St Paul’s, Pekin–Luke 9:28–36, Exodus 34:29–33
I was not raised an Episcopalian, but my family was very active in a congregation of a different brand name, and, during my high school years, I was deeply involved in youth group activities. The youth group would periodically go on retreat. It wasn’t the quiet and contemplative sort of retreat that you may think of when you hear that word. There were games and skits and other “loud” activities. But there were also talks, given by outside speakers. These were serious and challenging talks, talks that encouraged us to develop a vital Christian faith—and in my case, I would say, that particular configuration of youth ministry worked; it was in high school that my Christian faith became alive and active.
I remember one of these retreat speakers in particular. He focused on something he called—and I apologize, because this will sound really, really corny—he focused on developing an awareness of our “spiritual batting average.” Don’t ask me the specific metrics he offered for computing one’s spiritual batting average; I don’t remember them, though I suspect I have them written down somewhere in a mass of papers in a box somewhere in my basement. But the details aren’t important; it’s the concept that I think is worth examining. Taking one’s spiritual inventory from time to time—in classic terms, self-examination—this is a good thing. It can be something as simple as a quick mental review and assessment of your day before you lay your head on a pillow at night, or it can be a more formal process of self-inventory, and can include regular spiritual direction and sacramental confession. The ultimate underlying question in all of this is quite simple (though, I would hasten to add, not easy), and it’s this: Am I more like Jesus now than I was then (whether “then” is earlier today, last night, or ten years ago)?
This virtual feast of the Transfiguration—the actual feast of the Transfiguration is in August, of course, but the Last Sunday after Epiphany functions as a sort of surrogate—today is the hinge, the pivot point, between the post-Epiphany season and Lent. A great deal can be said about it, but I want to focus on one of the details that might be considered incidental, perhaps even “throwaway.” “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray,” Luke tells us. The transfiguration took place in the context of prayer. Prayer was itself the reason Jesus took Peter and John and James up the mountain in the first place. I want to focus on this because I think it provides a tremendously helpful clue for the process of our own spiritual self-assessment; if you will, our “Spiritual Batting Average.”
In the context of prayer, Jesus is transfigured. His glory is revealed. His purpose—which Luke describes as his exodos at Jerusalem—his purpose is affirmed. The three disciples—the inner core of the inner core of the Twelve—Peter and James and John are presented to us as negative examples. It’s like the memes we see on Facebook from time to time that show an image of a person, perhaps in the act of doing something silly or stupid or offensive, and the caption says, “This is Bill (and I apologize if anyone here is named Bill!) … Bill is Whatever … Don’t be like Bill.” The three disciples who were with Jesus on the mountain fell asleep. They were on the mountain to pray. Part of praying is attentiveness, listening, vigiling, keeping watch—as in the expression “watch and pray.” Falling asleep—and we cannot help but see this as a premonition of the same three disciples falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus is in agony—falling asleep is the opposite of praying. Luke is posting a Facebook meme that says: “This is Peter, James, and John. Peter, James, and John are asleep when they’re supposed to be praying. Don’t be like Peter, James, and John.”
Nonetheless, even while they were sawing logs, catching Z’s, a slumber from which they were eventually roused, the experience of Jesus’ transfiguration changed the three disciples. They woke up in time to see Jesus in his transfigured state. They were given a foretaste of the glory of the resurrection. It left an indelible impression on them, which we know because Peter mentions it decades later in his second epistle, on the eve of his martyrdom.
And here’s the takeaway: Prayer transfigures the faithful disciple. It is in the context of prayer, as we grow daily in the life of prayer, that we ourselves are transfigured, made to resemble Jesus, improve our Spiritual Batting Average! When we allow ourselves to be drawn into God’s presence, when we are attentive to that presence, when we rest in that presence, we will be changed. We will ourselves be transfigured. There will be noticeable effects. We read in the Book of Exodus how Moses spent what we might call “quality time” with God on Mt Sinai, and when he came down the mountain from that encounter, he had to veil his face, because it glowed so brightly that it was dangerous for people to look at him. The little bit of residual divine glory that he carried with him was enough to blind people.
Now, let me break this open briefly in what I hope is a very practical way. I would of course be tone-deaf about preaching in a parish pastored by Fr Matthew Dallman if I did not at least tip my mitre to the notion of the threefold regula of Sunday Mass, Daily Office, and private prayer. I want to especially emphasize private prayer at the moment, but not without a reminder that the Mass and the Office are the essential supportive foundation and framework for private prayer. You can’t just start laying sheetrock and painting the walls until your house has a foundation and a frame. But let’s assume you’ve got that. You can now start hanging artwork and arranging furniture. That’s private prayer. The Mass and the Office are kind of set, fixed, given. Private prayer is where you get to be you. It’s where you can take risks, push boundaries, try different things, discover what most effectively puts you in the presence of God and enables some of the glory of the transfiguration to rub off on you. The Mass, the Office, and private prayer—this is where your Spiritual Batting Average is. I can’t give you a precise formula to calculate it, but if you’re concentrating on these three practices, you’re going to be leading the league.
I’ll close with just a brief bit of personal testimony. When I walked 500 miles across northern Spain in 2016, the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela, during the parts of the way that didn’t require very much focus and concentration, I had a lot of time of time on my hands. So I started praying, and then praying some more as I walked. I did a lot of praying, most of it intercessory, prayer for specific other people. I had a regular list, a list that grew as a result of Facebook exchanges along the way. I began to envision my backpack as a symbol of those for whom I was praying, those whom I was, in effect, “carrying” along with me in my prayers. One of those whom I held in prayer had a very holy death soon after I returned. Another one had a spectacularly successful outcome from back surgery. I grew close to all of them in my heart as a result of praying for them regularly. And this habit of sometimes intense intercessory prayer continues to be a vital element in my spiritual practice. Lately I have begun to pray for those who have wounded me in my life, those whom I know have wished me harm, whether they are alive or departed this life. And I have experienced my heart begin to melt in forgiveness toward some people who have hurt me deeply, and for whom I have harbored intense resentment and anger. It is, I believe, making me more like Jesus—not enough yet, obviously!—but day by day more like Jesus. It has raised my Spiritual Batting Average as surely as anything I have ever done.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.