The Transfiguration and Seeing the World through the Eyes of Wonder

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Peter, John, and James go with Jesus up a mountain to pray. As they pray, “Jesus’ face changed in appearance.” His clothes become “dazzling white” and he stands radiant in all “his glory.” What strikes me more than Jesus’ change, however, is the apostles’ own transfiguration. They look on Jesus—the same man who they regularly prayed and spent time with—with eyes of wonder.

Last week I had two experiences on airplanes that reminded me of how important it is to see our ordinary experiences with wonder. In the past few years I have become a terrible flyer. In addition to grumbling about delays and all the things you’re no longer allowed to bring on a plane, I have become a bit of a nervous passenger. The comedian Louis C.K. is making fun of me in his sketch on the miracle of flight when he says, “’I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes. Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly on giant tires…?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.” (Watch him do a similar bit here.) I get so hung up on the things that might go wrong that I fail to see the miracle of flight.

As my first flight took off last week, I looked across the aisle and out the window. As we lifted off the ground, a small girl in the window seat held her teddy bear up to the window to give him a perfect view to see the large plane take off and “fly like a bird.” The child gave up her own view through the window throughout the entire take-off so that her friend the bear could watch the miracle.

As I found my seat on my return red eye a week later, I was surprised to see a ten-year-old boy in the window seat next to mine. I looked around for his parents, ready to trade spots. A couple minutes later, Phillip informed me that he was flying alone. It was his 27th flight overall and his 7th by himself. He knew all of the safety procedures, and to prove it, he started reciting them verbatim, one after the next. “To fasten your seatbelt, insert the metal fittings one into the other, and tighten by pulling on the loose end of the strap.” When I asked him what you should do if the passenger next to you needs help with their oxygen mask, he said without hesitation, “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” Phillip knew exactly which type of aircraft we were on and which other planes were around us in the airport. He rang the call button (actually, I rang it—he couldn’t reach) to ask the flight attendant if he could please go sit in the cockpit. To his disappointment, she refused. Phillip told me he might want to be a pilot someday. I assured him that he already had a head start.

Phillip and the girl with the teddy bear saw the experience of flying with eyes of wonder. This really quite amazing experience had become completely routine, and even frustrating and nerve-wracking for me. The children’s awe reminded me that approaching everyday experiences with wonder, especially those we find annoying or even scary (like commuting, waking up to your newborn baby in the middle of the night, or starting a new job), transfigures those situations.

Christ’s dazzling change made it easy for the Apostles to look upon him with eyes transfigured by wonder. And it is easy for children to approach the world of ordinary things with amazement. The real challenge is for the rest of us to choose to see a transfigured world in the moments when the extraordinary is hidden in the frustration or mundaneness of the ordinary.

Pope Francis: Liberation Theologian? Not So Fast

I have been shocked by the recent positive media coverage of the Catholic Church. The stories are all about Pope Francis and his striking example of humility, together with his tireless call to care for the poor. For instance, NPR featured “Pope Francis Puts the Poor Front and Center”, while the New York Times published “Francis’ Humility and Emphasis on the Poor Strike a New Tone at the Vatican”

And while I have been refreshed by the positive coverage about all things Pope Francis, I have also found myself thinking that the media still doesn’t quite get it right.

In their reporting about Pope Francis, the New York Times, NPR, the AP and other mainstream news outlets have all written articles linking his call to care for the poor to liberation theology.

What is liberation theology? It’s a spirituality that developed out of particular historical circumstances. People who were suffering due to poverty and violent oppression in Latin America in the latter half of the twentieth century situated the gospel message in their lived reality. Their spirituality was not primarily about the interior life—it was about taking action to ensure that the values of society reflected the values of the gospel. This heavy emphasis on action drew scrutiny, as liberation theology emerged when communism threatened religious and political leaders alike. Church leaders feared that liberation theology’s emphasis on action would lead to political revolution. The call to action was also criticized for excessively stressing the role that people played in their own liberation so that it seemed like they worked to attain their own salvation, instead of recognizing that they had already been saved and freed by Christ.  A final critique was over some liberation theologians’ use of Marxist concepts, including class conflict, to interpret scripture.

Francis’ message of radical humility, service to the poor, and the call to work for justice is not a theology rooted in a particular historical context or an alternative approach to scripture—it’s at the core of the Gospels and Church teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church details the Church’s teaching on the call to work for justice.  The Catholic Social Teaching Scripture guide from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops outlines where the principles of Catholic Social Teaching can be found in Scripture. If you go to the online version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and type in “social justice” you’ll find that social justice is even infused into our catechesis. His teachings are not on the fringes of Catholic theology; they are at the center.

One likely reason for the media’s inclination to tie Pope Francis to liberation theology is that he is doing and saying things that (while connected to our Gospel call to live social justice) are completely outside of the journalists’ typical experiences of the institutional Catholic Church. If one has not understood care for the poor or working for social justice as absolutely central to what it means to be Catholic, then Pope Francis’ continuous emphasis on these could seem like the expression of a particular, alternative spirituality rather than something that all Catholics are called to embrace. Likewise, some of his recent decisions, like not living in the papal apartment or kicking off his predecessor’s fancy slippers in favor of more simple shoes, make him seem like an outlier.

When media outlets so commonly conflate “social justice” and “liberation theology,” I have to stop and think about what we have failed to do as a Church. I have to reflect on how the American Church is perceived by society and to consider my own vocation as a member of the Church to witness to the call to care for the poor and act for justice in all areas of my life.

Only when we the Church come together and live out this witness will the media describe Francis’ words and actions with more fitting headlines like, “Francis Calls for Social Justice: Just Another Catholic.”