We have just heard the account of the transfiguration of Christ. ‘Transfiguration’ is not a word we use much in everyday speech – which is no bad thing, because its very rareness reflects the remarkable nature of what took place when Jesus was transfigured. The disciples Peter, James and John went with Jesus up a mountain to pray (traditionally Mt. Tabor, near Lake Galilee). Jesus’ clothes became as bright as lightening; his face was changed; and in this transfigured state Jesus met with Moses and Elijah, who were also seen appearing in glory. The disciples had been very sleepy, but became fully awake when they saw Jesus in glory. Peter suggested putting up three shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. A voice from heaven was heard, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen: listen to him’.
What should we make of this mysterious event? I’d like to make four points about it:
Peter, James and John had a profound spiritual experience;
Spiritual experiences also occur today;
We should be cautious when interpreting spiritual experiences;
Spiritual experiences are of little or no value if they do not deepen our understanding of God.
Peter, James and John had a profound spiritual experience . The impression is given, if we look closely at the text, that they came just about as close to God as is possible while on this earth. The references to ‘glory’ – ie light, brightness - are a traditional way of describing the presence of God – as when the book of Exodus talks of the glory of the Lord dwelling on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24.16). The voice of God also signifies God’s presence: only rarely does the New Testament refer to the actual voice of God being heard (for example at the baptism of Jesus). The cloud which appeared and enveloped Jesus and his disciples also symbolises the presence of God, as when Moses ascended Mount Sinai. God’s presence was also shown by the pillar of cloud by which he led the people of Israel through the desert, after their escape from Egypt.
The experience clearly had a profound effect on the disciples who were there: we are told that they kept it to themselves, telling no-one else at that time what they had seen.
Spiritual experiences also occur today. Probably one of the main ways in which people come to believe in God is through experiences which they regard as spiritual. As with Peter, James and John, something happens which gives a glimpse of the divine – of the power, the glory, the divine love which underlies everything. Usually this power, this splendour, this infinite life and love are veiled from our eyes. As St. Paul says, on earth we generally only see a poor reflection of God, as in a clouded mirror (‘through a glass darkly’) – 1 Corinthians 13.12. But occasionally the veil is briefly drawn back, enabling many people to describe experiences which have left them convinced that there is a God.
Studies have been done which have collected enough examples of spiritual experiences to make it impossible for them to be dismissed lightly. They strongly suggest that there is a divine power, a source of profound love, which from time to time is revealed to certain people. Let me give a few accounts of such experiences, taken from the book ‘The Spiritual Nature of Man’, by Sir Alister Hardy, who was a professor of zoology at Oxford:
From a man who was involved in the landing of thousands of troops at Suvla Bay, Turkey, in 1915: “Under fire for the first time was very trying, and at first I was afraid as most men were. As man after man went down, however, a Presence came to me which took away all my fears and replaced them with a feeling of ecstasy. Everything was overwhelmed with this feeling and I was for a time a brave man, without a fear or anxiety in the world. During that night I was severely wounded, and disabled in consequence … The memory of this night, however, and the few other occasions when I have been favoured with this nearness of God, have been the outstanding experiences of my long life …”
Another account of the Presence of God: “I cannot say how long it took to develop, but the ecstasy lasted over roughly three weeks. The main sensation was of being loved, a flood of sweetness of great strength, without any element of sentimentality or anything but itself. The description is quite inadequate. I also felt a unification of myself with the external world: I did not lose my own identity, yet all things and I somehow entered into each other; all things seemed to ‘speak’ to me. Something was communicated to me, not in words or images, but in another form of knowing.”
From someone present at her husband’s death: “I felt he (my dying husband) might be aware of my presence although unconscious, and took his hand and closed my eyes. Immediately my surroundings disappeared from my conscious mind, and I was aware of two distinct things at once: reverence for the presence of God on my left hand side, powerful in its effect, and then I was swiftly being propelled into a vast current into space that is almost indescribable. It resembled the ecstasy of a beautiful symphony. It was out of this world of feeling. Love was its force. The speed of it was as though I were travelling a million miles a second. I felt this involved my husband’s being as it did my own, and I was closer in love and spirit with him than ever in our actual lives.”
I have myself been told of spiritual experiences by people whose lives have been profoundly changed by the sense of the presence of God. One woman very nearly died when she fell off a horse, and for a few moments had a glimpse of another level of reality where everything was bathed in love and light – a realm of existence, it seemed, which took away all fear of death. Another, shortly after the death of her husband, had the sense one night that he was very close to her, and that he was telling her that everything was all right - she was not to worry about him. She said that this experience was very different from a dream, or something she had merely imagined, and that it left her feeling tremendously reassured. There was also an occasion when I was visiting a elderly woman in hospital, who was unconscious and close to death. When I arrived she was very restless and agitated, but after some prayers – in spite of her being unconscious – the restlessness subsided and she began to emanate a deep sense of peace and calmness.
However we interpret accounts such as these, they – and many others – strongly suggest that spiritual experiences do occur today. All the same – and this is my third point – we must be cautious as we consider what they mean :
We can rightly be sceptical if anyone claims actually to have seen God. God himself is greater than anything our human minds can ever imagine: we may be given glimpses of certain aspects of him, but Christian theologians have always taught that God in all his splendour, glory and power can never be fully known by human beings.
Care must be taken to distinguish experiences such as those I have been describing from dreams, daydreams and the natural wanderings of the mind. People like Alister Hardy make the point that there is a fundamental difference; but it is not always easy to distinguish spiritual experiences from certain activities of the mind.
We must not allow spiritual experiences us to lull us into suspending our rational faculties. It is also possible that the sense of being chosen by God – by being given a direct experience of spiritual things – gives a person an new conviction that God has personally instructed them to take a certain course of action. This can lead to a new sense of religious commitment and energy; but it can also lead a person to be intolerant and insensitive of those who have not had similar experiences of God talking to them directly.
Direct spiritual experiences must always be tested by reference to scripture. They should not take precedence over the teachings of Jesus and the traditions of the Church.
There is a risk that spiritual experiences, if too actively courted, may distract us from the core responsibilities of the Christian life, which are to love and serve God and one another. They should not be allowed to encourage spiritual self-centredness, and an excessive concern for one’s own inner peace.
My final – and concluding – point emerges from the various aspects of spiritual experience at which we have looked so far. It is that spiritual experiences are of little or no value if they do not deepen our understanding of God. They can give us the conviction that God is real; that we do not need to fear death; that there is a fundamental connectedness between this world and the realm beyond time and space; that inner joy and peace can be granted to us by God, and the experience of this, even when it has faded, can continue to sustain us through life’s troubles.
Most of the time, our lives aren’t like this – for most people, spiritual experiences of this kind are rare. Perhaps this is God’s intention – and the reason for our living on this earth is for us to learn how to grow and mature as independent human beings, contending with the darkness, groping our way through the clouds when the way doesn’t seem clear. Making mistakes – as when Peter tried to build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the Mount of the Transfiguration. But being mindful also of those glimpses of something greater, of the One who is timeless and glorious, who can bring light in times of darkness, and can help our lives to be transformed by the power of his grace and love.