, at its heart, is looking into the face of God, seeing his beauty, contemplating his love and allowing ourselves to be changed by his grace and power.
Because all of us are called to know and love God, prayer must be a part of our life. It does not have to be complicated or difficult. It is a simple matter of opening our hearts to God and allowing him to touch us.
Today’s gospel reading - the story of the Transfiguration - gives us some clues as to how all of us can grow in our spiritual lives. They are steps which we need to take in our journey of prayer. First, we must climb the mountain; second, we must look upon Jesus; and third, we must go back down the mountain to tell others what we have seen.
First, we must climb the mountain. In today’s gospel, before revealing his glory to Peter, James and John, Jesus first leads them up a high mountain. Climbing a mountain takes a good deal of effort. There is always the danger of falling off a cliff or running into a wild animal. Also, it is very tiring because the higher one climbs, the thinner the air is and the harder it becomes to breathe. Peter, James and John must have wondered to themselves why Jesus was taking them on such a demanding hike. Whatever it was that Jesus wanted to show them or tell them, couldn’t he have chosen someplace easier to get to?
The apostles’ experience teaches us something very true and profound about the spiritual life. God does not reveal himself until we are willing to make the hard journey up the mountain. That mountain could be a sin that we have to overcome, an unhealthy relationship in our lives or sickness. Every difficulty and challenge we experience is an invitation from God to climb the mountain so that he can reveal his glory to us. Like the apostles, we may not understand why God has put those obstacles in our path and made things so hard for us. However, if we ask him, he will give us the strength to endure whatever may come. And, with time, we will see and be amazed by God’s mercy.
The second truth of the spiritual life which today’s gospel teaches us is that we are meant to see the vision of God. Unlike the apostles, we do not see Jesus face to face. How, then, do we get a glimpse of him in all his glory? The central and most important way is in the Mass. At every Eucharist, the Risen Lord is truly present in our midst. When the readings are proclaimed, it is Jesus’ voice that we hear. The bread and wine we offer are truly transformed into his Body and Blood. They are not merely symbols, but Jesus himself in his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. When we receive the Eucharist, we touch the body of the Risen Lord just as the apostles did, and we are transformed by him.
For that reason, the Sunday Mass is an indispensable part of our Christian life and spirituality. While it is very good to read the Bible, pray the rosary and contemplate the beauty of nature, none of those activities compare with the gift offered us in the Eucharist. While those activities can give us some insight into Jesus and his love, they cannot actually give us Jesus himself as the Eucharist does. There is no substitute for the real, life-changing encounter we have with the Risen Lord in the sacrament of his Body and Blood which we receive every Sunday.
The third truth of the spiritual life is that we cannot stay on the mountain. We have to go back down to witness to others the Jesus we have come to know.
The experience the apostles had of Jesus was overwhelming. It filled them both with awe and fear. Understandably, Peter does not want it to end. He wants to stay there, camping out with Jesus, Elijah and Moses forever. But Jesus does not allow it. The vision of his glory comes to an abrupt end, and he leads them back down the mountain to continue preaching the good news and healing the sick.
Many times when we are praying and feeling God’s presence all around us, we do not want it to end. We want to stay basking in the warmth of God’s love. That is entirely natural because we were created to praise God and never feel so much “at home” as when we are praying. But it is not enough. The spiritual life is never just a private affair. From worship, we must go into service. We have to bring the love of God we have experienced to others. We must come down the mountain and point out the way to encounter God to others so that they may share our joy.
The spiritual life is not only for priests, deacons and nuns any more than food and exercise are meant only for professional athletes. All of us are called to cultivate a deep life of prayer in whatever way suits our lifestyle, personality and calling in life. No matter what our individual prayer lives look like they will all have some characteristics in common. They will require us to climb the mountain of sacrifice and self-denial, they will lead us to gaze upon the face of Jesus and they will lead us back down the mountain to some type of service to our neighbor. All of these aspects of the spiritual life will revolve around the Mass which is the source and summit of our Christian life.
As we look upon the face of Christ, we will be changed by the vision of his glory and will begin to reflect that light to everyone we meet.