Icon by Theophanes the Greek (14th c. Russia).
By Sister Carol Curtis, OSU (formerly Mother John Baptist, prioress of the Discalced Carmelites of Louisville)
Five years ago, August 6, 2015, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, our Carmelite community closed the doors of our Monastery. The icon of the Transfiguration still hung in the nuns’ choir as we crossed the cloister threshold onto an uncharted path. The liturgical calendar places this celebration forty days before the Exaltation of Holy Cross on September 14, a day Carmelites ritually reaffirm their vows to follow Christ, even as the autumn leaves begin to change color and fall. Although much has settled in the past five years, change has become part of this new pattern of stability. Observing this fifth anniversary in the midst of a global pandemic should disabuse us all of any lingering notion that things ever were supposed to stay the same. This world, as we know it, is passing away… [I Co 7:31] Transfiguration is, according to the Greek, Metamorphosis – changing form.
The Gospels place the Transfiguration just after the first of three predictions of the Passion. According to St. Luke, it occurs on the journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus will accomplish his exodus or passage. [Lk 9:31]. Our own community, after the tension of discernment and the confusion of preparations to move, sought an appropriate ritual for the transition. We drew on a monastic custom for the Paschal Triduum: the Pardon of Maundy Thursday morning. Ceremonially, it is very simple, almost stark: a silent circle, a few brief verses on charity and forgiveness, then each offers a humble apology for any hurt and requests pardon of all; the Our Father is chanted as a kind of mutual absolution, sealed by each one’s embrace. Such a seismic shift in our community demanded that we be vigilant in remaining spiritually united. Aware that we were approaching dispersion, we desired all the more to be mutually supportive in the personal Passover each one would have to undergo.
As the familiar bonds of community have been redefined, new relationships continue to develop. In these five years, other communities have become familiar and supportive. Yet, by a gracious Providence, on Carmel’s All Souls Day the year after our move, our little Carmelite community was gathered again in the cloister cemetery as we buried Sister Mary of Jesus, our former extern sister. There among the crosses, we sensed again that close solidarity with all those sisters we accompanied in their passage to eternity: My vows to the Lord I will pay in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Glory be…. [Ps 116]
On Mount Tabor, after the thundering Voice of the Father falls silent and the dense cloud dissipates, the disciples see only Jesus. They follow him down the mountain, still without understanding what rising from the dead will mean. Our Transfiguration icon, remarkable for the dramatic star mandorla haloing Christ, is distinctive also for the three rays which proceed from him and touch the eyes of the prostrate disciples. Their vision itself is illuminated by Christ to discern his presence in changing circumstances and recognize him under different forms, ever working all things to good for those who love him. [Rm 8:28]. An ancient Armenian tradition names the Transfiguration, Rose-flame – expressive of a burning beauty—God’s guiding presence as a pillar of Fire in the night. In the flyleaf of Bread in the Wilderness, Thomas Merton left the benediction:
To the Carmelites of Louisville,
that they may continue to sing sweetly in exile
the songs of the Lord, as their Jesus guides them
through the desert to the Promised Land
Fr M Louis Merton ocso