Ars Praedicandi: Feast of the Transfiguration, Ed Foley

In many ways the story of the transfiguration is a bit mystifying
being “transfigured” is ordinarily not part
of our daily discourse, or bucket list.
To try to demystify the term I turned to a favorite source,
the Oxford English Dictionary
which was actually less helpful
than its accompanying thesaurus
The thesaurus provided 10 synonyms for transfiguration
including: conversion, transformation, mutation, metamorphosis
and, my personal favorite, transmogrification:
welcome to the feast of transmogrification!

Besides the linguistic tickle that comes from just saying it
The term transmogrification also triggered chuckles,
since the only place I have encountered it before
is in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Calvin invented a transmogrifier – an upside down cardboard box
that allowed Calvin to turn Hobbes or himself
into quite an array of critters.

The only problem is that while Calvin & Hobbes
saw themselves completely transformed,
everybody else just saw him as the same kid & stuffed toy;
so much for transmogrification.

Most of us would probably be as frustrated as Calvin
if we went through our own transmogrifier
and people didn’t see the change.

If we spent all those hours at the gym
or in the library
or at the hairstylist
or at the computer

and our sweethearts or teachers
spouses or bosses
didn’t see us any svelter or any smarter
any more beautiful or any more productive …

Matthew, however, gives us a different image of holy transformation,
the firstborn of all creation
shining like the sun,
but not just on today’s mountain top
but in so many ways in throughout the gospels,

but often with a fate similar to Calvin
whose transformation was not seen, understood
or fully embraced.

Jesus’ divinity momentarily shone to shepherds and Magi
but was soon chased into exile by a Herod
who wanted no one to outshine him.
Jesus’ prophetic gift glimmered from his hometown pulpit
but his inspired word advocating freedom and justice
quickly triggered rage and rejection
in a community who believed they knew a better God.

And in today’s gospel he shines in the presence of Moses & Elijah
radiant as the new law giver, the new prophet
But drowsy Peter, on cue, misses the point … again!
And hopes for a tent city in the glow of this amazing warmth.

Maybe one of the ways to plumb the depths
of this transmogrifying gospel
is to attend to a central yet often overlooked character
in this mini-drama –
not Peter or Elijah or Moses,
instead the meteorologically elusive cloud & shadow.

it was from the cloud that the divine voice emanated,
obscuring visual cues and distracting appearances,
clearly proclaiming the heart of the matter
as God’s voice is usually wont to do.

Yet while the cloud was a source of intimate revelation,
it also cast a telling, prophetic shadow,
prefiguring the descent down the mountain
and the long journey towards Jerusalem,
where storm clouds gathered on the religious horizon
leading to that most grim of transfigurations,
Jesus on the jib of a tree in the place called Golgotha.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite poet and preacher.
In her book Home by Another Way,
 she writes about those shadowy and cloudy spaces.
She calls them “thin places”:

A couple of summers ago, my husband Ed and I went to Ireland. We both have roots there. It is that Celtic sense of place that is so appealing – of holy trees, holy wells, holy mountains – ‘thin places’ as the Irish call them – places where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through…

You can be walking down an ordinary country lane and all of a sudden see a footpath leading off to the left. Follow it for a couple of hundred feet and you come to a little mossy hole full of crystal clear water. It would be easy to mistake it for an ordinary little watering hole if it were not for the tidy bank of stones around it, set there hundreds of years ago by people who recognized a ‘thin place’ right there in the middle of a sheep pasture…. you can sometimes feel it for yourself – a freshness that drenches you as thoroughly as a shower…. Simply to stand near is to experience living water.[1]

Thin places abound, and not just in Ireland.
They are doors ready for opening … invitations to grace.

A while back I received a letter from a young relative
who has spent 20 years in prison for an accident she caused
when she was 19 years old … resulting in 3 deaths.

She has recently moved out of prison into a halfway house.
While her letter was filled with firsts
e.g., the first automatic towel dispenser
that completely startled her,
she also narrated a small but touching vignette.

