Today is the glorious feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Today is the feast of deification. Today the Church reminds us that our goal is to become saints in this life. Today Christ takes His disciples up Mount Tabor with Him and gives them a preview of the glory He has in store for us in the next life. God’s grace, His uncreated energy, His uncreated light, pours forth from His human body, a light so brilliant that His face shines like the sun and even His clothing is illuminated. Last night at the vigil we heard these words, “He was transfigured before them, revealing the majesty of His original beauty, though not completely…lest they in anywise cease to live because of what they saw”. While the disciples were dazed from the vision they did see, they were not able to bear what God will finally reveal in us in the age to come. What God is by nature, man can become by grace. Christ had earlier declared that in the age to come, “The righteous [will] shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43). Today we get a glimpse of what that will look like. When thinking about the exalted theology the Church gives us today in the hymns and writings of the feast, it can be awe-inspiring and move us to zeal. We are reminded of our goal and of our true life. But in the meantime, we are still stuck in the same old sins and our same passions. So how can we reach our goal if we don’t know the way? How do we get from where we are now to Mount Tabor?
Christ Himself shows us the way to Tabor—crucifixion and death. Christ’s saving passion is interwoven in the events that take place on the mountain. When Christ appears speaking with Moses and Elias, St. Luke recounts that they were specifically discussing His decease He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. And in today’s hearing, on their way down from the mountain, Christ tells His disciples to keep silent about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. The ineffable glory that Christ shows us in His transfiguration only comes to us through the cross. And the primary crucifixion that must take place in us is the crucifixion of our understanding—our carnal way of looking at the world, ourselves, and the spiritual life according to but seems logical to us, but is in fact warped and clouded by our passions.
St. Paul tells us in Romans, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2). The word for transformed is actually the Greek that is used for today’s feast—transfigured. The Fathers teach us that the transfiguration of our minds comes to us when we crucify our minds, when we reject our carnal mindset by accepting the mindset of Christ as the Church presents it to us, especially through our spiritual fathers in the counsel they give us. This is how we find the path; this is how we find God’s will for our life. It is one thing to crucify our will and do what we are asked even if we don’t want to, but it’s quite another (and exponentially harder) to crucify our understanding and accept with trust what our spiritual fathers tell us, especially when it doesn’t accord with our reasoning. As modern Americans, we are used to justifying ourselves and imagining that our reasoning is sound. But we fail to understand that when we reject or ignore the counsel of our fathers, we are blocking God’s grace from coming to us and changing us.
I can think of fewer starker examples on how important it is to trust our spiritual fathers and accept the advice they give us then in the lives of two of St. Silouan’s disciples. Most people are familiar with St. Silouan’s biographer and disciple, St. Sophrony, but fewer are aware of his other disciple-David Balfour. David was an extraordinary man. He was born a few years later than St. Sophrony in England. He was incredibly intelligent and had a zeal for truth and a burning desire for God. He was raised Catholic and left England and joined a monastery in Belgium. He learned Russian and visited Mt. Athos where he was captivated by the holiness of the first person he met there, St. Silouan. Through correspondence with him in letters to St. Sophrony, David eventually converted to Orthodoxy and was tonsured a monk with St. Silouan as his spiritual father. He made an immense sacrifice for God—he left his faith, he left his life in an established monastery and his adopted homeland and essentially became homeless in Eastern Europe in the 1930s—a difficult time even for people in stable living situations. David sacrificed more in becoming Orthodox than what most of us had to do. In his letters to St. Sophrony, you can read how crushed he was as he started his new life. Yet for all of his desire for God and for all of his sacrifice, he did not learn to crucify his mind.
In his letters asking for St. Silouan’s advice, David had difficulty in simply trusting his elder. He would write back and forth, inquiring if God told St. Silouan what to say in response to his question or if the answer was just St. Silouan’s opinion and therefore David could disregard it. He could not let go of his reasoning and passed everything St. Silouan told him through the sieve of his understanding. This ultimately led to his downfall. At one point, he asked St. Silouan whether he should go to seminary in Paris with the Russians or in Athens with the Greeks. The elder prayed about it and told him to go to Paris. But again, David couldn’t accept this. He believed the elder was just biased toward Russians and didn’t like the Greeks, but David wanted to go to Athens. So, he followed his own reasoning and did want he wanted.
From a secular mindset, one could ask “What difference does it make, it’s all seminary, right?” But in the spiritual life, God’s will is not revealed to us through our thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, is how most Christians believe they are supposed to find His will. We find it offensive that we have to ask someone else, but that is what actually engenders humility in us and opens us up to God’s grace.
So David cut himself off from St. Silouan and went to Athens and became an archimandrite. Soon after, Saint Silouan fell asleep in the Lord and David became lost without a guide. During WWII, he was stationed in Egypt, but he became scandalized by the behavior of his fellow clergy. Deprived of the grace that comes from obedience, this trial was too much for him. He abandoned the priesthood, monasticism, and totally fell away from God. See how far one can fall when he doesn’t cling to his father’s counsel and relies on his own reasoning!
St. Sophrony lived very much a parallel life to David. He was also a talented intellectual, and desired God most of all. He, too, moved about Europe and sacrificed everything for the one thing needful. However, in contrast to David, St. Sophrony crucified his understanding and accepted his elder’s counsel. St. Sophrony was already a spiritual giant when he met St. Silouan, but that did not prevent him from constantly humbling himself before him and seeking his advice, because crucifying the mind does not mean just acquiring information and intellectually assenting to facts given by one’s spiritual father. It is an orientation of trust—childlike, simple trust that we don’t know ourselves as we should and that we don’t know what’s best for us. But also that God will help us concretely through his Church and through his servants, even if they are not clairvoyant elders, even if they are not holy. It was this mindset, the mindset of the Church, that allowed St. Sophrony to be transfigured “from glory to glory”.
In God’s providence over all things, decades later St. Sophrony moved to England with his monastery in Essex, and David was reconciled to the Church and resumed his relationship with his spiritual brother. In coming to his senses, David realized that it was his disobedience to St. Silouan that caused his downfall. While he ended his life in the Church, what a tragic life he led! Orthodoxy, and the English-speaking world in particular, lost a saint.
It is important for us to be sobered by the fact that it does not matter how much we love God and how much we had to sacrifice to become Orthodox or to join this monastery if we do not trust our fathers whom God has given to guide us. If we do not struggle to crucify our minds, and instead trust our reasonings, our ways of seeing ourselves, our remedies for our problems, we will not be protected from the possibility of completing abandoning our vows and falling away from God in a time of trial.
It is not my intention of painting such a dark cloud over such a bright feast of the Lord. Rather, to show that it is actually possible for us to be saved and to become saints in this life if we simply follow what our fathers tell us. This is what it means to be transfigured by the renewal of our minds, and this is really the difference between Saint Sophrony and his fallen brother, David. The heart of obedience is loving trust—do we trust that the Church, which has taken hundreds of thousands of people in all (really ALL) circumstances of life and not merely saved them but deified them throughout her existence in the last two millennia, that this same Church is able also to deify us, and the way she does it is through our humble obedience to the shepherds she gives us.
We may not see the light of Tabor in this life, but if we struggle to be obedient and follow after our fathers in the faith, God will send light to our souls so that at least we can see the road we are on and we will not stumble, or if we do, we will not be lost, but will easily get back on the path to Christ and to His Kingdom. Amen.