Lent 2: ‘Transformative Prayer’
Bookshops are full of self-help books. You can buy books on mindfulness and management; the ‘life changing magic of saying no’; on life laundry; or guides to improve self confidence; on management; loving your self; and body image; how to lose a stone in a week, including a weight loss programme for Bible believing Christians called: ‘Help Lord, the devil wants me fat!’ (1)
The message tends to be the same: Read this book, put into practice this specific technique and it will all be yours. Just unlock the ‘inner you’, ‘your inner strength’, ‘just love yourself a bit more’, or ‘forgive yourself a bit more’ and so on. Much of this used to go under the heading of ‘ new age philosophy’ but it has become the dominant philosophy of our age, sinking into Christian sub consciousness.
And for Christians of course, none of this is new. In the second century, Bishop Irenaeus – those of you who know me well, know that he is one of my favourite theologians- was preaching and teaching against such things. (2) In those days it went under the guise of Gnosticism. The Gnostics taught that a secret technique could be passed on which would unlock the inner self to happiness and bliss with God. And Irenaeus said something very simple and extremely important: Salvation comes from without, not from within. Now if that doesn’t turn everything we hear these days from fashionable commentators on its head, I’m not sure what does. Salvation comes from without, not from within.
The opposite is so ingrained in us that it is a difficult message for us to hear. Irenaeus is saying that only when a person is open to receive from outside themselves, those gifts which they do not have within them, can salvation be possible: grace, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, strength, the love of God. These things come by focusing on what is ‘other’, beyond ourselves, by opening ourselves up to the reality of God Himself. This requires a different attitude to the one currently espoused by fashionable lifestyle gurus. It requires us to understand at a deep level that we are dependent creatures – we need others, we need God.
Something completely different
How often do we hear the message: ‘You have got to love yourself’ or ‘ you’ve got to forgive yourself?’ We can understand where such sentiments come from and the help that is intended. But the Christian tradition tells us something completely different: ‘We love because God first loved us’ and that knowing we have received the gift of God’s forgiveness gives us the strength and the ability to forgive others.
So, when I am talking about Transformative Prayer this morning I cannot give you any specific techniques or secrets by which you will be suddenly transformed. Beware of anyone who does! Transformative prayer is a way of life and a long and difficult, yet utterly worthwhile, journey.
Transformative prayer involves a great many things. For many of us here it will involve the experiences of being part of the Christian community. Here it is that we are nourished by the Eucharist, make friendships within the congregation, are held in prayer by others and are on the receiving end of pastoral love and care. It may also involve a practical action inspired by the Gospel: feeding the poor, helping the vulnerable, acts of kindness and generosity or taking on responsibilities of leadership for tasks or ministry within the Church. It may involve people outside our named Christian associations who are also instruments of God’s grace to us, or challenging questions or traumatic times in which we have received God’s help and guidance. Transformative prayer involves a great many things: all of our life in fact, which is permeated by the Holy Spirit.
A mountain top experience
Of all the stories in the New Testament I have studied the story of the Transfiguration most. I know enough about it, to know how little I know about it. It comes at a pivotal moment in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, a mountain top experience which is presented as the point where humanity meets God: the temporal and the eternal come together with Jesus Himself as the connecting point, the bridge between heaven and earth.
Transfiguration is also an important theme in Liberation Theology: as the Christian disciples see God in Christ more clearly, their drive for justice becomes more in tune with God’s Kingdom, directing them along pathways towards liberation, proclaiming the good news, actively seeking to respond lovingly to the needs of people and to transform all that is unjust in society or aggressive to the natural world. The story of the Transfiguration was in fact a favourite of the martyred South American bishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated as he said Mass in El Salvador. He said: “In the person of Jesus we see the plan of God which transfigures people.” For him, the transfiguration was about being raised from sin and material desire to the dignity of being children of God and to work for a more just world: transfiguration leads to the path of the Cross before Easter. (3)
The Transfiguration has a significant place in the Gospels, inspires Christians to seek transformations within society and also it has a spiritual focus. Luke makes this connection more clearly than the other Gospellers: ‘As Jesus prayed, the aspect of his face was changed…’ (4)
And after the voice had spoken Jesus was found alone and the disciples kept silence….
The disciples are left focusing on Jesus alone …in silence…
What a wonderful view of prayer that is: the simplification of one’s attention towards what Orthodox Christians call ‘the uncreated but re-creative Light.’ Alone with Jesus in silence.
What would you choose?
