Going up the mountain: Learning to Pray
The liturgy of the word of God for Sundays in Lent is very well thought-out and appropriately laid out. On the first Sunday of Lent, in all the three cycles, the central theme is the temptations of Jesus. On the second Sunday of Lent, like today, the liturgy of the word invites us to focus on the transfiguration of the Lord. The meditation on the transfiguration during lent becomes for us a prediction of what lies at the end of Lent – the resurrection of the Lord. This is what perhaps it meant for the three apostles who were taken up the mountain only six days after (Mk 9:2) Jesus had told them about his impending suffering and death (Mk 8:31). This was important particularly for Peter, who could not simply accept the possibility that his hero – the Christ (Mk 8:29) – would have to suffer grievously (Mk 8:32). For him it was a big lesson that Christian life is a coincidence of opposites – death and life, suffering and triumph, struggling to climb a mountain and wanting to stay there, being exalted on the mountain-top and having to come down to the market place of daily life.
The gospel reading of today is full of symbols: after six days, the mountain, being alone, dazzling clothes, appearance of Moses and Elijah, wanting to pitch tents, the cloud, the voice from heaven, coming down the mountain, and the warning of Jesus not to tell others until the time comes. All these symbols are associated with ‘theophany’ – the appearance of God or the experience of God. Let us just decode one of them: the mountain.
Mountain as a location for the experience of God
Mountains are considered the abode of God in many religions and cultures, and hence to experience God one has to analogically go up the mountain.
Also in the Jewish tradition there is a strong association between mountain and the experience of God. Let us look at the two Old Testament figures mentioned in today’s gospel text – Moses and Elijah – and see how their own experience of God was in the context of the mountain.
Moses encounters God on a ‘high mountain’ (Exodus 24:12, 15-18; 34:3).Mount Sinai (or Horeb) is considered the mount of the covenant – the place from where Moses came down with the Ten Commandments. Incidentally, the transfiguration narrative borrows many symbols that are found in Moses’ own experience of God on top of the mountain. When Moses was on top of the mountain (Ex 24:15-18; 34:5) a cloud descends and overshadows the mountain. And God speaks from the cloud (Ex 24:16). The face of Moses becomes radiant when he speaks to God (Mk 9:2-3; Ex 34:29-30, 35). Those who witness this radiance are overcome by awe (Ex 34:30), and this happens after six days (Ex 24:16).
There is also the story of Elijah encountering God on the mountain (1Ki 19:11-13). After a journey of forty days and forty nights, Elijah is alone on the mountain, and there he encounters God in the sheer silence of the gentle breeze, and he wraps his face with a mantle.
It is not by chance then that going up the mountain has become an archetype of the Christian journey towards an experience of God. St John of the Cross would call this, Ascent of Mount Carmel; Thomas Merton in turn would call it: The Seven Storey Mountain. Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle, uses the image of going up the castle that has different storeys.
Learning to Pray
What does this mean for us today? I see the image of going up the mountain as an act of the human will – an effort that expresses the human desire for God. But what will happen on top of the mountain is Grace. When I learn a method of prayer, and decide to use it in a particular moment of prayer, I am climbing the mountain. By that act, I express that I am open to the experience of God. But what will actually happen in that moment of prayer is the Grace of God. Therefore, in this Lenten series of reflections, about compass and roadmaps, today I would like to introduce another method of prayer.
Before offering some practical guidelines on this method, here are a few words about its background. ‘Jesus Prayer’ originated among the ‘desert fathers and mothers’ in Egypt and has been in use in the Christian tradition at least from the 4th century. Right from that time, body posture, breathing, use of prayer beads, and the repetition of the name of Jesus have been linked to this method of prayer. It is important to recognise that the use of techniques such as the body posture and breathing brings to fore the embodied-ness of our encounter with God, which is also consistent with the theology of sacraments and sacramentals. However, breathing and prayer beads are not ends in themselves. What is important is to use them as the means to prepare ourselves to be open to God who acts on us in His own way and in His own time. If you are not comfortable with any of the steps suggested below, feel free to omit it. I insist: going up the mountain – even helped by the community – is the act of will, what will happen up there is Grace. In the ‘Jesus Prayer’ we go up the mountain in the company of Jesus himself as the apostles did in the gospel narrative of today. So here is the method:
Quieten yourself in an attitude of prayer. Take a very comfortable posture. Sit upright with your back straight, but be relaxed. (If you are seated on a chair, try to place your feet comfortably on the floor.) Have your prayer beads in hand. Close your eyes gently.
Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, relax the different parts of your body. Take time to relax. Relaxing is the first act of faith: if God is in control, why be anxious. Be attentive but relaxed. Do not manipulate the breathing, just be aware.