On her first day going to work, she rode in a van
sitting closest to the door.
She wrote: “when the van stopped, I just sat there.
My coworker said, ‘You can open the door and get out.’
I didn’t know … the prison vans are always locked
and they have to let me out
but that day I opened the door
and from that point on I was free!”

Who ever imagined a van door as a thin space
and permission to open that door a graced veil pulling
an invitation into freedom?

Thin places can be venues of holy revelation
like a mountaintop in Palestine
or a van door in South Carolina.

Thin places, however, can also open in the opposite direction,
and be portals to violence, even the demonic
rending the thin line between respect and disrespect
between humanity and inhumanity
between life giving and death dealing.

It seems like forever that we have been pondering our southern border
as a “thin space” of grace and malpractice
where redemption is achieved, and dreams are dashed.

Then recently, there was the sentencing of Robert Bowers
who five years ago gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue,
an event that turned a house of Torah and teaching and prayer
into ground zero for the increasingly thinning space
between tolerance and bigotry.

And in the violation of that boundary
we witnessed not only the most heinous anti-Semitic attack in U.S. History
and the traumatization of a world religion,
but the grievous wounding of humanity
both in the killings
and then again in Bowers’ death sentence.

Instead of pulling back the veil on the beauty of the beloved
this curtain was drawn on the ugliness of racial and religious arrogance.

In 1997 Stephen Spielberg directed the movie Amistad.
              It was based on a true story of a slave ship in 1839.
When the Mende tribesmen who were being sold into slavery
rebelled and took control of their captor’s ship,
though they attempted to sail back to Africa,
instead they were captured in U.S. waters
and imprisoned as escaped slaves.

An epic legal battle ensued,
with at least four litigants claiming
that the slaves were their rightful property.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court,
where none other than former president John Quincy Adams
defends the Africans.

In a penultimate scene before the court case opens,
Adams tries to explain to the Mende leader, Cinque
how difficult this process is going to be.

John Quincy Adams: Cinque, look. I’m being honest with you. Anything less would be disrespectful. I’m telling you, I’m preparing you, I suppose I’m explaining to you, that the test ahead of us is an exceptionally difficult one.

Cinque: (speaking through a translator) We won’t be going in there alone.

John Quincy Adams: Alone? Indeed not. We have right at our side. We have righteousness at our side. We have Mr. Baldwin over there.

Cinque: (speaking through a translator) I meant my ancestors. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.[2]

On this Transfiguration Sunday
Christians summon the first born of all Creation,
the invincible son of justice – our life-giving ancestor
who birthed us as church
as he hung on the cross
and blood and water flowed from his side.

In the terrible beauty of that ultimate transfiguration
as the Only-Begotten literally hung
in that thin space between heaven and earth
we the baptized were missioned
to inhabit every thin space,
especially those where the vulnerable,
the lost,
the broken and the oppressed dwell,
whether in a synagogue in Pittsburgh
or on death row in Pennsylvania.

We are missioned to pull back the veil in such spaces,
denouncing the arrogance of bigotry,
and the violence of capital punishment,
acknowledging every human being
as created in God’s image.

In this season of transformation, we are missioned
to uphold the belovedness of every Muslim and Jew,
Hindu and Sikh, Buddhist and agnostic,
and so be the living presence of Christ in the world.

For in truth, in this place, at this moment,
Christianity itself can be imaged as a symbol
of why our divine Ancestor Jesus became human at all,
why the incarnation itself even occurred
and the pivotal way that transfiguring mystery
will continue to be recognized
if only we pull back the veil of belovedness.

