It’s Transfiguration Sunday as I write this, and after reading the gospel, my pastor told a story about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. On a long train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she experienced a powerful moment in prayer—she received what she described as “a call within a call.” God’s presence was so powerful. Everything changed. She left teaching and went to serve the poorest of the poor. And yet, she never felt the presence of God so palpably again. In her journals, she wrote of that absence, her own “dark night of the soul” experience, as others have described it.
Why was my pastor talking about Mother Teresa today? In today’s gospel, Peter, James, and John witness the transfiguration of Jesus. It was such an incredible experience that Peter suggests he could set up tents, so they can stay in that moment. The final line of this reading begins, “As they were coming down from the mountain…”. They couldn’t stay in that experience. And we know that even though they had a literal “mountaintop experience” they still struggled, they still huddled in the Upper Room after Jesus’ death. As my pastor pointed out, sometimes life gets in the way of staying up on that mountaintop.
I’m thinking of all of this and remembering the moments in my life when I’ve felt God’s visceral presence…
- A high school retreat, Kairos, sitting on a cold marble floor around the altar, feeling like I was a little broken, but God loved me anyway.
- During the sacrament of reconciliation, in a moment when the priest asked a resistant me to just tell him what was on my heart, and in tears I began to share how angry I was with the Church, and I felt God’s mercy pour over me.
- The first year at our new parish, on Holy Thursday night, I watched people humble themselves in prayer in a candle-lit church.
- In the days leading up to the death of my brother-in-law, I witnessed what sacrificial love really looks like.
In these moments I felt alive and present to the Spirit, but we don’t always feel God’s presence. Sometimes life gets in the way. We forget who we’re supposed to be. We forget how we’re called to love. The moments when I have most experienced God’s presence have been moments when I was open, vulnerable, humbled, dependent upon God’s power, or witnessed almost other-worldly love of others and/or God.
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Last week a pastor friend, Monsignor Gregory Malovetz, shared his weekly reflection with his community. He started with a quote from St. Theresa of Avila: “If we learn to love the earth, we will find labyrinths, gardens, fountains and precious jewels. A whole new world will open itself to us. We will discover what it means to be truly alive.”
He then asked a simple question, “What if we saw Lent as a time to discover what it means to be truly alive. A whole new world might open itself to us. It might give new meaning to our prayers and practices of these 40 days… It could help us see the journey of Lent in a new way. It might bring clearer understanding to the life, death, and rising of Jesus.”
So… what if? What if Lent isn’t about fasting in order to deprive us, but instead to wake us up— to wake us up to the fact that we are called to be fully alive? What if Lent is meant to remind us to pay attention? To not just go through the motions, to not live so completely distracted, but to recognize God working in our lives? What if Lent is about living?
What practices can we engage in to live fully?
- Pay attention. To really pay attention, I may need to fast from things that distract me from living fully. My phone can be a distraction, social media too. Busy-ness, noisiness, not allowing myself quiet time—all of these lead to a lot of distraction.
- Wonder. Reawakening a sense of wonder can help us adopt a posture that is always open to God’s presence in our world. I might need to establish a practice of walking outside in an effort to reawaken wonder, or I might need to allow for more quiet space in my day.
- Be grateful. Wonder often leads us to gratitude. When we look for the good—the gifts, the grace–we find them. We build a life that propels us to “pray always,” as St. Paul taught us, when we give thanks and praise to our Creator.
- Pray. When I open myself up to God in prayer, I learn my own “God language.” I learn how and where I most feel God’s presence. In Scripture? In nature? In service to others? Through people who have shown me the face of God? Through art or beauty?
- Give and/or serve. Jesus calls us to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty. When we serve others, we open ourselves up to encounter Christ in the other.
- Desire. St. Ignatius said we must pay attention to that which we truly desire, that our truest desires reflect God’s desires in us and for us. What is it that makes us feel truly alive? Living the call God places in our hearts.
This Lent I’m going to see the journey of Lent in this new light. St. Irenaeus said: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Let’s give glory to God!
Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.