As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning.
Some years ago, a very discontented young woman used to come regularly to our meditation centre in London. She looked resolutely on the dark side of life, habitually focusing on everything she lacked rather than on the positive side. She was hyper-sensitive, reactive and everyone trod very carefully with her. One day she told us – as if it was proof of her long-held conviction that the universe was determined to get her – that she had been diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal cancer. Over the next few months she continued to come to the centre and meditate with us and some members of our community in particular showed her great kindness and patience. Her bitterness in life increased but at least she didn’t wholly reject the patience and compassion she was shown. We helped her find a place to end her days. When she was taken into hospice care we used to visit her.
One Sunday after our community mass I took her communion in hospital. She looked terrible and her pinched expression held a lot of anger. When I said I had brought communion she grimaced unpleasantly and said ‘well that won’t do me much good will it? No thanks.’ But she said she would like me to sit with her a while. We chatted a little as she complained how some celebrity of the moment who had a notorious life style was revealing in fame and success. She, by contrast, had been ‘good’ all her life, obeyed the commandments and ended up like this alone and dying young. I listened. She then took out a notebook, looked at me and asked if I would like to read her poems. I dishonestly said yes and looked in the book but couldn’t read her handwriting so I asked her if she would read them to me.
She began to read a poem called ‘whale-song’ describing the songs that whales sing to each other across vast distances deep in the oceans. It was true and deeply moving, rendering her intense lonely suffering into words of beauty. She sang herself beyond herself. She shot me a quick look to see how I was reacting and saw I was moved. In that instant she too, like Jesus on the mountain in today’s gospel, was physically transfigured. Her thin emaciated face radiated beauty and a kind of glory. Her eyes shone joyously with a vision of a reality beyond the veil of flesh and its attendant woes. It was brief but timeless. She had had her communion after all. Soon her normal expression descended again, though more thinly now. She died a few days later.
Pure prayer flows in the human heart deeper than words and thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it breaks the surface and the body itself thrills and is physically changed. This season’s spiritual practices remind us that the body is an instrument and a sacrament. It doesn’t play this music every day. But you never know.