Through Christ our Lord.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Lantham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 58-9.

for August 9: Memorial of Dr. Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Early feminist ● German Jewish philosopher ● Catholic intellectual ● Discalced Carmelite ● victim of the Shoah ● Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross ● “Virgin and Martyr.” These are just some of the descriptors that have shaped the remembrance of Edith Stein (1891-1942). Her memorial in the liturgical calendar falls on August 9, the presumed day on which in 1942 she was marched from the transport train into the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Ways of remembering Edith Stein after her death in Auschwitz are many, and the topography of her memory includes sensitive terrain. Yad Vashem, for example, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, commemorates Edith Stein as a Jewish woman murdered by the Nazis: “Edith Stein was born in Breslau, Germany in 1891. Prior to WWII she lived in Koeln, Germany. Edith was murdered in the Shoah.” The Catholic and Carmelite identity that Edith Stein took to Auschwitz with her is inconsequential here. That identity of course is what the official Roman Catholic veneration of Edith Stein foregrounds, namely the fact that she sought baptism in the Catholic Church in 1922, lived as a committed Catholic Christian for twenty years of her life, and was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 in her Carmelite habit. Moreover, her death in Auschwitz was not unrelated to her Catholic faith — although that claim has been contested. Regarding the veneration of Edith Stein as a “martyr,” I suggest that two facts must be held together in any consideration of her murder at Auschwitz. First and foremost is the fact that she was a victim of the Shoah because of her ethnic Jewishness (she had left the Jewish faith behind years before becoming Catholic). Second is the fact that she was rounded up for transportation to Auschwitz in 1942 precisely as a Catholic Jew, in direct retaliation by the Nazi Regime against the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public condemnation of the persecution of Jews. This condemnation had taken the form of an open letter, read in all Catholic churches on Sunday, July 26, 1942. The Nazi Regime responded swiftly by rounding up hundreds of Roman Catholics of Jewish descent living in the Netherlands. Most of these Catholic Jews were then transported to Auschwitz, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross among them. These two basic elements of Edith Stein’s forced journey to Auschwitz – her ethnic Jewishness, and the Dutch Catholic bishops’ public protest against the persecution of Jews, which was the direct cause of her arrest – need to be acknowledged together.

There are other parts of Edith Stein’s identity that should be held together with her ethnic Jewishness and her Catholic faith. I am here thinking especially of her scholarly passion. It is important to recognize that Edith Stein was one of the first women to aspire to a post-doctoral degree and to a career in academia in Germany, and that she did not leave behind that scholarly passion when she entered the Carmel in Cologne in 1933. Sr. Teresia Benedicta a Cruce (a name she chose for herself, with that particular spelling) embraced Carmelite religious life with all her scholarly skills in hand, and her Carmelite superiors knew to appreciate those skills. Against Carmelite conventions at the time, her Provincial explicitly permitted ongoing scholarly work for Sr. Teresa Benedicta, which she clearly delighted in as her letters from Carmel show. Her last book, a study of St. John of the Cross, was all but complete when she went to Auschwitz.

That it is possible to venerate Edith Stein on August 9 with her fierce intellect is shown by the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It remembers her as “Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Philosopher, Monastic, and Martyr 1942.” That alone is a vast improvement over the conventional titles of “virgin and martyr” in the Roman Catholic calendar. The Collect for her memorial in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer reads as follows:

Pour out your grace upon thy church, O God; that, like your servant Edith            Stein, we may always seek what is true, defend what is right, reprove                what is evil, and forgive those who sin against us, even as your Son                    commanded; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you            and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and for ever.

This way of remembering and honoring Edith Stein – as a philosopher, monastic, and martyr – offers a vision of a future in which women scholars who also live holy lives are not shorn of their scholarly passion when the church officially recognizes their sanctity.

Dr. Edith Stein in 1925

The Garden of the Soul

The American Roman Catholic world of the 18th century frequently found lay folk lacking in sacramental ministers.  With this challenge to maintaining their faith through regular public worship and Mass attendance, lay faithful found ways to continue their faith through the use of home-based prayers and family (or small community) devotions.

As print material became more affordable and easily accessible, the ubiquitous volume for English-speaking Catholics was Richard Challoner’s The Garden of the Soul.  Through its many editions, this volume described its principal feature as its “completeness as a manual of devotion; for it blends solid instruction with prayer; and provides the Catholic with all that is requisite to sanctify every day, and in more special manner the Sunday, whether by public, or domestic, or personal acts of worship” (Richard Challoner, The Garden of the Soul (London: [publisher not identified], 1775), 8).

