Monday, August 06, 2007

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

On the Mountain Thou wast Transfigured, O Christ God, And Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it; So that when they would behold Thee crucified, They would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary, And would proclaim to the world, That Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father!

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration.

My first encounter with any sense of the Divine occurred in my formative years, at the age of three to five or thereabouts. Growing up in a household with a strong Fundamentalist experience, my father always took it as his solemn duty to develop me into a strong Catholic. I remember a certain night, when the rain was pouring especially hard on our roof; my father woke me up from my sleep, and sitting upright on the bed, began to teach me how to pray the Oratio Dominica. I remember being told the proper way to cross myself; and absorbing this rhythm in an astonishingly small amount of time, he started teaching me the words of the prayer itself.

'Our Father', he would begin with half-closed eyes. I would look at him, praying so serenely, and imitated him as best I could. If I remember my own history well enough, I had occasion to just sit still and watch him pray, and from this, prayer was routinized for me. My mother would sit by and happily observe how enraptured I was at this activity. I was thrilled by the weird gestures, the solemn and measured actions, the gravitas, even the sonority of my father's voice-- though it was occasionally tinted by the patience and care of a nursery teacher.

We would go to different churches on Sundays, though admittedly, almost all of them were incorrigibly entrenched in the 'Spirit of Vatican II'. I would be lying to myself if I said that I did not enjoy those days; now, years later, I have a more objective criteria to judge these masses. One church we went to was notorious for having liturgical dancers prance around like a bunch of flightless birds on solemn festivities, like the Nativity, and other great feasts. The other church we went to was much nearer to our home. But it, too, was a ghastly and almost mocking inversion of Euclidean principles: inside, there was a statue of the Virgin that had terrified me immensely, as it reminded me more of Maleficent than the Mother of God. Too, there was a crucifix in the center-- but the corpus always felt feminine and bizarre to me.

It was not until I entered the historic halls of San Agustin de Manila, the sole remnant of the glory days of Intramuros and oldest colonial church in these islands, that I began to contemplate the greatness of God. San Agustin was a masterpiece of the Spanish Plateresque, a transitional sort of architecture from Renaissance to Baroque. I remember being captivated by the dazzlingly bright chandeliers that hung from its ceiling; and seeing the magnificent altar arrayed in the most precious fittings of silver and gold transported me back to the days I was not even privileged to have known. In the church's museum, there were three hundred year old manuscripts and old antique santos that were as old as any; there were magnificent liturgical vessels, all cast from the rarest and purest gold. Six foot tall statues of the saints were vested in cloth-of-gold, and old photographs brimmed with an almost spectral life.

To the unbeliever, perhaps, an image of a man with a sword wedged in his skull, or of one holding his flailed skin, would be shockingly revolting. The crucifix itself is a ghastly portrait of a dying Man, blood oozing from every pore in His body, more the badge of shame and humiliation than that of a chosen people. But strangely, even in those halcyon years, I knew there was something about these images that defied our human capability to define. As St. Peter Verona holds his severed head, blade still wedged in his skull, a smile forms on his lips. And as St. Bartholomew holds his flayed skin, his eyes are caught in mystic rapture. Why is this so? Surely these torturous ordeals could only reveal the dark and ugly side to humanity.

Our encounter with God begins, in infancy, with our acquaintance with the primordial. In death, for example, it has always struck me with profound irony that we can begin to contemplate what happens after we expire. From the ancient cities of Jericho to the ruins of Etruscan civilization, death has always been treated as something numinous and yet strangely edifying. From Jericho come stories of mummified skulls, filled with plaster and whose eyes sockets have been filled with shells, and from the Etruscans we see a picture of death as something of a grand party. In birth as well, we experience and partake of this mystery. I am still struck with awe whenever I see a child being delivered; I have often wondered what it felt like when I exited my mother's womb, or how it must have felt for her, to see, cradled in her hands, an infant, perhaps not wrapped in swaddling clothes, but is capable of gripping her finger with vise-like intensity.

I have stated many times in this blog that there comes a certain point in life when our faith is irrevocably confirmed forever, or dashed and broken by reality. But what is reality? Too often our picture of reality is bleak and unnecessarily filled with anxieties. We see only the evil in this world: the threat of war, the rumor of impending doom, the injustice among the rich and the poor, indeed, only the vital signs of an apocalypse waiting to happen. In exchange for this we have lost the ability to scale the peaks of mountains and feel the rustling of the wind. We look, but we do not see, photograph but do no paint. It is basically a society reduced not so much to subsistence anymore, but to a mentality and way of life of helplessness. We laugh, but always at the expense of others. We cry, but do not weep.

As I gaze back at those statues of the martyrs, I cannot help but be overcome by a certain sense of pride, or even envy-- but stronger than these is the all-encompassing sense of admiration. I will never understand why the santero decided to portray St. Peter Verona's decapitated head as still smiling, I will never see beyond the perspective of St. Bartholomew's statue just what exactly has so captured his imagination. But deep down, I guess this is waht it means to have beheld the glory of Christ. A man privileged enough to have seen something so beautiful, so utterly transcendent can only weep for joy in such a scenario. But the Transfiguration of Our Lord was not some isolated incident, nor the exclusive province of the Apostles. It is an event dynamic, illuminating, and unending, transforming even the basest and most insignificant of our gifts into something fit to be wept upon and over by the most glorious seraphim.

The only response worth taking in the face of such unimaginable beauty is to let ourselves be burned by that love that burns. It is only then that we thus perceive the profundity and depth of God-- the Crucified and Suffering God, Who entered our history and forever changed it. The saints and the martyrs understood this, and this is what strengthened their wills, the heat and clamor of fire and the coldness of steel no longer able to scare him. Real theology, then, necessarily transcends even religion-- it is not so much as belonging to the Church alone, but a matter of belonging to God. This is something that all Christians must undergo if they ever want to serve God 'with all their hearts, with all their minds, with all their strength'. It is cold in the church, and it is dark; but in that massing darkness, the piercing gaze of St. Peter Verona glints and shines forth like a lone star in the vastness of space.

We who are yet to traverse the earthly plain will never fully understand the mystery of God, and even the saints, who perceive the Divine Majesty for all eternity, can never fully pierce the depths of God's mind. We have but their examples to follow on earth-- and it is not an easy task to accomplish, as I have said before. But we have them to guide us on the way. And the severed head, the flayed skin, that piece of marrow and fragment of skull, are pledges of hope, and an inestimable assurance of love. Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!

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