Sometimes a person’s mind is stretched by a new idea and
never does go back to its old dimensions.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
After all, I don’t see why I am always asking for private, individual,
selfish miracles when every year there are miracles like white dogwood.
– Anne Morrow Lindberg
There is a scene in the Christian Scriptures that for me calls to mind the quote above from Oliver Wendell Holmes. The scene is commonly known as “The Transfiguration.” Jesus has invited three of the apostles, Peter, James and John, to a mountaintop. When they arrive, suddenly the three men see Jesus speaking with two long-dead, great leaders and prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah; certainly, a mind-stretching experience.
The three men had been following Jesus for some time and already had witnessed some remarkable things. But, to suddenly see the renowned figures of their tradition, Moses and Elijah, standing there conversing intently with this man Jesus, whom they had somewhat reluctantly begun to follow, no doubt had a profound effect on them. If the three had not been convinced before that this Jesus was a very special person, that moment on the mountaintop, and the memory of it, should certainly have been enough to convince them from then on.
How many of us have thought secretly in our hearts that if only we could have just one tiny, fleeting vision, witness one small miracle, how much stronger our faith would be? Instead, we are believers who have not seen, and at times that is so hard. If only things could be made a little clearer – if only they could be more real for us. Yes, just one tiny vision would be so helpful.
On the other hand, perhaps we did have our own miracle, or received our asked-for sign, and in the aftermath of that moment we got all excited. We rolled up our sleeves and thought, “Wow, now I am ready. Now, I really know what this is all about. I know to what I want to dedicate my life, and I am ready to work long and hard at it.” Then, not long afterward, we got all tangled up in the mess of daily life and began to doubt our miracle, ourselves, and our faith. We wondered, “How could this happen? Why can’t I always be strong?”
Instead, we doubt. Then, we feel guilty for doubting; and then, we get frustrated for doubting and feeling guilty. In the midst of it all, we wonder: “How could this happen? I was so sure. Why can’t I hold on to my vision, to what I know is true?”
Well, perhaps we must not feel so bad. Peter did not hold on to his vision either. We know only too well from the Lenten story of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion, that the same Peter who stood on the mountaintop and witnessed the glory of the Transfiguration would not long afterward deny he even knew Jesus.
I think about Peter and that Transfiguration scene and I think about what else Peter did that day. As soon as he saw that Moses and Elijah were about to leave, he quickly asked Jesus if he could build three tents for them.
Now, something tells me this was not because Peter wanted to make the visitors comfortable. I am sure it was because he wanted them to stay. Right in that moment, Peter knew he was in the midst of the best and most important moment of his life. For, in that moment, he had answers to all of his questions and doubts.
I think Peter thought about tents because he wanted to hold on to the experience and the new confidence it gave him. In that moment, he knew Jesus as never before, and all the things that had happened in his life since he had met Jesus made sense. Well, maybe not sense, exactly, but in the face of such a miracle it was hard to argue there was certainly something very different about this man they had begun to follow. Peter wanted, even needed, to hold on to that.
Peter reminds me, in a way, of the perennial vacationing family photographer, who spends the entire trip taking pictures of everyone else having fun because somebody told him to “capture the moment.” He has to wait until he has developed his film before he knows where he went. Kodak is making millions off of our wanting to “capture the moment.”
I remember a time when I was hiking in the desert in Arizona with a college friend and her family. As we walked a trail through foothills, looking around at rocks and cactus and the beautiful canyon, her grandfather, who was a wonderful man who had sold encyclopedias most of his life and knew everything, said, “You can’t be a mountain-gazer and a rock collector at the same time.” I wanted to argue with him, because I love both – rocks and majestic mountain tops. But, I also knew he was right. You cannot do both and be successful. You also cannot hold on to the moment and live it at the same time.
But, I can really identify with poor Peter. I am forever wishing things could stay the way they are. We all want to hold on to now sometimes, especially if it is beautiful and good.
I have come to know and love many people. I have wanted, sometimes desperately, to hold on to them, to keep them present in my life. I find it interesting that Jesus, in the story, would have none of that. Before Peter, James and John had time to do anything at all about tents, the vision was over. Then, the four of them walked together down from the mountaintop, and moved on.
They moved on to the Garden of Gethsemane, to Peter’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard, and Jesus’ violent crucifixion and death.
“Sometimes a person’s mind is stretched by a new idea and never does go back to its old dimensions.” That is how Holmes put it. In one word, though, it is “growth.” Peter grew, both from the Transfiguration and from his denial, and from everything that came before and after those experiences.
We cannot hold on. We must let go, we must grow. Here in the Midwest, we are experiencing the first signs of the new life that comes with every Spring. The blanket of snow that has covered the ground for weeks is slowly melting. Buds are fattening up on the branches of the barren trees. New life is coming. It would not have come without all the letting go that happened last Fall.
Perhaps instead of wanting a miracle, or a vision, what we need to pray for and cultivate is our own openness to trust in the process of Life. We need, as Anne Morrow Lindberg suggests, to see the every-day miracles all around us. We need to trust, and to be free and open to the next mind-stretching idea or event on the journey of our becoming.