Musings on the Transfiguration

It is tempting to explicate the Feast of the Transfiguration in the pseudo-mystical babble of uncreated light, divine energies, and theosis. Notwithstanding the centrality of this feast to the aforementioned theologoumena, perhaps this feast carries a more immediate significance for the vast swaths of humanity who, regrettably, cannot number apophatic ecstasy as a regular hobby amidst the multiplicity of their quotidian affairs.

I base this meditation on the theology of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), arguably the single most influential Patristic proponent of divine light as vital to theosis. Admittedly, this association risks superficiality. Symeon's understanding of the divine light does not explicitly reference the Transfiguration: "Dozens of pages in his writings are devoted to the descriptions of his visions of the divine light: needless to say, all these descriptions are fully original and independent of any other literary source. Symeon even is so much engaged in the description and comprehension of his own experience of the vision of light that he is not specially interested in the scriptural episodes, such as the Transfiguration of Christ, which were often used as a starting point by other Fathers to express their theory of the divine light." (Hilarion Alfeyev, 2000, St. Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition, Oxford University Press, New York, 226). One must take into consideration Symeon's theory and usage of Scripture to contextualize this counter-intuitive silence despite Symeon's prolific citation of Scripture, especially the Gospels. The written letter of Scripture according to the Alexandrian exegetes was not an end in itself. Scripture contained multiple layers of meaning, the deepest of which were opened only to the gnostikos who in turn received direct theoria of this hidden knowledge. It is the thorough internalization and realization of Scripture in all its layers that is characteristic of Symeon - hence, alongside paraphrases of Scripture in his prose and what seem to be spontaneous and subconscious Scriptural references in his rhapsodic hymnography, perhaps it can be postulated that Symeon's does not refer to the Scriptural Transfiguration because it was precisely that Transfiguration which he experienced on a personal basis throughout his life. In other words, perhaps Symeon felt no need to explicate the Transfiguration of Christ in detail because he had already thoroughly done so through describing his personal transfiguration. For the most part, I think this thesis holds water if one compares passages from St. Symeon's hymns to standard connections drawn between the Transfiguration and the divine light in other fathers. I am writing under the tacit assumption that this is accurate.

What then does this Transfiguration, and thus the Transfiguration, entail according to Symeon? This is how Symeon describes his own transfiguration in the divine light:

We are made members of Christ, and Christ becomes our members,
and Christ becomes my hand and the foot of all-wretched me,
and wretched I become the hand of Christ and the foot of Christ.
I move my hand and my hand is Christ entire.
For, understand me, the divine divinity is indivisible!
I put my foot in motion and behold, it flashes as Himself.
Do not say that I blaspheme, but accept these things
and fall down and worship Christ Who makes you like this!
For if you also wish, you shall become his member,
and thus every member of each one of us
shall become a member of Christ, and Christ our members,
and He shall make all shameful things decent
by the beauty of his divinity and by his glory He shall adorn them,
and when we are united to God we shall at the same time become gods,
not looking upon the indignity of the body at all,
but completely made like Christ in the whole body,
and each of our members shall be the whole Christ.
For while we become many members He remains one and indivisible,
and each part is the whole Christ himself.
And so thus you well know that both my finger and my penis are Christ.
Do you tremble or feel ashamed?
But God was not ashamed to become like you,
yet you are ashamed to become like Him?
"I am not ashamed to become like Him.
But in saying He is like a shameful member
I suspect that you speak blasphemy."
So then, you suspected badly, for there are no shameful members!
They are hidden members of Christ, for they are covered,
and on account of this they are more revered than the rest,
as hidden members of Him Who is hidden, they are unseen by all,
from Whom seed is given in divine communion,
awesomely deified in the divine form,
from the whole divinity itself, for He is God entire,
He Who is united with us, oh spine-chilling mystery!
And thus it truly becomes a marriage, unutterable and divine:
He unites with each one, and again I shall say these things
for pleasure, and each is made one with the Master.
And so if you will put the whole Christ on your entire flesh,
then you shall understand everything that I say and have no cause for shame.
But if not entirely, but if you put upon your soul only a small patch
- I am speaking of the immaculate inner garment which is Christ -
then your old cloak is patched in just one place,
and you are ashamed of all the remaining members,
retaining the whole body as more dirty,
then how shall you not blush seeing how you have put on filthy garments?
I said frightful things about holy members,
and about seeing much glory and illuminating the mind,
about rejoicing and taking to heart nothing carnal,
but still you see your flesh as defiled.
and in your mind you go through your disgusting practices,
and your mind always crawls in such things like a worm.
Wherefore you attribute to Christ and to me your sense of shame,
and you say: "Are you not ashamed of the shameful members?
and what is more, You bring Christ down to shameful members."
But again I say to you: look at Christ in the womb
and notice the things in the womb, and escaping the womb,
and from whence my God went out and passed through!

