The very same question that Jesus asked his followers can be asked of you students gathered here. Not only about your twenty-one day trip into the mountains, but about your arrival in Lander Valley. Why have you come to the high mountain desert of Wyoming? Certainly not to see football stadiums, fancy dormitories, shopping malls, or major airports. What then, did you come to see?
I am convicted, dear students, that God has drawn you to these mountains for the same reason that he has always gathered his people in the wilderness. God calls his people to the mountain so that he may bestow his merciful love upon them. He calls them so that he may teach them, and in mercifully teaching them, he sets them free. God calls his people to the desert mountain to receive a radically liberating education.
It is an education undertaken in community, requiring self-denial, that opens a new way of perceiving the world around us, and which ultimately transforms us at the very center of our being.
Throughout salvation history, education in the wilderness has been a communal affair: Abraham and his household, Moses and Israel, David and his men. Even Elijah, who seems to be alone on the mountain is told by God that he is part of a larger community of faithful. And God uses communal education, because by its very nature to undertake the journey of a liberating education is to share in a good that is greater than any one individual.
And in the sharing of this good, the community itself becomes the instrument of the education. Think about your 21-day excursion: it was precisely in the experience of journeying as a group that you mutually formed each other. So too with all aspects of this education. It is the common life in the dorms, over lunch tables, in classrooms, offices, and family homes, in common readings, and a shared rules of life, that this education plays out.
It’s not all bliss, however.. The Israelites complained bitterly throughout their wilderness education. They had thought their liberation was defined by getting out of Egypt; they were wrong. It was the ascetism and sacrifice along the journey that revealed to them what God more fundamentally was freeing them from.
We must be brought to know what we don’t know. Only then are we capable of being taught, of really coming to knowledge. Thus, this education will constantly confront us with our own limitations, our ignorance. It will also demand that we give up certain attachments. The Israelites had to endure the loss of the flesh pots of Egypt before they could see how attached they were to pagan habits. They had to turn off the habits of the culture that had infiltrated their minds, before they could be freed not just exteriorly, but interiorly from Egypt.
So too we need to break from the noise and cultural habits that hide our own ignorance from us. The inundating drone of ubiquitous screens fills our lives with such busy-ness and distraction, that we are not even able to hear the still small voice, whispering to us in the wilderness.
Turning off those screens, however, reveals an even stronger enslavement. Modern Western society has enslaved reason. No longer do we assume that knowing the Truth, especially Truth himself, and so being transformed by that knowledge is the peak of human joy. Rather, thinking and study is justified by productivity. Our minds are not seen as a profoundly spiritual and personal power at the center of our being, but merely electric brain waves ordered to securing money, power, and pleasure. The only thing that can justify going to college is the job that you will obtain or the political change you can effect. But that is a lie. Knowing the truth about who you are, the nature of reality, and God himself is good for its own sake. Our minds must not be enslaved to politics, the workforce, and hedonism.
But it gets worse: in instrumentalizing reason, society has instrumentalized all of the wonders of material creation that surround us. Our bodies and our world are reduced to instruments for money, political power, or pleasure. Societally, we are like Uncle Andrew, in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, a man who observes the miracle of the creation of Narnia, and only thinks about how he can commodify this fecund reality before him.
In short, we can say all together, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune, It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
But Wordsworth is wrong in suggesting that the only solution is to return to some pagan mythical view of nature. Rather, God, out of his merciful love has called us, as a community to be an instrument of a liberating education that calls us to fast from certain societal opinions and habits so as to become attentive to the real meaning of creation.
That is what happens for Peter, James and John, when they together journey up the desert mountain of Tabor and behold Christ’s Transfiguration and his dazzlingly white garments. St. Maximos the Confessor noted that the focus on the garments of Christ calls to mind the Psalms image of God wrapping himself in the light of creation as if in a garment. The world is the divine robe, ready to testify to the glory concealed within it. It is like veritable tapestry or book, revealing the grandeur of God. To coin a phrase, “The World is charged with the grandeur of God…”
Having fasted from the distraction and reductionism of the society around us, we are more free to really see the world, to hear our friends in conversation, to read the books before us. And in so doing we will find Christ concealed and revealed in ten thousand places in the mountains, in ten thousand pages of math, science, literature, philosophy, and more, and we will hear his voice within ten thousand conversations with our friends.
