A Reflection On Mark 9:2-9: “Vertigo & The Mystical Experience”
Every now and then, over the course of our lives, we get to experience what can best be described as a mystical experience. A mystical experience is a moment in time where it seems as if the veil between heaven and earth is blurred, and we’re drawn into a profound experience of the divine and the sacred. It’s an entirely subjective experience…we can’t prove them…we can’t authenticate them….but if you’ve ever had one you just know that they’re real and that they’re from God. We never forget those rare moments when we have them. And sometimes they can shape the course of our whole lives. These mystical experiences are our spiritual mountain tops. It’s the summit of the religious life. I’ve been blessed to have such experiences myself.
In fact, I such an experience just a couple years ago. It happened because I decided to go on, what was for me….a pilgrimage. You know, a pilgrimage is where you go on a special religious journey as an act of devotion…usually to a shrine, a sacred place, or a retreat. I was in Louisville Kentucky for a conference…and there was one place…that I just had to go to while I was down there. I’d been wanting to go to this place for so many years there was literally an aching in my heart to do it. And so I finally did. I drove for about an hour outside of Louisville. I came to a part in my drive where I was just surrounded by what seemed like an endless forest on both sides of the road. It was early spring and all the trees were in bloom. It was so beautiful and majestic. By that point my heart was pounding. I was almost there…this place I’d been dreaming of. I came around a bend….and there it was….this massive, sprawling white building that looked like a fortress. It was overwhelming. There were tears in my eyes as the great Abbey of Gethsemane came in to view. The fact that I was going to a monastery alone was really exciting for me. But that wasn’t what made it a pilgrimage. What made it a pilgrimage was the fact that the Abbey of Gethsemane was the home of my spiritual hero…a man whose writings have had a profound impact on my life, my spiritual journey, my walk with God….and even my vocation as a Pastor.
His name was Thomas Merton and he lived there as a Trappist Monk for 27 years until his death in 1968.
That day ended up being one of the most incredible days of my life. I spent the afternoon talking with a monk, Brother Paul, who had actually studied under Merton, and he took me on a tour of the monastery…and he even took me to Thomas Merton’s hermitage where he lived out the final years of his life. That was unreal. The hermitage is off limits to the public…but I was allowed to go back there because I was a seminarian.
I sat in the hermitage of my hero with this wonderful monk and we appropriately talked about the writings of the mystics and the contemplatives. Then, after my meeting with him….I just spent some time walking the grounds in meditation and prayer. For me, that was a mountain top experience that's what we're really looking at here. Mountain top experiences. This mountain top experience with Jesus on what came to be known as the Transfiguration…and our own experiences. What do they mean for us? We’re going to consider the relationship between the experience of God’s reality and the response to God’s reality. Experience and response.
Now when I mention the Transfiguration, you might think I’m talking about a new Transformers movie….you really don’t hear the word “Transfiguration” all that often. It marks the halfway point in three of the four Gospels…and it’s where we see that Jesus was “more than meets the eye.” Peter, James, and John witnessed a transformation that was bigger even than Optimus Prime. They had a mystical, mountain top experience….greater than any in human history.But to begin to understand this story as something real and tangible we have to consider the scope of the whole Bible here…and then we start to see that this is a pattern that God uses all throughout the Scriptures. There’s quite a few stories of mystical encounters with God…but one that’s immediately relevant to our text today is Moses. Now a lot of you probably already know this story.
He’s on the top of Mount Sinai and suddenly this swirling cloud appears and it surrounds the entire mountain. God speaks to him from the cloud and God gives him the moral laws known as the Ten Commandments. And then something strange happens. He asks to see the glory of God…and God tells Him “no.” He says no one can see His face and live…so He says I’ll show you my back side. So the cloud passes and Moses is only able to catch this tiny glimpse of God. But it was a profound experience of the reality of God.
Another person that this happened to was the Prophet Elijah. Elijah had stood up to all the corruption and idol worship and he was literally run out of town. So he’d about given up. He was totally miserable and he goes and hides in a cave in the mountains. He spends the night there. And in the deep darkness and isolation of that place God comes to him. Once again He passes by in the form of a cloud. Then God shows Elijah all these incredible things….winds that tore the rocks apart, earthquakes and fire. It was a profound experience of the reality of God.
And these experiences don’t end with the Gospels. It happens to Paul.
Paul’s out on a mission to wipe out some pesky Christians when suddenly this brilliant white light appears that knocks him off his horse and strikes him blind. It’s another profound experience of the reality of God. Like I said, it’s a common thread throughout the Scriptures.
