This is a traditional subject – I’ve posted some transfiguration icons already today – but Fra Angelica really highlights the outstretched arms of Christ.
The arms foretell Christ’s forthcoming suffering in his crucifixion – there is no transfiguration without pain. But don’t they also suggest arms spread wide to embrace all?
The disciples show a mixture of confusion, prayer, awe and consternation. Encountering God elicits a huge spectrum of response from us, which can include fear and awe, as well as devotion, humility and love.
The “floating heads” either side of Christ are Moses and Elijah, who appear with Christ in the Gospel accounts – these figures speak of encounter and intimacy with God. Moses became God’s spokesman about life, and Elijah’s is the voice of prophecy. People tried to make sense of Jesus by comparing him to Elijah. In John’s Gospel, Christ is contrasted with Moses:
“… the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”
Either side of Christ stand figures in attitudes of contemplation: The Virgin Mary and St. Dominic. This fresco was painted on the wall of a room to be used by someone who had devoted their life to prayer and contemplation, and Fra Angelico’s beautiful painting is there to help guide both the original occupant of the room, and us, now, in our prayer and contemplation.
This week, many have been commemmorating the figure of Mary Magdalene, who features in this beautiful painting by Titian.
I have to confess to having mixed feelings about it. My initial response was to see Christ’s act of withdrawing as rather cold. But this was based on a misunderstanding.
Before I take this further, take a moment to enjoy the beautiful colours of the painting: the warmth of the sky, the luscious vegetation with the symbolic flock of sheep just behind Jesus, the golden sunlight reflecting both off the clouds and off Christ’s body (also symbolic, of Christ’s divinity), the beautiful colours of Mary’s hair and her cloak.
On her side of the painting, there is a lot of brown: a plain brown village, on a rather plain brown hill, and she kneels on a pale brown patch of grounds. This is the plainness of ordinary life without a spirituality grounded in the magnificence of God.
Mary reaches from the brown of everyday life into the luscious richness of the new life that Christ inhabits in his new risen form. Even the tree behind her sways into Jesus’ side of the painting, as if it also longs for this new life.
Jesus holds a tool to remind us that Mary doesn’t at first recognise him. She thinks he is the gardener at first. So this is the moment when she suddenly does, and she reaches out to “cling” to him.
Who would not want to do so to a loved one whom one has lost to death?
And back to the message – “Do not cling to me”. She must face her own transformation as a responsible adult. She cannot childishly cling to Christ in the hope that he will make everything better. She must learn – she is already starting to – that new life is the other side of pain, suffering and death. There is no short cut to resurrection.
Resurrection and new life gleam like golden light. We reach towards that light with patience, longing, some pain as well, and hope.
What would it feel like to know you were fully and totally loved?
Some of us think of romantic love in this way. We think of a special person we can love fully, and who will fully love us.
This painting is about love, though you might not think so at first.
The person at the centre – Jesus – is receiving the love of baptism. Look at how tenderly and carefully John the Baptist balances, on the point of baptising Jesus perhaps the way a priest would have done during Piero Della Francesca’s time.
Look at the angels on the left, gazing adoringly.
Christ’s strength is impressive. He stands powerfully, feet planted in the river, which has miraculously stopped flowing just as it did for Moses. The tree next to him echoes his strength as it reaches right into heaven, and its roots reach right down into the earth.
And the pure white dove – which can be mistaken for just another cloud at first glance – is the Spirit of Love. This is the moment when a voice said “This is my Son whom I love”. It is a revelatory moment, set here amongst Piero’s Italian hills, but a moment that begins a sequence of baptisms that continue to the present day (look at the figure getting undressed and ready for his baptism behind Jesus!).
This love prepares Christ for conflict. Behind the other man getting ready to be baptised are the colourful robes of the priests and the Pharisees, about whom Jesus would say many sharp things. Without a secure sense of identity, how can we boldly challenge what’s wrong in the world?
We don’t all find it easy to believe we are, or could be, loved.
We don’t all find it easy to give love.
But this painting to me speaks so beautifully of a special, revelatory moment. The moment when we too might know that we can and are.
Our “end” is our purpose. If we know the beginning of something – how or why something started (like an argument, or a problem) -we can gain insight into doing something about it.
Discovering meaning and purpose is also part of the spiritual quest…
Human life is a journey away from beginnings as we grow and change through childhood and adolescence to adulthood.
But at some points, maybe we can mark a moment of a really significant new beginning (maybe we have had several moments like this), where life took on a new meaning for us.
