Contemplation can be scary—but it’s worth the risk
A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent
Have you ever wondered about the purpose of the Transfiguration? Why does Jesus ascend a mountain to be manifested in his glory, when the very intent of his incarnation has been to live as we do, in the lowlands of daily life?
The preface of today’s Mass answers that question, echoing the teaching of the Church Fathers. The Transfiguration was a consolation. It prepared the disciples for the crucifixion.
For after he had told the disciples of his coming Death,
on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory,
to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets,
that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.
Of course, as so often happens when we encounter the Scriptures, we can wonder why we have not been given the same. For example, why has an angel not visited us to announce God’s plan for our lives, as he did the Virgin? When Martha chided the Lord for his absence at the death of Lazarus, her brother was restored to life, but our dead are not given back to us. And a Calvary awaits each of us if one has not yet begun. Where is our consolation?
We are right to desire God’s personal attention. It is not reserved to those who lived when the salvation that the Scriptures record first unfolded. And we are wrong to think that this consolation is denied to us. It is always on offer. It is called prayer.
If prayer does not seem to be a consolation for you, let us make a distinction in stages, or levels, of prayer. The first, prayer of petition, is innate to human life. Indeed, we share it with unbelievers, whether they admit it or not. We were created to ask things of God. Indeed, we cannot stop petitioning God because we experience ourselves as painfully limited. Even those who doubt God’s existence still petition something-out-there to keep them safe, to bless their children or to let some loved one live.
To contemplate, you must climb a mountain. You must move, however momentarily, off the lowlands of daily life.
Nothing is wrong with this sort of prayer. Indeed, we are hardwired for it by creation. But prayer only becomes a consolation when it becomes contemplation, a higher level. What is contemplation? It is still prayer, but here you ask nothing of God by way of petition. You desire only one thing: to see something of God, to experience God, to be in God’s presence. Contemplation is communion with God.
To contemplate, you must climb a mountain. You must move, however momentarily, off the lowlands of daily life. Contemplation typically occurs when we make a conscious decision, such as visiting a church or sitting in a particular chair, to recollect ourselves and to look for God. There are many ways to climb the mountain. They all involve a climb out of the lowlands.
When we contemplate, we might well begin with our petitions and needs. We might recite some of the prayers we have inherited, but then we move on. We empty ourselves and wait for God to show himself. We then find delight and solace in knowing that we are in the presence of God. This is, in the words of Scripture, “the strength that comes from God” (2 Tm 1:8).
But if consolation is a mountain that any of us can climb, why do so many stay in the lowlands? Here the Gospel scene of the Transfiguration can be helpfully supplemented by another, one found in the novels of that great Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe describes a wonderland whose entrance is hidden behind the back door of a wardrobe. It is a land of indescribable beauty and delight, but Narnia is also a territory under malign rule. It is a dreamland where devils roam.
Contemplation is like visiting Narnia because it is impossible to open yourself to God’s presence without fear of the demons who will assail you.
Contemplation is like visiting Narnia because it is impossible to open yourself to God’s presence without fear of the demons who will assail you. Giving yourself over to contemplation is like trusting Peter Pan that you really can fly. What if you fall? What if there is no God?
When we run around the lowlands, we do not have time to question God’s existence. But climb the mountain of contemplation, and you are forced to face your demons: maybe I am all alone; maybe this is as good as it gets; maybe no one is coming to help me; maybe no one is there.
So, while even unbelievers cannot avoid prayers of petition, believers have good reason to fear contemplation, which alone can offer them God’s consolation, the strength that comes from God. It can be as frightening as it is fruitful.
If you must overcome dread to find the delight of contemplation, why run the risk? How do you know that I am not selling you the proverbial snake oil when I promise you that God’s consolation is yours for the asking?
There is the rub, something else shared by those who believe and those who do not. You cannot get through this life without trusting someone, without entrusting yourself to something. And there is a way to know if what I say is true. Try the snake oil. Give yourself over to contemplation. Climb the mountain. Soon enough, you will be saying with Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here” (Mt 17:4).