The mystery of the Lord’s transfiguration gives us the essential elements of growth in the spiritual life.
First, it gives us a standard for judging spiritual experiences. It is commonplace among writers on the spiritual life, whether ancient, medieval, or modern, that authentic apparitions and extraordinary experiences are accompanied with feelings of dread or fright, even though they generally end with some kind of peace and consolation. False or illusory visions and the like, however, are filled with sweet feelings and a peaceful security but end up with confusion and dissipation. In this contrast we can the difference between God’s dealings with the soul and the plottings of the Evil One.
The predominant note in the experience of St. Peter and the other two apostles is one of fear, a fear shown by their own wonder and confusion. This wonder is a very simple form of fear, which simply means that they did not understand the source or the meaning of what was happening to them.
But then God himself intensifies this experience with a mysterious darkness, a kind of trial. Only then do they hear the voice of the Father and find Jesus alone; also they find the wisdom to remain in silence, savoring what had happened to them. This is the authentic experience of heavenly things.
On the other hand, the spiritually immature behave in their experiences as Peter does in the beginning, talking and asking for things of which he does not know the meaning, trying to lay hold of spiritual realities. And as the evangelist says, “He did not know what he was saying.” This is a trait of inauthentic spirituality: it moves according to the measure of our feelings and desires and tends to an attitude of exaltation and excitement, and ultimately in disappointment and sadness.
In the Church and in our own individual spiritual lives we can experience both solid and authentic spirits and unsound and illusory ones. But this movement from a wholesome wonder and fear to quiet contemplation of the mystery provides us with a measure of our experience.
There is a very simple threefold aspect to authentic spirituality that explains why there is this movement from fear to peace.
Union with God by charity is the essence and the perfection of our spiritual life. Knowledge of God is needed for us to know whom we are to love. Purification is needed in order for the obstacles to the knowledge and love of God to be removed.
In our experience, however, the process of growth in the spiritual life generally moves from purification to the enlightenment of knowledge to union in love beyond knowledge. All three things are going on in our soul at any stage of our life of grace—from infancy after baptism until our final purification in purgatory where we contemplate God in hope with our mind and love him utterly with the longing of the soul made for God.
The apostles, obviously too imperfect to take in what is going on around them, are purified by the frightening experience of entering into the Cloud: but it is in this darkness that they are enlightened by the voice of the Father proclaiming his love for his and so respond in contemplative and reverent silence, no longer chattering.
Clearly, though, the Lord was not finished with his threefold work in them. He had to bring them through the Agony and Passion to the Resurrection, wherein they will be further tested and purified. And so we see the same three, not as witnesses of transfigured glory but of the Lord’s bloody sweat and terrifying suffering.
But this all leads to the union in love, which is the gift to the Lord to even the most imperfect of his friends. We will see the Lord draw from Peter in the company again of James and John by the Sea of Galilee his threefold profession of love.
Let us examine our spiritual life by these standards, looking at our inner life in terms of our need for purification, seeking the knowledge of God’s truth, and union by an increasing ardor of love. We can teach this simple doctrine of the spiritual life, deeply rooted in our tradition, to our children so they can learn what God is doing in their souls to bring us into union with him. This is the true essence of our Christian life.