This cope I’m wearing today has great sentimental value: it was hand crafted as an ordination gift from my parents. As it happens, the process leading up to my ordination was rather harrowing, so this festal garment is a reminder that, in the end, things work out. Ultimately. As Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be very well”. At least ultimately.
Today Jesus gives Peter and James and John a preview of “ultimately”. A few days earlier he had told them that the Son of Man was to undergo great sufferings, rejection, death, and, after three days, be raised from the dead. The vision of transfiguration on the mountain was a kind of preview of resurrection. Perhaps because he knew the experience would be so harrowing he wanted the disciples to see for themselves how it was going to turn out in the end. All would be well—at least on the other side of the cross.
This episode is of special importance in the Eastern Orthodox churches. It is seen as a revelation not only of Jesus’ glory, but of our own. We shall be as he was upon that mountain top. “Oh wondrous type, O vision fair, of glory that the church may share,” the hymn goes. [Hymnal 1982 #137] As with Jesus, so with us. The Orthodox call this process theosis, or divinization, i.e., our becoming like Christ. Ultimately.
“Transfigure” and “transfiguration” are Latinate words. The original Biblical Greek word is metamorphosis, which means a change of form—and which translated into English is metamorphosis. He was “metamorphosed” before them, and his clothes became dazzling white. Both he and his garments were transformed, transfigured, metamorphosed.
Even though “transfiguration” and “metamorphosis” are similar in meaning, they’ve taken on different colorations, different connotations in English. “Transfiguration” has a sense of the supernatural about it; it’s a word we use mostly in religious contexts. “Metamorphosis” has more of the connotation of natural processes. Both biology and geology speak of metamorphic processes. The marble here in this room is metamorphic rock: it was once sediment hardened into limestone and then, through movements of the earth’s crust, subjected to tremendous weight and heat. This geological process changed the crystalline structure of the limestone, resulting in something new, and, depending on the original mineral impurities, given new color—voila: marble! White, green, black, salmon pink, deep, deep red. Limestone metamorphosed.
We human beings can lay claim to both transfiguration and metamorphosis. Transfiguration in the ultimate and supernatural sense of sharing the glory of Christ in our heavenly existence. And metamorphosis in the sense of processes of change working within us, both in natural processes, and in processes “of the Spirit”.
Natural processes run the gamut from nearly instantaneous (the Big Bang) to aeons: the formation of stars and galaxies, the geological processes of the earth, evolution. Millions and billions of years. Fast, medium, slow, very slow—and everything in between.
We prefer fast—which, I suppose is understandable, since we’re not here for long (100 years or so max). But a very wise man once said, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit theologian and geologist. As a geologist, Fr. Pierre knew the slow work of God. The metamorphosis of one kind of rock into another can take millions of years. The tectonic shifts of the earth’s crust have been in process for billions of years. “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
Here is a short poem of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for a day on which we contemplate transfiguration and metamorphosis. (I think these words started out life as prose, but somewhere along the line were editorially ‘transfigured’ into poetry. Either way, it’s good advice…)
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
— that is to say, grace —
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
“Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
Ironically, Fr. Pierre is buried at the Culinary Institute of America near Poughkeepsie, NY (the buildings were once a Jesuit Novitiate). The CIA, the culinary CIA, specializes in very fast transfigurations. Time is measured in minutes and hours. The transfiguration of raw chicken eggs into omelette au fromage takes only a few seconds. But Fr. Pierre would be first to remind us that we are not omelets, even if some days our heads may feel like fried eggs.
We’re in a hurry; God is not. We will know transfiguration. Now we live with the more subtle and gradual changes of metamorphosis. And this requires trust, trust that God is indeed working in our lives through the spirit, through the world around us and in the natural processes into which we are imbedded. It’s natural to have some anxiety about our own brokenness, our sense of incompleteness, our wanting to be other than what we are already. And it’s natural to be vexed over the perceived brokenness and incompleteness of others. But, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” And, as Fr. Pierre says, accept the anxiety of incompleteness. Because it’s all still in flux. The slow work of God is still underway.
Is anything less beautiful because it is a long time in the making? The marble? The mountains and the seas and the heavens above? Are we ourselves any less beautiful for being a long time in the making?
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be very well.” Julian was right. So was Fr. Pierre. Dazzling festal garments whiter than snow shall be ours—we shall indeed be transfigured and be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory”. All things, spoken out into existence by the Living Word [John 1:3] are also spoken toward [John 1:1 πρὸς τὸν ϑεόν], into the very heart of God, “into the bosom of the Father” [John 1:18 εἰς τὸν κόλπον]. And it is in that infinitely expansive, infinitely capacious, infinitely transformative fatherly bosom that all shall be transfigured and all shall be transfigured and all manner of thing shall be transfigured.
But, in the meantime (and sometimes the times are mean, even harrowing)—in the meantime, we do well to trust in the slow work of God. We do well to trust in the fast work of God. For that matter, we do well to trust in all the work of God. We do well and shall be very well indeed.
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