Sunday, August 6, 2017


While he was praying, Jesus’ face changed in appearance
and his clothes became dazzling white as he conversed with Moses and Elijah.
Fully awake, Peter, John and James saw his glory.
They fell silent and did not at the time tell anyone what they had seen.
Luke 9:28-36

Because of this gospel, they are called “peak experiences” – those intense religious experiences that many of us have been lucky enough to have at least once in our lives. In fact, I believe that this is the main thing that keeps people in organized religion - at least one “peak experience.” On the other hand it is also the main reason some people claim to be agnostic - the absence of even one “peak experience.”  

“Peak experiences” cannot be staged or created. They are simply moments of grace – spontaneous gifts from God. We can go to places where “peak experiences” have happened to other people, even places where we have experienced them before, but that does not mean we will have another one. They are simply unpredictable and unannounced gifts from God. 

“Peak experiences” can happen at some of the most surprising times and in some of the most unlikely places. Oddly enough, for example, during the sexual abuse storm that began in 2002 a significant number of journalists, who had been assigned to report on the crisis in various locales, ended up converting to Catholicism.  They had a “religious experience,” a “peak experience” even in the midst of that pain and sin!  Others have had these “peak experiences” during the death process of a loved one or even their own process of dying. I witnessed my mother going through one of these “peak experiences” as she was dying of cancer back in 1976. She actually communicated with her siblings at the foot of her bed, but only with those who had died. 

“Peak experiences” usually happen most often during retreats and other religious events. For instance, many of our seminarians were so moved by meeting Pope John Paul II that they came back to the Church, after having been gone since childhood, and even decided that they may have a call to the priesthood. Many teenagers have their first “peak experience” during their senior retreat or a alternative spring break in places like Guatemala. Many married couples have had life changing “peak experiences” during Marriage Encounter weekends. Other Catholics have discovered a new burst of faith during a Cursillo weekend, a trip to Medjugore or Lourdes, meeting someone with the stature of Mother Teresa.

I have had several: a major one in college seminary, one when I changed my mind on my way to first priest assignment, a major one while I was pastor in Monticello, a major one when I accepted the surprise invitation to be pastor of the Cathedral, a major one when my idea for the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates got a $2,000,000 grant  for St. Meinrad, a major one one when I got the bright idea to write a column for The Record and one when I got the idea to start my Caribbean retirement program for priests and lay professionals called the Catholic Second Wind Guild. All of these experiences have opened my eyes to new way of seeing God and understanding my vocation. 

How they happen, why they happen and when they happen cannot be predicted, staged or even understood. They all seem to be glimpses into another level of existence or little previews of coming wonderful events that God gives some people who need a reason to hang on! Those of us who have experienced them know how mind-blowing and life changing they can be! To those who cannot say they have ever had such an experience, I would say “it ain’t over till it’s over” and “your time may be right around the corner” at some unexpected and unpredictable time.

These “peak experiences” have several things in common. (1) You have to be open to them. The “transfiguration” that we read about today, happened during one of hundreds of little retreats that Jesus took his disciples on! Regular contact with God through prayer does not guarantee one of these experiences, but makes them more likely to happen. Your mind has to be open and you have to remain in a receiving frame of mind.

(2) There is always a temptation to want to freeze the experience, repeat the experience and make the experience permanent. This is what Peter was up to in the reading today. “Lord, it is so wonderful to be here. Why don’t we erect some tents and just stay up here forever?” Jesus tells Peter that the experience was only meant to be something to sustain the group during the painful days ahead. He tells Peter that they will have to go back down the mountain and back into real life for a while. Experiencing it “all the time” would have to wait until the resurrection after his death. One of the things that Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, Medjugore, senior retreat, Lourdes and other similar experiences have it common is the desire to repeat those experiences or to “be in them” full time. They are never meant to be permanent. They are only glimpses into glory. God wants us to go back to our ordinary lives, with that precious moment in the back of our minds to sustain us.             

Lastly, “peak experiences” are meant to help is “see connections” to see the connection between where we come from, where we are now and where we are destined. This is what the conversation that Jesus had with the saints - Moses and Elijah. This conversation helped Jesus realize that he was the one they saw coming in the future so many years ago. They helped Jesus understand where God was taking him in the days ahead – glory on the other side of suffering and death. Just so, our “peak experiences” remind us that there is something wonderful in the invisible world that awaits us on the other side of this life.

May you experience your own “peak experience!” May God give you a “glimpse of glory!”  May you get a “sneak preview” of the world to come! May that “peak experience” sustain you in the sometimes tediousness of worldly existence and help you keep your eye on the prize!

With all the problems going on in the Church today, others ask me and I ask myself over and over again “Why stay?” The reason I stay is that I have been blessed to have had several “peak experiences” and “glimpses of glory” in my life time. It is these intense experiences that sustain me during the ordinary moments, periods of spiritual dryness and intense discouragement. As I think about all the scandal that has beset the Church and who the next Pope will be, I am not really worried or overcome with discouragement. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, who built his famous speech around this gospel, “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead but it doesn’t matter with me now because I have been to the mountaintop. God has allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I have seen the promised land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

My fellow Catholics, I am here to stay, I remain hopeful and I am committed to being faithful to the end, not because I am out of touch with the serious  problems facing our Church, but because God has given me a couple of small glimpses of glory, like he did the disciples in today’s gospel. I hold on because of those “peak experiences.”      

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