Intending to speak only for myself, but I might also be speaking for others, I can say that I rarely give spiritual experiences the due they are owed. I rarely pay attention to them in the ways I should. It’s much easier for me to go up into my head and find the correct theology or repeat the words of a saint or a theologian rather than exploring where God might be leading me through the experiences of my own life. Just to make that point, I’m going to quote someone who said, “Without experience the mind is a mill grinding without grain.” I believe, and I have no way of proving it, that we all have many more mystical experiences of God’s presence breaking into our often boring, mundane, humdrum lives than we realize. Jesus never taught a university course in theology. Instead, he was all about giving people experiences of God’s love, mercy, compassion, and—I dare say—experiences of heaven itself coming to earth. I can just picture Jesus pouring grains of wheat into the palm of someone’s hand and saying, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who went out to sow seeds…”
I think that is the most important thing people are seeking when they come to church—an experience of God. And if that experience doesn’t happen, they go elsewhere, because they realize there was no grain in the mill. Occasionally, when we do have our ears open to the truth, and our eyes open to the light, an experience will stick with us and form us for the rest of our lives without us fully understanding what it was all about. I think the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor was a life-altering experience for Peter, James and John. They never fully understood it, but they also never forgot it. I suspect, for those of you who became parents, especially for the first time, holding that newborn was an experience you did not fully understand but also an experience you never forgot. You were beholding God’s glory.
Without going into details, I remember the days following May 29, 2010 as a kind of Transfiguration moment for me. After burying three teenagers, on three consecutive days, who died tragically in a car accident, I headed to Maine to be by myself in order to pray, think, and process that experience. On the way, I stopped in Petitcodiac to find the tree they crashed into in order to offer a prayer. Try as I may, I couldn’t find that darn tree, until three teenagers appeared, out of nowhere, and pointed me in the right direction. They disappeared without a trace. Only hours later, well into Maine, did the crazy notion that I had been visited by three teenagers from another world, occur to me. The next morning, I went for breakfast at Deny’s Restaurant in South Portland, Maine, and upon entering the restaurant, every person, employee and patron in that restaurant, stopped in mid conversation, and stopped what they were doing. As if out of the Twilight Zone there was dead silence; everyone looked at me with compassion. It was as if they were all saying to me, without saying a word because they were all strangers, “We know. We know about the teenagers. We know about the car accident. We know about the three funerals, and we know about you. Those teenagers are fine, and you will be fine, too.” As if on cue, the restaurant went back to sounding like a restaurant. It’s twelve years later, and I still don’t know what to make of those two experiences—the appearance and disappearance of the teenagers on an abandoned road in Petitcodiac and the restaurant that suddenly went dead silent. All I can say is, that in the middle of this tragedy, I never experience such a powerful alignment of heaven and earth. As they say, “the stars were aligned” or “the universe itself was conspiring and everything within me, even the tragic, made perfect sense.” I, for a brief moment, was on Mount Tabor. The veil to my mundane, boring, humdrum life parted for the briefest of moments. Maybe for Peter, James and John, the Transfiguration of Jesus was the brief, yet wonderful, alignment of the entire cosmos, and then it was over. While the experience on Mount Tabor was fleeting, it was also real and powerful and something they never forgot.
The most famous monk to live in modern times was a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton. Thomas died tragically in 1968 in Thailand. He was a Trappist monk belonging to the same religious order of Trappists we have here in our diocese in Rogersville. He wrote extensively and experienced and appreciated the wisdom and spirituality of the Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. The more he experienced other religions, the deeper he grew in his love for Christ. One day, in his 18 years of being a monk, Thomas Merton went into Louisville, Kentucky, not far from the monastery, to pick up provisions for the monks. For no apparent reason, Thomas stopped dead in his tracks on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in this busy shopping district of Louisville. He had an experience of God, a Transfiguration experience we might say. He says of that experience, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” He finishes by saying, “There are no strangers. The gate of heaven is everywhere.”Thomas Merton realized, in a flash you might say, that there was no division between the sacred world and the secular world. There was no division between the monastery and the busy shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky. The gate of heaven is everywhere. You don’t have to go to Mount Tabor.
But if you go to Louisville, Kentucky and stand on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, you will find an unusual bronze plaque. It does not commemorate a battle, a political figure, or some natural or historical event. It marks the mystical experience of Thomas Merton, the monk, who was getting groceries on March 18, 1958. I don’t know of anything else quite like it. Where else in the world, and especially in America, can you find a tourist plaque marking a mystical experience?
While Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were transformed inwardly. While Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, Thomas Merton was transformed inwardly on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in Louisville. While Jesus was transfigured, Phil Mulligan was transformed inwardly in a Deny’s Restaurant in South Portland, Maine.
Are these privileged moments given to only a select few? Not at all. The gate of heaven is everywhere. As they came down the mountain, after what I believe was a glimpse of heaven itself, Peter, James and John forever knew the gate of heaven was everywhere. It’s in the valley where people are struggling. It’s in the people who have never had a mountaintop experience at all. It’s in the refugees fleeing the Ukraine. It’s in the couple struggling with trust and intimacy. It’s in the family whose members don’t talk to each other because of past hurts. It’s in the child bullied at school and the one suffering from low self-esteem and depression.
Why do we need to pay attention to spiritual experiences, to mountaintop experiences? Because they sustain us for the rest of our lives. We are sustained in every valley experience, in every struggle, by the memory of what we experienced during that brief encounter on the mountaintop. That good memory will sustain us in the bad times. St. Paul says it best in that second reading: Jesus will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.
Fr. Phil Mulligan