I’ve run into this volume numerous times (as readers of American Catholicism and liturgy are wont to do).  But I’ve never batted an eye at the “Garden of the Soul” theme.  It sounded pleasant—a place where one might want to walk with God and not hide away.  Or, perhaps it evoked the notion of tending and caring for something that could grow.

Today’s Gospel gives us another take on gardening the soul.  Seed falls on good ground.  Seed falls on rocky soil.  Seed falls among weeds.  Seed is scattered and sometimes it bears fruit and other times it doesn’t.

Good News Flash: All this soil is in the same garden.

I am the rocky soil.  I am full of weeds.  I bear fruit (sometimes) and other times I do not.  I am the good ground.  All at the same time.

Terry Smith:
Image from Garden Tool Box

We Westerners who like to be specific and linear have trouble with drawing analogies to something whole; we are either red or green, black or white, White Sox or Cubs.  But, the Gospel continually confronts us with the words of Jesus which defy divisions.  He knows his faith-filled disciples: the same ones who will walk on water and proclaim that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world,” will fall asleep in his greatest hour of need, and complain about mundane little nothings instead of simply listening to Jesus.

We are all these things at once—the good, the stunted, the griefs, the anxieties, the joys and the hopes.  But, the good news is that Jesus comes to save not just part of us—but all of us.

He’s here for the whole garden.

There is hope for us, not only in our public and liturgical worship, but in our families, our friends, our small communities, and our spouses.  We can practice caring for these messy gardens together.  We can practice hearing and doing God’s word.  Whether we have ready access to sacramental ministers in the 21st century or not, we can feed our souls through the source and font of our faith in the Eucharistic celebration of the Mass, and in daily prayer both by ourselves, or where two or three might be gathered.

If, as Jesus says in our parable today, the seed is the word of God—the more we might tend to hearing it and filling our lives with God’s word, the more we might create good ground and, with hope, a fruitful harvest not only for ourselves but for the whole world.

So let us pray—at home, in our hearts, and in our liturgy.  Those with ears ought to hear.

Worship and Wildfires

A recent news headline caught my attention: “Californian winemakers are learning firefighting techniques.”  Of course, humans have long been familiar with the injury, death, and destruction that fires can cause.  What struck me about this headline is the direct connection between wildfires and the wine that is used in Christian liturgy.  In regions of California, at least, wine country no longer merely abuts wildfire country but *is* wildfire country.  I have no evidence to suggest that the world is going to run out of wine any time soon.  Still, I wonder about how the ways in which our liturgies, which sacramentalize wine into the Blood of Jesus Christ, contribute to the circumstances which make wine country into fire country.

For example, do we heat / cool our worship spaces to an excessive degree, all the while drawing on fossil fuels?  Can we convert some spaces in our parking lots into EV charging stations, which can be used when the worship space is not engaged?  For at least some parishes, is it feasible to install solar panels to mitigate reliance on fossil fuels?  Can we use wine with integrity in our Eucharistic liturgies if we do not at least begin to consider questions such as these?  What other “questions such as these” should we be raising?

The risk is not simply to the grapevines themselves.  When our ways of celebrating liturgies and running our parishes contribute in however small a way to global warming, we also place the lives of others (e.g., firefighters) at hazard.  The “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” we raise to God in our liturgies should involve the work of vintners who tend the vines, those who harvest and process the grapes, those who oversee the fermentation, those who ship it.  As a general rule, it should not have to involve the work of emergency crews battling fires burning thousands of acres.  Can we worship with integrity if our parish affairs and personal decisions simply take for granted the risks those affairs and decisions impose on others?

The news item from California sacramentalizes the wider field in which liturgical practices are inevitably and inexorably situated, namely, the entire ecosphere.  Regarding liturgy and the ecosphere as two mutually exclusive domains is an error which we must always challenge, first of all in ourselves.