God, however, does not want us to only see the glory of his garments, but he wants us to look upon him, face to face. An ancient Christian hymn declares that in his transfiguration, Christ revealed the glory of his face to his apostle as much as they were able to receive it. Our ability to perceive the transfigured glory of Christ depends on the extent to which we ourselves have been transfigured by our liberating education. The experience of the wilderness, of fasting, of the ache that arises within our hearts as we pursue the truth: all is ordered to an interior transformation. It is no accident that the word transfiguration is used in only two places in the New Testament: one in describing Christ on Mt. Tabor, and the second, by St Paul, in addressing his fellow Christians:
“Do not be conformed to the spirit of this age”. he writes, “But be transfigured by the renewal of your mind.”
You have come to these mountains and valley that you might be transfigured, be transformed by the virtue and wisdom that forms within your mind over these four years. Be transformed so that you may come to perceive the glory of God’s truth, beauty and goodness reflected in his creation and his revelation and carried within your own mind. And when this happens, dear students, you will say, with Peter, it is good for us to be here. But like the wandering cowboys of the great Westerns, you are not here to say. You are just passin’ through. These four years at Wyoming Catholic College are part sanctuary and retreat, but they are also part-outpost, a stopping place on your journey back to the towns, back to radiate the light that has transfigured your mind into a world that desperately needs it.
But let now offer three very practical things that we can undertake this year in pursuit of this wonderful vision. Three points, each one taken from one of the three founders of Wyoming Catholic College Bishop David Ricken, Fr. Simeon Cook, and Dr. Robert Carlson:
1) Pray for divine mercy. This liberating education is a work of mercy, poured out by God through this community and its supporters. The first thing Bishop Ricken taught me, when I was a teen, was to pray the Jesus Prayer, linking the cry for mercy to my very breath: breathing in, “Lord Jesus Christ” and breathing out, “Have mercy on me.” He recommended spending time each day praying it. Here at the College we are further committed to praying the divine mercy chaplet every day at three, or as close to three as your class schedule allows: let us all pray daily (in groups if possible) for God’s mercy to be poured out on our work here: in the hallways, in the oratory, in our offices. Further, let’s also commit to celebrating the Eucharist all together every Friday morning and let us commit to praying vespers on Saturday evening, at least once a month. Let us pray for mercy.
2) Turn off the noise. Fr. Simeon Cook never had his radio playing in the car. “Have at least some moments of quiet,” he would say. Let us, do more than submit to the letter of our technology policy, but let us all, faculty, staff and students, try to live out the spirit of our fast. Fast from social media, prioritize communication via notes and personal connection instead of email and chat. Leave the screen off as much as possible. And at the minimum, let us make Frassati lunch, a completely screen free experience.
3) Fill your time with the stories of this education. Dr. Robert Carlson was a master story-teller, and he knew a community is formed by sharing its stories. Let us commit to reading voraciously and then sharing with each other the fruits of our reading and study. Let us fill the lunch-room and the dorms with conversation about what we have done in the outdoors, in star-gazing, on horseback, in the chapel, and in careful reading. Let us fill our community with songs we sing and poems we recite. In 1001 Arabian nights, the heroine has to tell stories every night because her life depends on it. The same is true of our community life: it depends on us sharing the adventure of this liberating education and our conversations about it. The community is not opposed to our life of education but is rather the very instrument through which that education takes place.
Three things: pray for divine mercy, turn the noise off, and fill our community life with our stories.
Let me conclude, by telling a story. At the end of the second-century, Origen of Alexandria had been called to a meeting of bishops to debate the fine points of philosophy and theology. The debates were wild and wide ranging, and during the course of the discussion, Origen paused for a moment, the room grew quiet, and he looked around at the bishops and said with passionate intensity: “I beg you, my brothers, be transformed. Resolve to learn that you can be transformed …so that we all may be changed into Chirst’s likeness.”
My dear students, you have come to the wilderness, not to see fine raiment, or to dispassionately observe landscapes. You have come to approach the mountain of the Lord, to be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Let everything we do, be for that purpose. Be transformed.
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.