On the Second Sunday of Lent, 1995, I was living and working in Botswana, at our Passionist Novitiate, in a place called Forest Hill. That afternoon, inspired by that Sunday’s Gospel of the Transfiguration, I set out to climb the hill of Kgale, the highest point in the country, which wasn’t too far from our novitiate house. The path up the hill was fairly non-descript and would have been very difficult to follow, except that every now and again helpful arrows had been painted on to rocks or tree stumps to guide would be climbers. Most of the ascent was through heavy growth and only at the top did the terrain open out into a beautiful vista of the surrounding land, which was as flat as a pancake save for this hill of Kgale.
I spent some time at the top of the hill, thinking and praying, trying to set myself on Mount Tabor with Jesus, and with Peter, James and John. There wasn’t another soul around. It was good to be there. Eventually I decided to make my way back down again. By now it was about 4.00pm and I knew that at 6.00pm it would get dark and the baboons, having made their way down the hill at sunrise, would be streaming back up again at sunset. I had often watched them do this, and listened to the strange and almost fearsome barking sound of them from a safe distance.
At some point in my descent I realised I had lost the path. At first I didn’t panic, but when my attempts to find it again kept bringing me to dead ends my anxiety level began to rise. I had heard that when you got lost on a mountain the best way to go is up, and so I began to create my own path towards the top again. Insects didn’t bother me, but when a few grass snakes slithered across my path I began to fear encountering something bigger and more deadly. Still I kept climbing. I then saw some weird creatures I had never come across before. They were about the size of a small dog with thick, tight, brown fur. Thankfully they scampered away, rather than towards me. I later discovered they were rock rabbits.
At the back of my mind I’m thinking of meeting these baboons, hundreds of them, coming home for the night, and how they would take to meeting me in their path. All the unheeded warnings I’d received about how stupid it was to go climbing on my own came flooding back to me. The prayer to my guardian angel popped into mind, I hadn’t prayed it in years, but I prayed it fervently then. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I caught sight of a white arrow. Somehow, I had stumbled across the path again. My heart leapt with relief and delight. I took a deep breath, whispered a prayer of thanks to my guardian angel, and painstakingly began to follow the arrows in reverse towards the bottom. I was never so glad to reach level ground. Not for the first time in my life I believed there was a divine providence looking after me, I had been brought to safety by the goodness of God and the hand of an angel.
I’ve always enjoyed Thomas Merton’s descriptions of what could be called transfiguration moments in his own conversion story. Perhaps this beautiful description of one such moment centred on an insight into the Blessed Sacrament from his “Seven Story Mountain” is appropriate for this Transfiguration Sunday:
“I did not even know who Christ was, that He was God. I had not the faintest idea that there existed such a thing as the Blessed Sacrament. I thought churches were simply places where people got together and sang a few hymns. And yet now I tell you, you who are now what I once was, unbelievers, it is that Sacrament, and that alone, the Christ living in our midst, and sacrificed by us, and for us and with us, in the clean and perpetual Sacrifice, it is He, alone, who holds our world together, and keeps us all from being poured headlong and immediately into the pit of our eternal destruction. And I tell you there is a power that goes forth from that Sacrament, a power of light and truth, even into the hearts of those who have heard nothing of Him and seem to be incapable of belief.”