Gospel reading for the Feast of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36)
For about 4 weeks I have been residing and taking part in a mini-sabbatical at St. Meinrad Archabbey and School of Theology in southern Indiana. The program I attended is called Stoking the Fire. As the web site describes the program, “For priests at midlife, Saint Meinrad’s Institute for Priests and Presbyterates has an integrated four-week sabbatical program to help you relax, recreate and recharge your spiritual life, update and expand your theological intellect, and renew your fire for pastoral ministry.” It accomplished this to a degree for me but the fire could still be hotter, too. You see, I enjoyed my time back at my seminary alma mater relaxing, recharging, praying often with the Benedictine monks whose community sponsors the seminary and School of Theology located here, and in general just being away from the responsibilities of the parish for a while. But, I find myself in an emotional place, today, the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is a day after the program ended and two days before I return home and I’m not feeling quite ready to return to my parish.
Don’t get me wrong. I have missed being with my parishioners who I love. I have been moved to deeper prayer by the chanting of the various liturgies of the monks. Yet some days I wanted to celebrate a more parish like liturgy. The sabbatical sessions were informative and lead me to some good insights about my priestly ministry, spiritual life and human experience. This lead me to understand a bit better my life situation and see where I need to go. But, like the Peter, James and John who experienced the transfiguration of Jesus upon the hill/mountain that today’s feast commemorates I’d like to erect my tent and stay here for a while more and not go back down into the villages and towns of the Diocese of Belleville and St. Mary, Trenton. Here’s what makes the analogy even more real for me. Saint Meinrad is built on a tall hill! I’ve been reflecting on the mature, fully realized vision of priest and pastor, enjoying the conversation with elders of the tradition akin to Moses and Elijah. It’s kind of nice to get away, to see what is possible in my life like the apostles were able to see what Jesus would become after his journey to Jerusalem was fulfilled. Who honestly wants to leave a comfortable, non-stressful place when he or she knows that some hard work, perhaps some difficult times and stressful days are going to happen very soon. It’s very natural to want to live in the world of the ideal now and always while avoiding the struggle of the journey that will eventually get us to the goal. We can’t avoid the cross! Sometimes death, sacrifice and conversion of heart must take place in our life’s journey. Jesus invites us to walk with him the journey of discipleship in good times and bad. Hill top visions are given to sustain us as we walk in the valley of death, the everyday stuff of parish pastoring.
The reason Jesus allowed some apostles to see his post-resurrection self before the crucifixion, in a narrative sense, was to give them the courage to face his crucifixion, to give meaning to what would seem to be meaningless death. The truth is the apostles didn’t get the full meaning of their hill-top experience until later after they had gone back to following Jesus in the “real world” of ministering to people’s needs eventually ending up in Jerusalem and getting unjustly murdered.
I know I will better understand what I have experienced for four weeks on the “holy hill” of St. Meinrad at some point in the future. The experience of sabbatical doesn’t end when I drive off the hill on Monday morning. It was given me to sustain me as I begin another chapter of my Gospel story doing the work of growing spiritually, humanly, intellectually and pastorally.
I’m grateful for my time on “The Hill.” Don’t hold it against me that I sometimes think about staying. The voice of the father said “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” and he’s saying it’s time to get back to the journey of being more a authentic human, disciple and priest in my parish. The fire has been stoked a bit. I’ve realized some things I’ll need to do to keep it warm and bright so that it may warm me when the day-to-day life of this pastor gets a little difficult until the next time I can visit on a hill with those who can help stir up the flame another time. Life is a continual series of hills and valleys. Eventually, those who persist in the journey will see themselves not having to leave but forever in the presence of the light who is the fire of desire in our heart, Love incarnate, Jesus the Lord.