Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The mountaintop experience in the spiritual life is one of the greatest spiritual gifts. It is also one of the greatest spiritual challenges. So many retreats and conferences make a powerful impact in a short time, and almost all of them end with a talk focused on a common theme: “What next?” The origin of the Christian mountaintop spiritual high is the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus. In a few short verses of the Gospel, we hear that Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John up on Mount Tabor, and there the apostles see him in a (literal) new light, conversing with Moses and Elijah, while the voice of God the Father is heard identifying Jesus as the beloved Son, in whom the Father is pleased, and commanding those who hear, “Listen to him.” Seemingly as soon as it starts, the episode is over, closed by the Lord with the puzzling words, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” If this was the spiritual high, what next?
Before we can answer that question, it is important to see what has already taken place. First, is the invitation of Jesus to come up the mountain. While this particular moment is limited to just three of the Twelve, we know that the invitation to the most profound spiritual experiences is offered to all. So Jesus invites us up the mountain. There, witnessing the Transfiguration, seeing the glory of God manifested before them, Peter cries out a beautiful, if misguided, offer. Like Peter, we might want to stay in that place where the spiritual experience is most powerful. At the end of a retreat, we might dread going home, and wish that we could simply stay on the mountain. Peter is not unreasonable in his desire to build three tents (or “tabernacles” for a more literal translation) which reflects his growing faith and desire to be close to God. But it is also premature. Before Peter (or any of us) can really be prepared for that staying with the Lord, we need to hear what the Father says: “Listen to him.”
And so as the three make their way down the mountain with Jesus, our Lord tells them not to speak of this event. There is an end date in sight – after the resurrection – when they will be able to tell people about the Transfiguration. In the meantime, they go down the mountain with the voice of the Father still ringing in their ears. Before they will be ready to evangelize, to call people to conversion, or to explain anything about the Gospel, they must listen to Jesus, they must hear the Gospel in its entirety. What seems like a command to silence is actually another invitation into deeper communion with the Lord.
What next? If we have been invited up the mountain to meet the Lord, the next step is to spend time with him in prayer, to recognize that we need not jump into action. Think of Martha and Mary hosting Jesus in their home. In her zeal, Martha is busy with many things around the house. Just as Peter was zealous to build three tents, so Martha is zealous to create that space where Jesus will want to stay. But it is Mary who has chosen the better part, as she sits at the feet of the Lord listening to his teaching (cf. Lk. 10:42). The more we give ourselves the space necessary to listen to the Lord, to truly contemplate the Gospel, the more we will find ourselves invited deeper. Peter, James, and John were invited up Mt. Tabor to see the Transfiguration, but later in the Gospel, they will be invited up the Mount of Olives. There, in a place they do not want to stay, Jesus will ask them to stay and keep watch (cf. Mt. 26:38), and to accompany him on the way of the Cross. When we take the time to listen to the Lord, to dive deep into the Gospel, we see it lead inexorably to the Cross. “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” These words, puzzling at first, make more sense when we have spent that time listening to him, for Jesus again and again in the Gospel prepared the apostles for the day of his Passion and for the day of the Resurrection. Yes, there will be a cross, but there will also be an empty tomb. Yes, there will be a time of trial, but there will also be a time of glory. The Transfiguration is both the preview of what is to come, and the roadmap we should follow. We look forward in hope to the day we will enter God’s heavenly kingdom. To get there, we will need to listen to Jesus, to remember those mountaintops, to return whenever we can to that tabernacle where we find our Lord waiting, and to take the Jesus up on his offer to go up the mountain. What next? Stay here, and keep watch.