Pope John Paul II writes in Incarnationis Mysterium 7: “A pilgrimage evokes the believer's personal journey in the footsteps of the Redeemer: it is an exercise of practical asceticism, of repentance for human weaknesses, of constant vigilance over one's own frailty, of interior preparation for a change of heart. Through vigils, fasting and prayer, the pilgrim progresses along the path of Christian perfection, striving to attain, with the support of God's grace, “the state of the perfect man, to the measure of the full maturity of Christ” (Eph 4:13).”
A pilgrim needs to be able to read the signs of the times around them, of the people with whom they live and journey with and of nature itself. A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a basic introduction to astronomy and I still smile to myself when I can identify 'Orion's Belt' or 'The Bigger Dipper.' In today’s First Reading, God took Abraham outside for an astronomy lesson of another kind and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ God had just promised Abraham a son. Why would looking at billions of stars help Abraham believe he would father a son? Look again at what happened. “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them” … Then Abraham believed in the Lord. When Abraham began to count the stars he was overcome by the glory of God. Who was this speaking to him? Nothing could be impossible to the creator of all this beauty. His heart believed in God, and God counted his faith as righteousness.
Gazing at stars has a somewhat romantic connotation attached to it. Whilst it is a beautiful experience it does makes you realize just how small you are and how big the universe is. Paradoxically, if it isn’t dark, we can’t see the stars. A few years ago, two of our sisters, Sr. M. Regina Cesarato (our current Mother General) and Sr. M. Fiorella Schiermedori composed a hymn in occasion of the beatification of our Founder, Bl. James Alberione. The refrain goes like this: “ Guarda le stelle del cielo, Alberione uomo di Dio,conta i granelli di sabbia: così sarà, così sarà la tua Famiglia!Amen! Amen! Amen!.”
Translated, it reads: Look at the stars of heaven, Alberione, man of God. Count the grains of sand, your family will be like this”. As numbers in religious life decrease in many parts, we are invited to trust that the Lord does not go back on his promises. We have to keep ‘stargazing’ and remembering that we are not the Creator, but the work of the Creator and He will keep creating.
If we look at today’s Gospel, that of the Transfiguration, the disciples don’t want the experience to end, to an extent they want to keep looking at the stars. ‘Let us build three tents’ is their way of saying ‘let us stay here’. Often this happens when we have a wonderful experience that we just don’t want to end. When we reach the top of the mountain and all we want to do is bask in the view, drink in the scenery, feel our lungs pumping and the adrenalin rush. It is sitting with friends and feeling the presence of Christ in our midst. It is seeing the crystalline formation of snowflakes and marveling at how perfect they are. There is a deep desire within the human soul for beauty. However, the disciples desire to ‘remain’ on the mountain is also an attempt to escape the reality which awaits Jesus. He has already announced that his journey to Jerusalem will result in his death. Beauty and suffering are always hand in hand.
At the top of the mountain is also the painful reality that we must descend. The beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it. The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns; the Shroud of Turin can help us imagine this in a realistic way. However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes "to the very end"; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence. This is Love Transfigured, it is the ‘beauty that saves the world’.
Similarly our Transfiguration experience is in realising the transience of life and that our destination is Heaven, even though we resist in some many ways. It is in walking the journey with those who suffer, of being accompanied in attaining our personal transformation, that point where ‘I no longer live but Christ lives in me’. This is our goal, this is our destination. Often though we need to get away from the daily habits we have so as to find a different place to stand and observe ourselves in the world. Prayer times, retreats and other privileged moments of grace give us this opportunity. May you have time in your day to find some. In the meanwhile, here’s a wonderful video here to help you along the way!