The Call To Listen

Transfiguration
Fra Angelico
1440 – 1442

THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT

Listen carefully, my children, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.

Luke 9:28–36

Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. 30 And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. 33 Then it happened, as they were parting from Him, that Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.
34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were fearful as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” 36 When the voice had ceased, Jesus was found alone. But they kept quiet, and told no one in those days any of the things they had seen.


Listening is difficult because it requires us to be focused and intentional.  We miss the mark when we think of it as passive and for many, it is simply being quiet as we wait for the other person to stop talking so we can say our piece.  It’s even harder to listen to God.  In her book Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insights for a Balanced Life, Lonni Collins Pratt wrote this prayer:

Holy God, I believe there are masters of vision, masters of peace, masters of wisdom and joy and love for me to hear. But my inward ear has been dulled by all the nonsense it hears and the cacophony of my world. I don’t know where or how to start, but teach me to listen and help me believe I can actually hear you. Amen.

Building on this spiritual foundation , in his book Out of the Depths, Ken Kovacs said:

If our first calling is to listen, then how do we do that? It’s been said that listening is a skill, something we cultivate. Listening is a skill, like all skills the more we practice them the better we are at using them. We can train ourselves to have better listening skills. Listening is an art, particularly the art of listening for what’s being said and what isn’t being said, listening for what’s behind the words of a conversation. It’s not surprising that truly listening is in short supply these days. It requires time. Listening is hard work. It can be exhausting. It also requires considerable energy and love and even courage.

Why courage? Because at least two other things are required: silence and surrender. Luke says, “When the voice had spoke, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent…” (Luke 9:36). In order to really listen it’s important for us to be silent. How can you listen if you’re talking? The talking can be the audible kind done with our mouths or the ongoing internal chatter that fills our inner brains most of the time that never seems to quit. It’s tough to listen to someone when there are competing conversations going on in our heads. Cultivating silence has always been a spiritual discipline, essential to the life of faith. This requires courage because we might not be happy with what we discover in the silence. What’s true for human relationships is true for divine-human relationships. Interior silence is required; how else are you going to hear the still small voice of Love?

Why is truly listening so hard?

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Logo

John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

Ken Kovacs
Ken Kovacs

Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.

Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/

 

D I G  D E E P E R


TRANSFIGURATION

The Transfiguration is described, with minor variations, in Matt. 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, and Luke 9:28-36. The fourth Gospel does not mention it. All three descriptions agree that Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, went up to a mountain (unnamed in the text but, according to tradition and the Geneva Bible, Mt. Tabor), where he and his garments were illuminated by a heavenly light and where he spoke with Moses and Elijah. The key verb in the narration (Gk. metamorphoō) is translated by almost all English versions as the exact Latin equivalent, “transfigured.” The only other biblical reference to the event is in 2 Pet. 1:16-18.

A. M. Ramsey has shown that two themes run through the Fathers’ treatment of the Transfiguration: the unity of the Scriptures and the future glory of Christ and his followers. The first emphasis may be seen in St. Jerome (Hom. 80, in The Homilies of St. Jerome) and St. Augustine (Sermons in New Testament Lessons, no. 28), but perhaps the most important figure here is Tertullian, who uses Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah to refute Marcion’s claims that the OT and NT are incompatible (Adv. Marc. 4.22). For St. Basil, the apostles present “were considered worthy to perceive with their eyes the beginning of his glorious coming [i.e., the Parousia]” (Hom. 17, St. Basil: Exegetic Homilies [1961]), but most commentators —Origen, Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great —tend to look instead toward the Resurrection. The major text in the Fathers’ treatment of the Transfiguration is beyond doubt the magisterial sermon of Leo the Great (Sermon 51, NPNF 12), which brings together all these themes and more.

Despite extensive patristic discussion of the narrative, the influence of the Transfiguration upon the English spiritual tradition has been negligible: the Western Church in general has given it little liturgical attention (in contrast to the Eastern churches, where it is exceeded in importance only by Easter), and only in modern times has the Anglican Church recognized it with a red-letter day; from 1549-61 it was altogether absent from the Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, there are some significant homiletical treatments, notable among them being the “Three Contemplations of the Transfiguration” by Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656). Hall imagines the words Moses and Elijah had for Jesus: “A strange opportunity … when his face shone like the sun, to tell him it must be blubbered and spat upon; … and whilst he was Transfigured on the Mount, to tell him how he must be Disfigured on the Cross!” (quoted in Ramsey, 140-41).

Specific and direct references in literature are likewise relatively rare. In Spenser’s “Mutability Cantos,” the poet finds himself unable to describe the magnificence of the Goddess Natura and makes this pointed comparison:

Her garment was so bright and wondrous sheene,
That my fraile wit cannot deuize to what
It to compare, nor finde like stuffe to that,
As those three sacred Saints, thou else most wise,
Yet on Mount Thabor quite their wits forgat,
When they their glorious Lord in strange disguise,
Transfigur’d sawe; his garments did so daze their eyes. (7.7.7)

Far more common than such a direct comparison is the use of the word transfigure to suggest glorification or illumination, much like the Ger. verklären. In fact, the chief influence of the biblical passage may be to give depth and resonance to the term transfigure that metamorphose, the more direct borrowing, lacks. Thus, in Spenser’s Faerie Queene Britomart has a dream in which she performs the rites of a priestess:

Her seem’d, as she was doing sacrifize
To Isis, deckt with Mitre on her hed,
And linen stole after those Priestes guize,
All sodainely she saw transfigured
Her linnen stole to robe of scarlet red,
And Moone-like Mitre to a Crowne of gold,
That euen she her selfe much wondered
At such a chaunge, and ioyed to behold
Her selfe, adorn’d with gems and iewels manifold.
(FQ 5.7.13)

Here the reference to the altered garments links the event quite clearly to the Transfiguration of Jesus; a linkage only slightly less direct appears in Emily Dickinson’s “Taking up the fair Ideal,” after the Ideal becomes “fractured”:

Cherishing —our poor Ideal
Till in purer dress
We behold her —glorified —
Comforts —search —like this —
Till the broken creatures —
We adored —for whole —
Stains —all washed —
Transfigured —mended —
Meet us —with a smile —

This poem merges the Transfiguration with the biblical metaphor of blood-soaked garments made clean and pure —especially common in the Protestant hymns on which Dickinson drew so heavily.
When Coleridge takes up the word transfigure, he assumes its resonances without referring strictly to the biblical event: in “Religious Musings” (1794-96) he describes a soul at first besieged and terrified by the spiritual dangers of this world, then calmed and assured, “refresh’d from Heaven.” Now,

… faith’s whole armor glitters on his limbs!
And thus transfigured with a dreadless awe,
A solemn hush of soul, meek he beholds
All things of terrible seeming; …

Thus the notion of transfiguration is accommodated to the Romantic doctrine of the Sublime.
Of the few direct modern addresses to the subject, Edwin Muir’s neglected poem “The Transfiguration” is noteworthy. Muir assumes the perspective of one of the apostles:

We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere?

Bibliography

Liefeld, W. L. “Theological Motifs in the Transfiguration Narrative.” In New Dimensions in New Testament Study. Eds. R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney (1974), 162-79; Ramsey, A. M. The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (1949); Reisenfeld, H. Jésus transfiguré (1947); Rudrum, A. W. “Henry Vaughan and the Theme of Transfiguration.” SoR 1 (1963), 54-67. David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).