All these stories have another thing in common too. They happen in challenging or crossroads moments in the life of the believer. Think about that. Moses was down and out. Elijah was depressed and had given up on his calling. Saul of Tarsus was badly misinformed about the Christians.
And now as we move to our Gospel lesson for the day…we find out that was the case with Peter, James, and John too. They were experiencing confusion and turmoil. Peter had just named Jesus as the Messiah….but then Jesus starts talking about how He’s going to suffer and die. In other words, He’s not the Messiah they were expecting. So they have no clue what’s going on. Here they’d been following Jesus all this time as He’s going from town to town preaching, healing, casting out demons…and then this. They might’ve felt like they didn’t even know Him anymore. Crossroads.
In all these examples...God stepped in with His mountain top experiences in some of the most difficult moments of their lives. That should be a lesson for us. If you’re ever wondering why it seems like you don’t hear from God or why you’re not having these power encounters with God…maybe it’s because you’re not supposed to be. Maybe it’s because you don’t need it right now. Saint John of the Cross is widely considered one of the greatest Christian mystics in the history of the church. In his book “The Dark Night of the Soul,” he talks about how the mystical experience should never be an end unto itself.
He argues that if we were to keep having these mountain top moments over and over again we’d become obsessed with them….they’d be like a drug. It’s all we would want. We’d lose our grip on reality….and the things God is calling us to do. So that’s why you don’t have these voices from the clouds moments all that often. They only come with a purpose. They only come when we need them. More on that in a bit.
Jesus’ inner circle….they needed that mountain top experience. They were breaking ranks. They were grumbling and they were confused. So Jesus literally takes them up the mountain....the 1800 foot high Mount Tabor near Nazareth. And there at the summit, Jesus changes right before their eyes. The Greek word that’s used here is “metamorphosis” or “changes form.” So like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly…Jesus is transfigured. His face was glistening like the sun. His robes are a brilliant white. Moses and Elijah appeared….one embodying the Law and the other embodying the prophets…and they surround Jesus…Jesus who is the completion and the fulfillment of these things.
Then a cloud appears; a cloud like the one that appeared to Moses and Elijah….but this time….they don’t see just the “back side” of God…they see God in the fullness of glory…in Jesus Christ…and they live because this moment…the Transfiguration is a sign of the age to come…of the fullness of the Kingdom. Out of the cloud a voice speaks and says “this is my Son whom I dearly love. Listen to Him!” Then, just as quickly as it came…it ended. Only Jesus is there with His awestruck disciples.
But this wild and incredible story leaves us with a question….why do we have these experiences? It brings me back to my earlier point. Our mystical experiences have a purpose and they only come when we need them. God takes us to the spiritual mountain top to give us vision and to see the possibilities in life. When we’re at the crossroads and those turning points, He gives us the mystical encounters so that we can see past the haze of our doubts, the fog of our uncertainty, and the trees of our obstacles. God’s given you a purpose in life and sometimes He has to take you up higher than you’ve ever been so you can see that purpose more clearly. This is the degree I should be pursing in school. This is how I should be a better husband. This is how I should raise my kids. God wants me to be a teacher, a plumber, or an engineer. This is the path I take to get there.
As I walked up and down the beautiful grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemane, just praying and meditating, I felt closer to God than I had in years. When I attended Mass and listened to the monks chanting Vespers my soul was just….alive. And when I placed my hand on my hero Thomas Merton’s grave and said a prayer I felt this profound sense of completion. But as I drove home that night, I realized that that experience was so much more than just a visit to where my hero lived.
No, it was a mountain top experience because God had given me exactly what I needed. Peace. I was in my second year of seminary and I was stressed and burnt out. I felt like I was always working, always running. There was no peace. Here I was studying to be a pastor and God felt like He was a million miles away. He was like some kind of abstraction because I was just so busy all the time. But there’s a gate that leads to the monastery grounds and on that gate are the carved words “God Alone.” I spent that day alone with God and it brought me back to life.
It reminded me to renew my contemplative practice…to spend time in prayer and meditation with God. It gave me the strength and the inspiration to keep pressing on. And that’s the point of the mystical experience. We have profound experiences of God’s reality to give us insight, strength, inspiration, and encouragement for the journey. To remind us that God loves us.
But just like this story of the Transfiguration…these things only last for a moment. We blink and they’re gone. And what happens when they’ve gone? Well, suddenly we experience vertigo. We suddenly realize that we’re on a great height and our hearts begin to flutter, we start to lose our balance and we feel like we need to get down.
