The Face of Moses on Sinai Leviticus 19:1-18
Psalm 103:1-13
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Divine Radiance

You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Many years ago, I lectured on scientific subjects in various parts of the world, and I traveled more or less constantly. One night I sat in Hong Kong's airport waiting for a flight to California. I was too tired to read or write, so I simply gazed silently. Across from me sat a group of Buddhist monks. They were calm and collected, to be sure. But one aspect of their persons could not be collected or reigned in: it was the light they gave off. I do not mean that that their shaven heads and faces permitted a human warmth to be seen. I mean that they visibly gave off light with a radiance that was vivid. I did not stare, of course, but this simple, yet remarkable, fact preoccupied me. I sat there contemplating it. And I called it back to mind many times during the intervening thirty years.

At the beginning of his book, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton sets the following versicle:
With no bird singing
The mountain is yet more still.
This mysterious stillness is an emptiness that is a fullness. It is something the soul longs for, which is nothing and yet everything. Anyone who has experienced this perfection of nothing, perhaps on a windless mountaintop or in a desert at night, knows the truth of this.

The silent mountain Merton considers is the self — emptied of all noise, void of all thoughts, having banished all desires. As Merton writes,

"There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while ...
but they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the 'nothing,' the 'no-body'
that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time, but
the scavengers missed it because it was not their kind of prey."
And what is the prey that draws chattering, pecking birds, crowding out silence with their compulsive movements and unbridled desires? They tug with each other over the scraps of our worldly restlessness, our unwholesome impulses, the random streaks in the night of our darting minds. It exhilarates them; they seem to exalt in it, for we are full of their kind of food.

We have now reflected upon the Sermon on the Mount for three successive Sundays as the Gospel of St. Matthew continues in our Eucharistic lectionary. We have noticed that this Sermon constitutes a Second Giving of the Law. In parallel, in our Hebrew Scripture reading today, we read the First Giving of the Law from the Book of Leviticus. As you know, God gives us Laws again and again, from the Garden of Eden to the Noahic Covenant to the Mosaic Law given on Sinai to the Sermon on the Mount. They are all given for one purpose: to empty us of the food that attracts the Bird of Appetite, for God, Who is perfect light, is perfectly devoid of this noxious material.

In Leviticus we read,

We must remember the poor.
We must treat people fairly.
We must respect the property of others.
We must not rob of our neighbors of their dignity, honor, and peace in the community.
We must not seek to even the score but love our neighbors.
In other words, God wishes us be more like Him in Whose image we are made.

Like Zen Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity are disciplines designed to rid ourselves of all that is unworthy. The irony is that in the end there is no material trinket or passing impulse that we really want in our lives in the first place, not permanently. Certainly, we would not trade our friendship with God in order to cling to such debris. We don't want the chattering birds. What we really want is the ineffable and beautiful stillness which is inside us. As Merton wrote, "It was there all along."

At the bottom of this philosophy lies a theology, a belief that every human being, once he or she is emptied of all noise, impulse, and desire, is divine. By a process of subtraction, we see more — more of what we really are. And we have more — more of what we really wanted all along. And in the unsurpassed intimacy of our own selves, we draw near to God in a communion that Catholics call the beatific vision. We draw near to God, and we encounter an overwhelming radiance that refracts through us until we become radiant.

This process of emptying oneself has a name in Christian life. We say, "Deny yourself, and follow Me." I do not mean service. I mean, "Deny yourself, and follow Me." When I went to Haiti, I met many, many people who had denied themselves and who did indeed follow Him. I met a priest from Italy of the Order of St. Camillus, who seemed to possess supernatural power as he took on one impossible task after another: rector of a seminary, provincial superior of a religious order, president of a public health ministry, founder of a hospital, a medical practitioner himself, and a day-laborer who drove a dump truck back and forth to distant Port-au-Prince, so he could run the large hospital there, too. He drove this heavy vehicle over dirt roads through high mountains that were slick with clay in the rain and did not have guard rails to protect him from a 1,000-foot fall. At any time, he could be killed or robbed, and he regularly faced extortion from the police who prowl the roads of Haiti looking for prey. Large trucks are a favorite.

Many times I sat in the seminary's chapel for his celebration of the Mass. One could reasonably expect to see an exhausted, withdrawn man whose face was turning dim. Instead, his Masses were luminous, and, yes, he himself gave off light in those celebrations that began before dawn.

Several years ago, I attended a dinner in New England to raise money for a charity in Haiti. The gathering consisted of polite cocktail party chit-chat, dinner, and then a slideshow depicting the past twenty-five year history of the ministry. Nearly all of the pictures were of a nun who had built up this ministry for a quarter-century as its administrator .... inevitably as she had been the animating spirit of all that had been done down there. I did not know many of the potential donors who had been invited to this event. So, I enjoyed sitting back to watch their reactions to the slides. All through the showing I could hear them whispering to each other, "She's radiant!" And it was true. The radiance that shone off of her face after forty years of spiritual pilgrimage, through China, India, and Haiti, was vivid and obvious. Even a camera could capture it.

Exactly, what had happened to this woman over her lifetime? Well, she began seeking God as a novice at a convent at age seventeen. She had stripped herself of every worldly thing through the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And find God she did. Like the Italian priest and so many others, she was a saint, though not in the media's spotlight, nor a biographer's subject (though writers have inquired). She was a quiet, faithful woman who, in her fidelity drew near to her essential, divine person. And for this reason, she gave off a light that bespoke her inner peace. And it was that light that prompted tens of thousands of people to contribute for the care of the poor. For they saw her face, and they trusted that. She touched people very deeply .... deep down inside where God lives within them, or to say it more precisely where the-part-of-God-which-they-are lives. Our authority for this indisputable truth could not be more reliable: "I AM the Lord thy God. And because I AM Holy, you are to be holy."

And what is this holiness? It is what we already are, what we were born to be — clear, luminous, serene, and full of God's δυναμις (dunamis) or power.

If our consent to the debris of this world has dimmed our light, the light that shone from our faces as children, do not despair. The Lord reassures us. For the one who says, "Enough! No more of this life in the ruins!" there will be more mirth in Heaven than for ninety-nine saints who have no need to shake this world's dust off of them (Lu 15:7). So long as we draw breath, our true selves are there yearning to be free, yearning to be children of the light.

Encountering the face of God on top of Mt. Sinai, Moses' face shone with a radiance so great that no one could look upon him. Atop the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus unveiled His true self in the greatest theophany of the New Testament: "And His face did shine like the sun" (Mt 17:2). And He enjoins us to let our light so shine upon men that even God the Father feels its glory (Mt 5:16). Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our path into light. God made the world first with light, and we see a brilliant light when we die. Light is our essence, our deepest nature, and our only true home.

Today on Septuagesima Sunday, we begin a long journey toward a tomb. We will travel as by night over rocky road. We may be heavy hearted at times. But through the door of that tomb, we will encounter the Lord of Light. He is waiting for us. Claim the light, for nothing else is worthy of us.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.