Falling Asleep During Prayer, the Transfiguration, and Grace
I’ve always loved the idea of Ignatian Contemplation—that form of prayer in which you use your imagination to place yourself in a Biblical scene—but for me, it’s always harder than it seems. However, as I was praying with Luke’s account of the Transfiguration this morning, I was effortlessly swept up into the narrative. It played out like this:
My tired legs climbed up the winding trail behind Peter, John, James, and Jesus, who was taking us up the mountain to pray. We walked in silence for what felt like miles, and I occupied my mind with thoughts about how I quite honestly did not want to go pray again. We’ve prayed so much; I don’t have anything else to say to God. We reached the summit and I knelt down with the others, trying to be open anyway. But the rocky ground hurt my knees, my legs were aching, and I had trouble keeping my eyes open. I watched Jesus a few meters ahead of me—eyes fixed, gaze serene, and seemingly every molecule of his being perfectly attentive. I longed to pray like that, but my eyelids were heavy and soon my mind was swimming with those nonsense thoughts that always come right before falling asleep. I don’t know how long I was sleeping before something indescribable woke me. It was like the atmosphere had shifted, and the very elements that make up the universe had changed. Jesus’s face was dazzling, radiating light, and he stood speaking with Moses and Elijah. Suddenly I was standing, and I was more awake than I’d ever thought possible. My heart lurched forward toward them, and I cried out for them to stay. Jesus turned to look at me knowingly, and a deep voice from above spoke over us: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” And without words, I knew this glorious moment would not linger.
As I reflect on this time of contemplation, three things stand out to me: my attitude toward prayer, my desire to hold on to good things, and the similarities between the experience of the Transfiguration and the Mass.
More often than I’d like to admit, during prayer I feel overwhelmed by the need to say exactly the right words, remember all the specific graces and intentions I should ask for, and focus on being silent for an appropriate amount of time. I'm also usually struggling to stay awake and attentive. When I view prayer through these self-imposed guidelines, I become discouraged and frustrated with myself. But prayer isn’t meant to be toil, and God still hears me even if I don’t perfectly articulate all my thoughts, feelings, and desires. Even when I literally fall asleep during prayer, God lovingly responds to me. Peter, James, and John all fell asleep on the mountain, and though they had nothing to give God in prayer, God still gave them the precious gift of the Transfiguration.
When I was imagining myself on the mountain, I felt a deep longing to hold on to the glory of the moment, just like Peter did. But I, like Peter, “did not know what [I] was saying.” In our humanness, we often want to grasp those moments when the divine is palpable and hold on to them as long as possible; but we can’t manipulate or hoard God’s gifts. Until heaven, we’ll only get passing glimpses of eternity. Even the most deeply moving experiences of God here below are but a shadow of what we will experience when we’re with him in heaven. The Transfiguration was a particular grace that Jesus gave his disciples to strengthen their faith before his imminent Passion. Similarly, he gives us experiences of grace for particular moments in time. They're meant to build us up on the journey but they do not belong to us.
In addition to not grasping at beautiful moments, we should not be discouraged if we can’t always “feel” or comprehend God’s grace in the Sacraments. Take the Mass, for example. Though I know that what happens on the altar is the most utterly extraordinary thing that I could ever experience, nine times out of ten, my mind and body do not respond as though this were the case. I struggle to stay awake and my mind wanders to other places. To be clear, the Transfiguration and transubstantiation (the conversion of bread and wine into the real body and blood of Christ at Mass) are two different things. But in both instances, something incredible has taken place right in front of human eyes. While the apostles were deeply moved by the Transfiguration, I wonder if they would be as moved if it happened every single day. Similarly, when I first learned about the Eucharist, I was often awestruck and overcome with emotion when I received Communion. Now, I have to consciously remind myself that I’m partaking in a wild miracle at every Mass. God has always been and will always be endlessly glorious, fascinating, and beautiful. While in my earthly body, I will always be tired, distracted, and imperfect. It’s impossible for us humans to fully comprehend and appropriately react to the glory of God as he reveals it in the physical world, and that’s okay.
Lord, thank you for the graces you give us. Help us to keep praying even when we're tired, distracted, and numb. Saints Peter, John, and James; pray for us!