There are feats and jaw-dropping acts that appear superhuman and unbelievable cases of pain endurance which seem to go beyond the most stoic human limits.
It could be slashing oneself with swords and knives, piercing the body with large hooks, walking barefooted on a long path of burning ambers and so on. These are all feats that I witnessed myself in Thailand. Invariably these feats can be achieved only after working oneself into a trance. Sports commentators witnessing heroic agonistic achievements speak of these singular athletes as having entered “the zone,” this mythical plateau in which the mind takes over the resources of a fine-tuned body and uses them in the most efficient way for maximum result.
On the Second Sunday of Lent, our readings reveal that Abraham entered into a trance (Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18) whereas, in the Gospel of Luke (9:28-36), Peter, James and John were enveloped by a cloud. Both are surreal environments lifting mere human beings up into the boundaries of the supernatural.
Even without speaking of a spiritual “zone,” or of trances, of superhuman efforts per se, the Catholic Church keeps a long and illustrious list of people who, aided by God’s grace, could perform what your average person could never do. Our Church is proud of her endless throng of martyrs who endured unspeakable torments aided by supernatural help. She is equally proud of her saints who, in every age, out of pure love for those in need have changed the world by daring what seemed humanly impossible and even bordering on insanity. All so awe-inspiring!
Yet, we should wonder if Jesus might not expect also run-of-the-mill people such as ourselves to experience a spiritual trance, to enter into the “zone” of the supernatural in order to change ourselves and our little corner of the world.
After all, Abraham was not exactly a saintly person. Just read in the book of Genesis about him and his readiness to lie and to compromise to save his skin. Similarly, serious defects and personality flaws burdened Peter, James and John. For example, Peter loved to brag about his loyalty to Jesus. James and John were so quick-tempered that Jesus nicknamed them boanerges, or “sons of thunder” and they too were so conceited that they aspired to be #2 and #3 in the Kingdom of Jesus.
I am inclined to believe that with these readings, the Church offers us the “way” to operate in a spiritual zone and enter into a supernatural trance, so to speak. I mean: there must be something, a moving gift, an inspiring image, a shocking event that would push us beyond our natural limits in loving and serving others.
This is what, during the Last Supper, Jesus ordered us to do and to do it in a supernatural way, past our fears, past our hesitations, past our objections, inspired by the way he loved us on the cross.
We must be consistent with our calling: what separates us from those who are not disciples of Christ Jesus? After all…
- We eat the same food as they do.
- We hold jobs similar or exactly like theirs.
- We get hired and fired just as they do.
- We drive the same makes of cars, on the same roads.
- We get sick and seek cures just as they do.
- We pay bills; we raise kids; we do all the things that your average person does.
What helps us get over the humps that life places on our path? What keeps us from despairing, from throwing in the towel, from following the scores of people who do not give a hoot about others?
However, if we think and act as they do, the world will not get any better. Actually it might deteriorate. I feel that, alas, this is painfully self-evident.
Far from despairing, today we are reminded that our faith calls us to rise above the rest and act in a heroic manner in order to change the world: Love your enemies, pray for those who mistreat you, turn the other cheek. Be as compassionate as your Father is heaven is compassionate.
It gets to be very serious, incredibly difficult at times; doesn’t it?
Abraham entered into a trance when he realized that he was about to commit himself to an open-ended covenant with God. He knew that if he broke that covenant he would have accepted to be split in half and consumed by fire just as those sacrificial animals had been.
Peter, James and John entered into the dark cloud when they realized that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were talking about his exodus from this world by way of a cross.
Terrified, apprehensive as we might become whenever facing life’s trials; and even more so if we plan on carrying out Jesus’ new commandment of loving each other as he loved us from the cross, we must dare to get closer to God, to enter into the cloud of His divine presence.
But how can we? What would place us in a trance or help us enter into the divine cloud?”
For many it could be Holy Communion, or a phrase that we repeat over and over like a mantra until our heart finds peace. “Into your hands I commend my spirit, o Lord” is my favorite.
Recalling a cherished phrase from the Gospel or from a letter of St. Paul (e.g. who will separate me from the love of God?) and then listing all the ugly and frightening things that we are experiencing at the time, is yet another.
But the one that might top them all might be the image of Jesus transfigured on mount Tabor. As the preface of this Holy Mass tells us, it was used by Christ to help his frightened disciples get over the scandal of the cross. This image combines the most horrific trials endured by Jesus and the splendor of all his glory after his resurrection. This image is the pattern of our life, such as it is, with its ups and downs and also of our future of assured glory in the Kingdom.
May we all profit from what is before our eyes, today.