When you are ready, begin to pray: as you breathe in, say quietly: “Jesus, Son of the living God.” And as you breathe out, say: “Have mercy on me.” As you do this, consciously move a bead with your fingers. And as you breathe out, relax. Get into a rhythm.
From time to time check your posture. Be aware of your thoughts. When you realize your thoughts have gone astray gently return your attention to your breathing, to the beads, and to the invocation. Non-judgementally see your thoughts drifting off. Effortlessly bring back your attention to the prayer. Focus on Jesus.
Be aware of your feelings, here and now. Just savour the moment. When you feel perhaps you don’t need the sentence or the other tools anymore, remain in the silence of your heart, being aware of the presence of God. Be open to God. When you realize that the emptiness itself has melted away come back to the breathing, the invocation, and the beads. Conclude the prayer by personally reviewing the session: how is God moving you from within?
ADDITIONAL SPIRITUAL THOUGHT
What is my mountain experience? Do I have one to keep and return to it? Do I have one to share and take others too, to experience the same?
They say, there are very few mountain climbers. However there are many people in the valley. In the valley we encounter many people and voices and also vices. It is the opposite on the mountain top: where we are faced with just the Almighty, with ourselves and the inner voice that speaks to us; besides the clear sky and view and breath.
To go to the mountain we need to be detached. Detached from all worldly, material things. We need only our hearts and spiritual material. This we need to do because we need to be attached to God and His voice. This is what Jesus did to his chosen disciples; to come up the mountain and to leave the rest below. To come and to experience His true self and also our true self in His being. This experience helped them to be re-charged in their mission to follow Jesus their master and the Beloved Son of God.
Each one of us does need ‘mountain-top experiences’ in our lives. We share the mountain-top experience of Peter, James and John when we spend extra time in prayer during Lent. Fasting for one day will help the body to store up spiritual energy. This spiritual energy can help us have thoughts that are far higher and nobler than our usual mundane thinking. The hunger we experience puts us more closely in touch with God and makes us more willing to help the hungry. The crosses of our daily lives also can lead us to the glory of the transfiguration and resurrection. These experiences will stand us in good stead when we find ourselves in moments of discouragement, doubt, sickness, despair and hopelessness. The thought of our transfiguration in heaven will help us to reach out to God and to listen to His consoling words: “This is my beloved son.”
The “transfiguration” in the Holy Mass is the source of our strength: In each Holy Mass, the bread and wine we offer on the altar become “transfigured” — transformed into the crucified and risen, living body and blood of Jesus. Just as Jesus’ transfiguration strengthened the apostles in their time of trial, each holy Mass should be our source of heavenly strength against temptations, and our renewal during Lent. In addition, our holy communion with the living Jesus should be the source of our daily “transfiguration,” transforming our minds and hearts so that we may do more good by humble and selfless service to others.
Each time we receive one of the sacraments, we are transformed: For example, baptism transforms us into sons and daughters of God and heirs of heaven. Confirmation makes us temples of the Holy Spirit and warriors of God. By the sacrament of reconciliation, God brings back the sinner to the path of holiness.
May I and you truly have a ‘mountain experience’ and in doing so, help our brothers and sisters to experience one in their lives.
- Metamorphosis of a Revolutionary
The word “Transfiguration,” means “a change in form or appearance”. Biologists call it metamorphosis, the same Greek word used by the evangelist.
There is a beautiful story told by Fr. Anthony de Mello in his book Song of the Bird, about the prayer of an old man who had experienced such a metamorphosis.
‘‘I was a revolutionary when I was young and all my prayer to God was: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change the world.’ As I approached middle age and realized that half of my life was gone without my changing a single soul, I modified my prayer to: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change my family and friends and I shall be satisfied.’ Now that I am old and my days are numbered, I have begun to see how foolish I have been. My one prayer now is: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed for this right from the start I should not have wasted my life.’’
- Lenten Penance
An Irishman moves into a tiny hamlet in County Kerry, walks into the pub and promptly orders three beers. The bartender raises his eyebrows, but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone and orders three more. As this continued every day the bartender asked him politely, “The folks around here are wondering why you always order three beers?”
“It’s odd, isn’t it?” the man replies, “You see, I have two brothers, and one went to America, and the other to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank.”
Then one day, the man comes and orders only two beers. As this continued for several days, the bartender approached him with tears in his eyes and said, “Folks around here, me first of all, want to offer condolences to you for the death of your brother. You know – the two beers and all…”
The man ponders this for a moment, and then replies with a broad smile, “You’ll be happy to know that my two brothers are alive and well. It’s just that I, myself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent. Now I am drinking for the other two!”
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.