The beginning of our realisation of the spiritual dimension to life may be a new beginning.
There are other times where we have come to a realisation, or an “illumination”, when we begin to understand a little more about why we are here on earth, and what our spiritual way is all about:
The beginning of a life
Is not at first cry
But when the soul
Begins to know why
And moves in faith
That its purpose
Is beyond the present
In a future unseen
And a destiny.
It was simply reading the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, that collection of stories about Jesus, that inspired both this poem and this meditation. And Mark has his place in my “month of inspirers” (see recent previous posts on this topic).
Mark’s Gospel does not begin with the baby of Christmas nativities, but with a powerful prophecy, with John the Baptist, and with his baptising of Jesus: aspiritual, defining moment, in which love is revealed.
In another gospel account, Jesus talks about “being born again”.
Spiritual birth is like a second birth. And we can continue to grow spiritually throughout our lives. Our future is unseen; we have a destiny; and when we start to know why, we can also start to move in faith.
Perhaps children are more aware of spirituality than adults are.
I remember being asked to write an essay at school about evolution, and everything in me (as someone who did not follow any particular spiritual way and certainly not Christianity) protested that all that I was was an advanced form of amoeba. I struggled to find words for it, though – “humanity”, “emotion” were the best I can remember.
Likewise, I remember as a teenager being moved by sunrises, sunsets, powerful songs, beautiful music – what I would now describe as “the transcendent” – what there is in this life that is beyond words, that takes us out of ourselves, that raises us, spiritually.
Christianity is sometimes known as the religion that talks about “original sin”, but I think there is also “original awareness” of spirituality. Alongside the many evils and sins described in the Bible, from Cain’s murder of Abel to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, there are also many moments of epiphany – Jacob’s ladder, the transfiguration of Christ, the book of Revelation.
And Jesus said “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven”. Children experience wonder and awe at what, to adults, appear the most banal things. I saw a video on social media, recently, of a very young child unwrapping a banana in gift wrap. I think it was a light-hearted post by their family, but the child’s overwhelming excitement as she discovered what lay hidden was genuine, infectious and deeply moving.
To become like a child we do not need to regress in our understanding. But we may need to be born again to a realisation of the reality of spirit in our humanity, and to a wondrous appreciation of the presence, everywhere, of beauty and transcendence, calling us out of ourselves to God, who is the ultimate transcendence, who is ultimate spirit and being, and who calls us to a relationship that will transcend our dreams and ground our spirit in the greatest love of the universe.
What would it be like to be directly taught by a great spiritual leader today?
What would it feel like, for example, to be one of the friends of Francis of Assisi, or one of Jesus’ disciples?
Neither of these leaders wrote long books or even studied at university. But they did study people, and wrote their words on people’s hearts through their words and actions.
And what remains to us today – stories about Francis, plus a few writings by him – and the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) can never tell us everything. They offer us a sequence of “snapshots of God”.
A snapshot can tell us a lot but it does not define from every angle. Many snapshots build up a pretty good picture, but they are not exhaustive. And in between the snapshots there must be so much more that we haven’t seen!
So when I read story about St. Francis of Assisi, or a story or parable from a Gospel, I know I am only getting part of something so much greater. Both Jesus and Francis spoke a lot about God. But God is undefinable, ultimately.
One of my inspirers, the Franciscan Brother Ramon, uses a different metaphor, and compares the spiritual life to a vast ocean. You can dip a toe in, then paddle a bit, then wade, then swim, before coming back to shore and dipping a toe into a different part!
“Snapshots of God” – we can learn so much from each part of each snapshot the Gospels present us with, and of each story we have preserved about St. Francis and his followers. And this is true of so many other spiritual writings too.
If you have found this post interesting, perhaps you could share what gives you a “snapshot” of the bigger picture of life, whether or not you believe in God?
A simple way to understand leadership is through the word “influence”. A mother or father feeds, loves and teaches their baby – that is a kind of leadership. A teacher helps a group of children to learn more and more complex knowledge and skills – leadership, again. In any human relationship there is the potential for leadership, as one person influences another.
“Leadership is about influence. Nothing else.”
Many of us, therefore, are involved in leadership, whether our context is home, a place of work, or in voluntary activity. In this post I am interested in the ways that our spirituality can underpin our leadership relationships in two ways:
1. Through establishing values and perspective
2. By energising and motivating us.
Establishing Values and Perspective
Spirituality can help us establish values and develop perspective on life. For example, spiritual reading could help us understand the importance of love in the way we think about other people (our children, our co-workers, the people we help in voluntary work). It could also help us think through very difficult issues such as helping someone with illness or bereavement.
