for everyday living
Br. Geoffrey Tristram on how we can perceive and experience God's glory in the world around us.
TO BEAR THE BEAMS OF LOVE
Whitchurch canonicorum, a tiny village in West Dorset, England, is a sacred place for me. The ancient parish church is the only one in England which still contains the bones of its patron saint, Saint Candida, and it has attracted pilgrims seeking healing for well over a thousand years. It lies hidden deep in the folds of the beautiful Dorset hills, and whenever I visit my family I go on pilgrimage to the church.I know that God’s presence is everywhere, in the hills and woods and meadows of that lovely place, but I long to go inside the church and kneel down and pray. There, the presence of God is palpable, and I always feel in some way changed, blessed, transformed after my visit.
I was recently sitting quietly in our chapel at Emery House, looking out across the meadow towards the river. I was praying for the work of renovation and restoration in which we are engaged at the Monastery in Cambridge. As I sat in the chapel I remembered that it is dedicated to the Transfiguration, and I gave thanks to God for the power of sacred places to open us to the grace and power of God, to transform and transfigure us, to change us, as St Paul says, “from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians3:18) Charles Wesley paraphrases this Pauline promise into those wonderful words in his hymn: “Changed from glory into glory / Till in heaven we take out place.” Over the years that I have been a monk, I have had the immense privilege of seeing the miracle of transformation in many people’s lives. In some extraordinary way, both Emery House and the monastery have become for many, sacred places, places of divine encounter and transformation “from glory into glory.” By the grace of God, these places allow us to catch a glimpse of God’s glory.
It is good for us to seek out sacred places, places where God seems quite close, since our world often seems increasingly frenetic and complex. It can feel unsafe and even hostile. We seek out places where we may go to be ‘held’: held by the physical stone and bricks, held by prayer, held by the beauty of worship and the power of silence. We seek out places where it is safe to bring our pain and suffering, safe to open ourselves up to God and allow God’s healing and renewing love to fill us and transform us. Times of retreat are important for the same reason that sacred places are: we need times away from the hectic and harried pace of life, so that we can attend more fully and completely to the transformative love of God. I often say to someone at the start of a few days of retreat, to begin by spending some time praying before the cross, and to consciously lay at the foot of the cross all the cares and burdens which they have brought with them, and to leave them there. When it is time for them to go back into the world and take up their burdens again, so often, miraculously and wonderfully, they recognize that the burdens are much lighter. Some they are just able to leave behind!
This movement toward God and then back out into the world is the fundamental rhythm that allows for and marks the work of transformation. Look to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, one of the key scenes in his ministry and the revelation of his identity as the chosen one of God. In the Gospels we read that, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.” (Mark 9:2). They go away from the world, to a mountaintop, where they can be alone with each other and with God, almost as for a time of retreat. In that sacred place, they see Jesus transfigured before them, and his clothes become dazzling white. This divine encounter changed not just Jesus, but the disciples too. The disciples were granted the grace to see Jesus transfigured in glory and majesty, reflecting the glory of God. “It is good that we are here,” they say, and perhaps we can sympathize that they would want to stay up on the mountaintop, where God seems quite near. But the gift of vision and insight that the Transfiguration imparts to them and to Jesus comes not as a good in itself, but rather in order to strengthen them all for the trials that still lie ahead. Indeed, in the Gospel account, the moment the group comes down from the mountain they are met by excited crowds and a boy thrown into convulsions, rolling on the ground and foaming at the mouth. The world returns, with all its hectic care, but the disciples are strengthened and ready to deal with it, because of their time on the mountaintop with Jesus. The Trans- figuration readied them all for the work of transformation demanded by the crowds and the epileptic boy waiting below. Their theophany, or encounter with God, had readied them for the mission God had prepared them to undertake.
The interplay between theophany and mission revealed in this scene of the Transfiguration is true throughout the Scriptures. Whenever God calls someone, he calls them with a distinct purpose. Isaiah encounters the glory of God, Moses sees the burning bush, Jacob has a vision of angels ascending and descending; like the Transfiguration, these are experiences of theophany, of encounter with God. But God never lets it stop there. Once God has transfigured the individual through this exposure to his glory, he directly sends them out to do something: “Go and set my people free.” He always calls us for a purpose, a purpose that usually involves sending us out into the world. God comes to us to transform us, so that we can take part in God’s transforming work of redemption, to help bring about God’s kingdom.
We see in the Gospels that Jesus always calls us by name: Peter, John, Mary. We'd love to know your name.
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About Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Brother Geoffrey Tristram was born in Wales and studied theology at Cambridge University before training to be a priest at Westcott House theological college. He came to the United States eleven years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction and retreat leading, and for three year years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.