 The above is excerpted from Hymn 15 (Daniel Griggs translation). Here is a shorter but equally pertinent excerpt from Hymn 16:

Amazed, I am astonished at the shapeliness of his beauty,
and how the Creator stooped down when He opened the heavens
and displayed his unspeakable and strange glory to me.
Who therefore shall also come closer to Him?
Or how shall one be carried up to the immeasurable heights? 
When I considered this, He himself was found within me,
flashing forth within my wretched heart,
illuminating me from all directions with immortal radiance,
shining upon all my members with his rays,
folding his entire self around me He tenderly kisses all of me.
He gives his whole self to me, the unworthy,
and I take my fill of his love and beauty,
and I am filled full of divine pleasures and sweetness.
I partake of the light, and I participate in the glory, and He illuminates my face like that of the one I yearned for,
and all my members become bearers of light.

I'm not sure if it's necessary or appropriate analyze these hymns in too much detail. The one who can understand will eventually understand. It's too simplistic to say that Symeon has no patience for puritanical prudery and stop there. Really, these hymns are a slap to the face of those who demand the Divine to manifest itself only outside that which is deemed lowly (opposed to heavenly), impure (opposed to pure), or secular (opposed to sacred). This isn't merely the haunting specter of Platonism. It seems to be an attitude ingrained in man, regardless of time or culture. Here is a passage from the Outer Chapters of the Zhuangzi that addresses essentially the same flawed mindset:


Dong-guo Zi asked Zhuangzi, saying, 'Where is what you call the Dao to be found?' Zhuangzi replied, 'Everywhere.' The other said, 'Specify an instance of it. That will be more satisfactory.' ' It is here in this ant.' 'Give a lower instance.' 'It is in this panic grass.' 'Give me a still lower instance.' 'It is in this earthenware tile.' 'Surely that is the lowest instance?' 'It is in that excrement.' To this Dong-guo Zi gave no reply. Zhuangzi said, 'Your questions, my master, do not touch the fundamental point (of the Dao). They remind me of the questions addressed by the superintendents of the market to the inspector about examining the value of a pig by treading on it, and testing its weight as the foot descends lower and lower on the body. You should not specify any particular thing. There is not a single thing without (the Dao). So it is with the Perfect Dao. And if we call it the Great (Dao), it is just the same. There are the three terms, "Complete," "All-embracing," "the Whole." These names are different, but the reality (sought in them) is the same; referring to the One thing. 'Suppose we were to try to roam about in the palace of No-where - when met there, we might discuss (about the subject) without ever coming to an end. Or suppose we were to be together in (the region of) Non-action - should we say that (the Dao was) Simplicity and Stillness? or Indifference and Purity? or Harmony and Ease? My will would be aimless. If it went nowhere, I should not know where it had got to; if it went and came again, I should not know where it had stopped; if it went on going and coming, I should not know when the process would end. In vague uncertainty should I be in the vastest waste. Though I entered it with the greatest knowledge, I should not know how inexhaustible it was. That which makes things what they are has not the limit which belongs to things, and when we speak of things being limited, we mean that they are so in themselves. (The Dao) is the limit of the unlimited, and the boundlessness of the unbounded.'We speak of fullness and emptiness; of withering and decay. It produces fullness and emptiness, but is neither fullness nor emptiness; it produces withering and decay, but is neither withering nor decay. It produces the root and branches, but is neither root nor branch; it produces accumulation and dispersion, but is itself neither accumulated nor dispersed.'

I am using the James Legge translation which is dated and problematic, so I advise not to read too much into any metaphysical aspects of the English translation, tempting though they be. The message is clear. In Symeon, the transfiguring light of Christ does not exclude male and female genitalia from deification. In Zhuangzi, the Dao is to be found in (translated literally) shit and piss. When we seek God outside of these things (or refuse to seek Him therein), we commit the blasphemy of circumscribing He Who cannot be circumscribed.

From whence does this maximalist tendency arise, and why is it so prevalent? Perhaps it's simply easy to vaguely ramble about theosis, "study" apophatic theology (a delightfully comic self-contradiction), and theorize on lofty abstractions without actually doing anything real. It's much more difficult to cultivate constant awareness of God's all-penetrating Presence, much less enter into realized and constant Communion with that Real Presence. Anyone (even the unbaptized and uninitiated) can "feel" or at least feign the sensation of feeling a transfiguring presence when stepping into a glorious physical temple, adorned with gold, covered in icons, filled with incense and chant. Do we feel the same when excusing ourselves during coffee hour? All of creation is Tabor. In a disturbingly obsessive manner, we refuse to understand this and deliberately erect all manner of barriers and curtains to limit the deifying light to select corners of existence which we have arbitrarily deemed "sacred". Yet the Liturgy tells us: "In Thy light we shall see light." Undoubtedly there are volumes of mystical explanations dedicated to this single sentence. I will be painfully literal and understand this as meaning even the mere ability to see anything period is through illumination from the Divine Light. We cannot speak of seeing as Christ sees without recognizing that this necessarily entails a degree of deification proportionate to the degree to which our vision is that of Christ's.  This is why I never tire of returning to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets in any context related to transfiguration and theosis:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Perhaps this is a valid, even a necessary, way to understand the significance of the Transfiguration in our daily lives. Experience of the Transfiguration ceases to be a litany of my insight, my spiritual progress, my deification. No. By seeing all things in the Light of Tabor, we begin to see things as Christ sees them. We are always expecting an apocalyptic enlightenment totally alienated from the mundane mediocrity of our daily lives. Instead, we receive the anti-climatic insight that this here and now - this really is it. However, we now see it as God sees it: and God saw that it was good.