For me, the Four Gospels are full of interactions between Jesus and others, demonstrating love and extending healing, and they are an endless source of spiritual reading. I also read from my others “inspirers”: those whose lives and written works have left, and continue to make, a deep impression on me. Perhaps you have your own source of spiritual reading?
Many people have found it helpful to begin each day with some study, perhaps using lectio divina, as way of reminding themselves daily about what is of ultimate importance.
Establishing values and perspective on issues of ultimate
significance is particularly important in leadership, as anyone engaged in
relationships and leadership constantly faces complexity, ambiguity and
dilemmas on a daily basis, and we need to find a way to make decisions. The values and perspective which our
spirituality has developed help underpin sensible, calm and wise (we hope!)
Energising and Motivating
Spirituality can also help energise and motivate us. For some people, silence is very important. Others find daily prayer a helpful way to start each day. Or for you it might be listening to music, or enjoying the blessings of nature.
Spirituality provides depth to our life. There is a foundation we can build upon and
live from. We have a framework by which
we can make sense of all that life throws at us.
As well as being highly complex, leadership can also be
highly draining. So we need to have a
way of “refuelling”. Relaxation and
leisure are, of course, part of the answer.
But pleasure itself has only a limited power to re-energise us for
leadership tasks. For deeper recovery, I
believe that spiritual answers are required.
For example, I find that I am faced with questions of depth
in my own exercise of leadership: What is the purpose of what I am doing
today? What is the right thing to do in
this messy, painful and morally ambiguous situation? How can I face and conduct successfully this
difficult meeting today?
In each case, spiritual preparation helps to remind me of my ultimate purposes. I am more than just the functional “leader” that others see. Life will go on regardless of whatever mistakes or sound decisions I make today. The quality of my relationships with others around me is paramount.
And most important of all is my relationship with my God.
I am part of one of the most tempted generations in history.
Today in the West, we have power that would have been undreamt of by previous seekers of spiritual truth. Many of us can eat what we want, when we want; we can travel nearly anywhere we want in the world; we can own pretty well anything we want. And in each of these statements there is that phrase: “we want”…
One temptation is to be so focused on what we want for ourselves that we close ourselves down to anything else. It is a dangerous temptation because we can close ourselves down to other people; we can close to growing in a spiritually creative way; we can close to God.
If we gain the world but forfeit our soul, there is no gain. I wonder how many people realise that focusing too much on material things and experiences, though pleasurable and fun in the short-term, can have unforeseen destructive consequences on our deeper selves – our souls – and on those with whom we share our beautiful but damaged planet.
On the spiritual way, we will face temptations, certainly. Perhaps we will fall for many. How can we keep ourselves focused on the right priorities and grow ourselves in healthy ways that develop our love for others and for God, and keep our hearts open?
This poem, on the theme of withdrawing from temptation, was inspired by the life and words of Francis of Assisi:
Who are we
To snatch at experience
When there is a grace
In the emptiness
That leaves the soul open
than the mere minute
Of living in God.
Francis knew the Gospels about Jesus very well. The first recorded action after Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s Gospel is this: “He was in the desert…being tempted…” Even in spiritual retreat and contemplation, even for a “spiritual giant” like Jesus, there is challenge and temptation.
How can we protect ourselves from temptation?
How can we simplify and purify our lives and avoid temptation?
One way of approaching the Gospels is as stories of God.
The Gospels are collections of stories about Jesus. Some people talk about “pericopes”: short
sections of a few sentences, or more, that tell one complete story.
We think the Gospels were basically collections of stories
that had been passed around by word of mouth, and were then written up into the
collections we have today, known as “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John”.
That explains why there is so much repetition between them.
But when you think that these are not just stories of an
interesting historical person (Jesus) – though they are that – but that they
are stories that reveal God – then reading the Gospels takes on a new life.
Because we are reading about the creator and sustainer of
the universe and all life, including myself and yourself.
We are reading about the one who loves all.
We are learning about the meaning of life, of death, of
love, and how we can change to live better lives.
The Gospels can seem quite strange kinds of books when you
first read them.
But persevere, read a little bit at a time (remember the “pericopes” – short sections that tell one complete story), and see if you can feel how you are reading a story about God.