I love lighthouses. And I’ve climbed a lot of lighthouses in my day….in places like Maine and Florida. I always make the long and grueling climb because I want to see the view from the top. It’s always so amazing. You have these incredible views of the ocean and the surrounding city or countryside. It takes your breath away. But with me it’s pretty funny. I look around…I take it all in….but then reality kicks in. I remember that….I’m scared of heights.
My heart starts to flutter a bit and my legs get a wobbly….and it’s time to go back down! If you have a profound experience of God at any point in your life, you can bet that God’s going to give you vertigo afterwards. It’s like Saint John of the Cross said….we can’t stay on the top of the mountain forever. We have to come down. But why? Why do we have to come back down? Why is it just these fleeting glimpses?
Saint Teresa of Avila, another great mystic of the Christian church gives us the answer. She says you can only tell the legitimacy of a mountain top experience by the fruit that it bears. Did you get that? You can only tell the legitimacy of a mountain top experience by the fruit that it bears. We know the reality of our experience of God by our response to it….by what it causes us to do.
Let’s go back to those examples. When Moses comes down from the mountain everything’s gone to hell and a hand basket. The Israelites have built a golden calf. The guy he left in charge was right there worshiping the idol. Moses. You’ve got a job to do. Get down from this mountain and get my people back in line. Use this Law that I gave you to bring the Israelites to the Promise Land. Elijah just wanted to sulk in that cave. But God shows him all these incredible things and then He says to him “Elijah, you’ve got a job to do.” Go anoint these new kings. Speak to my people. After Paul gets knocked from his horse and blinded, God tells Him to get up and go into the city to go to the House of Ananias. And shortly after that, God’s going to tell Him to spread His name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.
In the case of Peter, James, and John….they come down with Jesus to an absolute mess…calling to mind what happened to Moses. Some of the disciples were bitterly squabbling with some experts in the Jewish Law. Another group of disciples had badly botched healing a boy, and so Jesus ends up doing it Himself. Then Jesus puts His hands on His hips, shakes His head in frustration and says, “You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” And what He means is…it’s you that’s supposed to be doing this work. Jesus was trying to train the disciples and work Himself out of a job.
Here’s the deal. If you have an experience like this, it’s because God wants you to do something. He has something for you that only you can do. God gives us these moments where we experience His reality so that we can respond to Him in service. He’s going to convict you that He’s really there…and then He’s going to tell you to get down from the mountain and get to work. Christianity’s not meant to be a spectator sport. If we’re just sitting up in the bleachers eating popcorn, we’re not doing it right.
See the thing is, I think a lot of us want to respond like Peter when we have a mountain top experience. It scares the heck out of us….especially if God is telling us to get out of the stands and to do something. And so we want to build shrines. We want to put our experiences of God in a box...into something we can understand, something that makes us feel comfortable and safe. But that just isn’t how God works. We come down the mountain into the messes of the real world and real life. You have this deep experience with God….but your job still stinks, you’re still fighting with your spouse at home, you’re stressed out and there’s no break in sight.
But God wants you to bring that mountain top experience into the messes of your lives. He wants you to do something with it. He wants you to start praying for your nasty boss. He wants you to apologize to your wife or your husband. He wants you to bring the Kingdom into the ordinariness of life. We can tell people about our mountain top experiences till we’re blue in the face, but no one will believe it. No, we have to show them. We have to bring the mystical into the mundane.
You know, Thomas Merton thought that by leaving the worldly life, by becoming a monk and entering the monastery he was running to the mountain. He thought it was there that he would have these profound, life-altering encounters with God. But it didn’t happen. In quite a few of his journal entries you actually sense this deep spiritual restlessness. So you know where he finally had his mountain top experience? It was on a busy street corner in Louisville Kentucky.
On March 12, 1958 Thomas Merton was out running errands for the monastery when God brought him to the top of the mountain. He writes, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…” He’d gone to the monastery to escape from the world and God brought him to the top of the mountain to turn his heart back towards the world.
And so Thomas Merton responded to this experience with action…by heeding God’s call to love the world and all people. He became a powerful voice for peace during the Vietnam War, for civil rights and the interfaith movement. It’s my prayer that God will lead each and every one of you to the mountain top, if He hasn’t already. I pray that He’ll give you that perfectly clear line of sight above all the messes and all the noises in your lives…but then I pray that He’ll give you that overwhelming sense of vertigo…to bring you right back down the mountain…so that we can cause a metamorphosis….in the world around us. Amen.