Let me change tack and ask you a question:
If you could be changed into an animal, a bird or a fish – what would you choose? You may think this is a rather frivolous question and dismiss it, or you may give a moment to let the imagination run free…. Remember the Psalmist: ‘O that I had wings like a dove! For then I would fly away and be at rest.’ (5)
In their account of the story of Jesus ascending the mountain and shining with glory of God before his disciples, Matthew and Mark use the word ‘transfiguration’ or in Greek ‘metamorphosis.’ That is where the title of this morning’s sermon, ‘Transformative Prayer’, comes from.
Surprisingly, ‘Transfiguration’ is quite a popular idea these days. Take this quote:
‘I do hope they start right away, there’s so much to learn, I’m particularly interested in Transfiguration, you know turning something into something else, of course, it is supposed to be very difficult.’
You get top marks if you identified it as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books. (6)
Ancient Welsh folk stories
I grew up with ancient Welsh folk stories where people are changed into animals or flowers, (7) as they are in the tales of the Classical Greek period – Zeus turning himself into a sunbeam or a swan to seduce the ladies. Kafka wrote a short story called ‘Metamorphosis’ which begins with a man who has been turned into a giant beetle. And there are tales where the beastliness within a person so takes them over that they change into that animal. In CS Lewis Narnia Book, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, Eustace is so tempted with greed and dragonish thoughts that he becomes a dragon. In Ionescu’s absurdist play ‘The Rhinoceros’, people start turning into rhinos as they become more fascist and oppressive to other people. These stories underline the idea that we become what we worship….
All these ideas of transfiguration involve becoming something or someone else and there is a strong desire perhaps in each of us for that – if only I could be like so and so…if only I could be like that… But the Christian concept of transfiguration is not about changing into someone else – or something else- it is about becoming who we truly are. This involves knowing that we are a child of God, loved, forgiven, accepted, and someone who is a disciple, learning the way of Christ. It may also involve letting of go of a number of ideas too: that we are not worthy; that we are beyond God’s reach; that prayer and being a Christian is not for me; shedding an intellectual arrogance maybe; habits of hatred or prejudice; or a refusal to try new ways of worshipping or praying.
The very act of prayer presupposes a belief in the possibility of metamorphosis – something changes or is changed on account of prayer. This isn’t superstition or wishful thinking. It very often involves a change within ourselves. True prayer is not magic, which seeks to re-fashion reality in accordance with its own image. It is opening ourselves up to the love and light of God and finding that we are gradually transformed by it into the person God has created us to be.
This means of course we must pray.
The right time and the right place
I can’t offer any special techniques, only suggestions of what helps me to pray.
Find the right time and the right place that works for you each day. Many of us were brought up praying at the bedside before sleep. This is not the best time to pray, when we are already tired and can only give to God the ‘fag-end’ of the day. What other times would be good for you to give 10-15 minutes to praying.
When talking about prayer I very often use the mnemonic PACTS to help people keep in mind some of the ingredients of praying that I think are important. Again, this is not the only way to pray, but you might find it useful.
P – Pause. Silence is a way of praying and the stilling of the mind and body is a vital part of turning to God. You might you use a religious picture, a cross or a candle to help you focus. Concentrate on our breathing and perhaps repeat a verse of Scripture over and over, such as ‘ Be still and know that I am God.’ This is a good way of quietening down as we acknowledge that we are in the presence of God and it can take some time.
A – Adoration. Praising God for who He is: goodness, beauty, love.
C – Contrition. Saying sorry to God for the things we have said and done that have been wrong, unkind, unfeeling-and the things we could have done for the good others, but omitted to do.
T – Thanksgiving. Give thanks for the good things we receive every day.
S – Supplication. Praying for others, interceding for the sick and the needy, those known to us and unknown.
And I like to add another S (PACTSS)
S – Scripture. Reading a passage from the Gospels and chewing it over in our hearts and minds (meditating) and allowing it to affect us and inspire us.
Pausing (silence), Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication and Scripture.
Transformative prayer! Perhaps it can be summed up in one wonderful line by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins which I use as a challenge to us all this Lent: “ Let all God’s glory through!” (8)
- 1 There is such a book! By C.S Lovett and published in 1982
- 2 St Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyons (130- 202 AD) wrote ‘Adversus Haereses; ( Against Heresies) around 180AD, which is a detailed attack on Gnosticism.
- 3 Sermon by Oscar Romero preached in March 1980 – Lent our Transfiguration Through Christ.
- 4 Luke 9:29
- 5 Psalm 55:6
- 6 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone- J. K. Rowling
- 7 The Mabinogion
- 8 ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary compared with the air we breathe’ – Gerard Manley Hopkins.