“Transforming Mountaintop Experience”, by Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM

The psychologist Abraham Maslow described peak experiences “as especially significant moments in life, involving feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth often from vastly profound and awe-inspiring perspective.” Peak experiences also “tend to be uplifting and ego-transcending, releasing creative energies and affirming the meaning and value of existence. Peak experiences give a sense of purpose to the individual and a feeling of integration and they leave a permanent mark on the individual, evidently changing them for the better.” Those who have peak experiences can never be the same again.

According to Mark Link, SJ, the British Bede Griffiths, in his book entitled The Golden String, describes such a remarkable peak experience that took place in his life when he was a schoolboy.

One summer evening, as he was walking outside he became aware of how beautiful the birds were singing. He wondered why he had never heard them sing like this before.

As he continued walking, he saw hawthorn trees in bloom. The trees looked so lovely and their fragrance filled the air. Bede wondered how he had never noticed their beauty or fragrance before.

Finally, Bede reached a playing field. Everything in the field was quiet and still. As he stood there, watching the sun slowly fading into the horizon, he found himself kneeling on the ground. He felt as though God were present there in a most tangible way.

Bede Griffiths writes in his book, “Now that I look back on it, it seems to me it was one of the decisive events of my life.”

Bede Griffith’s experience, Mark Link, SJ believes, gives us a glimpse into what Peter, James and John experienced more than 2,000 years ago when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes.

The transfiguration of Jesus before their eyes was a decisive and pivotal moment in their lives. They began to see him in a totally new perspective.

Peter could never forget the transfiguration of Jesus. He recounts the experience in the following words:

“With our eyes we saw his greatness. We were there when he was given honor and glory by God the Father, when the voice came to him from the Supreme Glory, saying, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased! We ourselves heard this voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

In the transfiguration event, the true divine identity of Jesus was revealed. Jesus was seen as he really is – in his divine glory and splendor as the Son of God. He was shown as the anticipated and messianic fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, as represented by the two great figures of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus was seen in conversation.

The transfiguration event of Jesus was also a much-needed spiritual shot to encourage and strengthen Jesus as he was on his way to Jerusalem to face his passion and death. The words that Jesus heard at his baptism, of his divine identity as the beloved Son of God, which was attacked by the Devil at the temptation of Jesus on the desert, were the same words heard at the transfiguration: “This is beloved Son in whom I am well please. Listen too him.” Jesus, as it were, needed to be reassured again of his divine identity. He needed to hear the intimate words of his Father before he faced suffering and death in obedience to His will.

On this Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it is very important to reflect not only on the incident and its significance in the life of Jesus. We need to reflect, among others, how we too can experience transfiguration or transformation in God.

The Gospel of Luke, which is considered a gospel of prayer because of its emphasis on the importance of prayer, makes it very clear from the beginning of the gospel passage that Jesus and the three disciples went to the mountain to pray and it was while Jesus was at prayer that he was transfigured. There is a very important clue here for our transformation in God.

In the Bible the mountain is a place of encounter with God. And in this context of Luke, a mountaintop experience is a moment of transforming encounter with God in prayer.

The Gospel clearly suggests that just as Jesus was transfigured while at pray, we too can experience transformation if only we give ourselves to a sincere life of prayer. Soren Kierkegaard said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” 

On a daily basis, we need a mountaintop experience – an intimate union with God in prayer. We do not need to a real and physical mountain to pray. One’s room can be a mountaintop when we put aside everything to spend time with the Lord in prayer.

In prayer our identity as children of God is revealed. We too hear in the depths of our hearts the voice of the Father telling us that we are His beloved children. We too get a spiritual shot in the arm when we absorb ourselves in prayer, enabling us to face the trials and challenges of life.

The voice of the Father also says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” If we really desire to be transformed in God, we need to truly listen to Jesus. What is implied here is the challenge of discipleship. A disciple in the Bible is one who listens to the Word of God and does it in his life. Following Jesus in discipleship is the path to transformation in God.

The need to focus on Jesus and to the following of Him is reinforced by Jesus becoming alone. Moses and Elijah appeared talking with him. Magnificent things happened to Jesus. He appeared in glory. But in the end, the heavenly Father wants us to focus not so much on the secondary figures like Moses and Elijah and even on the glorious things that accompanied the event but solely on Jesus. The Father does not want us to be distracted from the sole attention to Jesus and to the following of Him in obedience.

Pope Benedict XVI, who is about to retire, has been called the Pope of the basics. One of the things that he has tried to do is to challenge us to go back to Jesus. One of his legacies as a pope is the completion of his three-volume work of Jesus of Nazareth. Return to Jesus. Go back to Jesus. Know Jesus. Be in love with Jesus. Follow Jesus. Indeed, we cannot but do this as Christians for Jesus is the very reason of our Christian faith. Jesus is the very center of our Christian Faith.

We end with one of my favorite quotations of Pope Benedict on Jesus: “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”

About Fr. Robert and his reflections