Transfiguration: Attachment, Fear, and Liberating Love

by Jen Owens

I remember sitting in the office of my spiritual director Fernando one morning near the end of my sophomore year of college, bemoaning the fact that one of my dear friends was about to graduate in just a few short weeks.  If any of you have been to Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles before, you know that the university sits on a hill overlooking the Santa Monica Bay, a hill we affectionately called “the bluff.”  I remember saying to Fernando then, “Why can’t we stay on the bluff forever?  This is such an amazing time in our lives, when everything seems new and anything is possible.  Why do we have to leave this place?” I’m sure that Fernando had wise words about the practicality of moving on, about growing up, about the adventures we would take part in—together and apart—for the rest of our adult lives.  But I don’t remember any of that.  I just remember that he was present to me in my reflection on an inspiring experience that provoked my fear of the unknown.

Because of that conversation with Fernando, I could relate to the disciples in the Gospel for today.  They had had an incredible encounter with Jesus and with two heroes of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah.  It was so incredible that they didn’t want to let it go.  It was so good that they were ready to stay up on that mountain with the transfigured Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, with the tents that they intended to build for them.  So pragmatic of the disciples, isn’t it?  They had a plan.  They had it all sorted out.  All they needed was for Jesus to give their plan his proverbial blessing.  But God interrupts what I would imagine seemed like a vitally important conversation to Peter, James, and John.  God interrupts the plan to remind us of who this transfigured Jesus is, saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  And how do the disciples respond to this unfamiliar experience?   The Gospel tells us that they fell to the ground, trembling in fear.  Jesus, in his humility, in his gentleness, in his solidarity with us in our humanity, demonstrates love, touching each of the three disciples and inviting them to stand up and let go of their fear.

In today’s Gospel, I see three movements: the disciples’ movement to what Ignatius of Loyola would later call “inordinate attachment,” their movement from inordinate attachment to fear, and Jesus’ movement to release them from what binds them, to free them from that attachment and that fear.  The disciples have a collective vision, and they want to hold on to it with all they have.  God intervenes, and they are afraid of what that will mean for their plan.  Jesus frees them from what binds them with the gentleness of welcomed physical touch.

The first movement, inordinate attachment.  Sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuit order Ignatius of Loyola wrote about what he called “inordinate attachment,” or investing too much in particular things, relationships, or experiences so that they become obstacles to our relationships with God.  This kind of attachment prevents us from being available to the fullness of life that God promises us.  To what are we inordinately attached?  It’s different things for different people.  Some of us have this kind of attachment to material things—to money, clothes, cars; to food, substances like drugs and alcohol.  Others of us have this kind of attachment to persons—to particular relationships in our lives that we might feel we depend on, to relationships that we might try to control or manipulate in some way.  Still others of us have this kind of attachment to spiritual experiences.  We can’t honor our responsibilities to our families, to our friends, or to our work because we’ve made an idol out of our prayer lives.  We use church or service or prayer or meditation as an excuse not to be present to other things, rather than approaching time with God with more of an open hand.

It’s easy to let ourselves get attached to things, to our closest relationships, to idolatry masquerading as spiritual experiences.  Oftentimes, it can feel really good to just let ourselves get lost in that thing we love to buy or eat or drink, in that relationship we think we’re dependent upon, in that idol.  Life often presents less of a choice between what is good and what is bad, but rather, the more pressing choice is between two apparently good things.  This holds true here.  Sometimes it feels so good to do what we’ve always done that we’re not even interested in entertaining the option of doing something that is different, even if that something different might be better for us.  We become inordinately attached to something, as the disciples were to their experience with the transfigured Jesus on the mountain in the Gospel.

The second movement of the Gospel asks us, What does this particular kind of attachment breed in us?  Many of us are like the disciples in that our inordinate attachment breeds fear.  We become so convinced that being overly attached is good for us that we don’t want to do anything differently.  When someone presents to us the opportunity to let go a little bit, as Jesus does for the disciples in today’s Gospel, we can become confused and often fearful as a result.  Because, underneath what we present to the world, we are often afraid.  Afraid of what people might think of us if we don’t live in a wealthy ZIP code, don’t wear brand-name clothes, don’t drive the right car.  Afraid of what we might have to face if we stop numbing ourselves with food, drink, or other substances.  Afraid of the shape a relationship might take if we stop trying to control or manipulate it, and simply let it live in the love that is born of freedom.  Afraid of what might happen if we truly let God in, if we make space for the God of today’s Gospel to introduce us to Jesus, God’s beloved Son.  In these and other ways, we are often afraid.

But in the Christian story, fear does not get the last word.  1 John 4:18 reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  Today’s Gospel, Matthew 17:7, tells us, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’”  Love.  Jesus’ love frees us from fear, from inordinate attachment, from being different from what God intended us to be.  His is a love that is given out of freedom, in the hope that it is freely chosen in return.  When we make room for God to enter into our lives, when we give Jesus permission to touch our hearts, God in turn loves us into the ability to stand up, without fear, and to walk the path before us in freedom.

What does it look like for us to rise, freed from fear?  (1) Let’s let God love us, even the vulnerable parts we might not like to let show.  During Lent, let us do something to hear, know, or spend time with our own beloved-ness.  This is part of my Lenten commitment this year: to spend time in silence with God each day, letting God love me…imagining what my life might look like if I truly let Jesus touch my heart, if I let go of some of my inordinate attachments, if I let God’s love in.  (2) As we acknowledge our own beloved-ness, let us reflect the beloved-ness of others.  This has the potential to transform the way we interact with one another.  How might we treat the homeless person we pass on the way to work or school in the morning if we were to truly celebrate the presence of God in that person?  How might we act toward those with whom we share our lives more intimately if we truly believed—in our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies—that they are loved and honored by our God?  (3) Let us love those whose suffering moved the heart of Jesus—the hungry, the sick, the stranger, the imprisoned.  Co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day once said that she’d like to make the world a place in which it is a little easier to love.  She wrote,

What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute—the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words—we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.

Fernando, my spiritual director on the bluff at Loyola Marymount, taught me about love.  Love of God and love of one another.  He taught me that love is never private.  Whether it exists individually in our hearts, between two people, or within a community, love bears witness to something greater than itself.  Love is always public, and love is true when it is practiced in freedom.  Brothers and sisters, let us make a choice to believe—to commit our hearts, our bodies, our minds—to that kind of love this day.  Let our love for God and for one another be so big, so boundless, so freely given, so freely received that the world in which we live is transfigured.