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Transfiguration Spirituality CHRIST DID NOT DIE FOR GOLD

We write this on August 6.
This day is indelibly branded and engraved on our souls.

  • It is the day, August 6, 1945, that our father died (Mark’s father, Herman Sebastian Zwick, died when Mark was a young teenager, leaving a family of twelve children). This changed Mark’s life.
  • It is also the day, August 6, 1945, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and which changed irreversibly the course of history in regard to war and peace.
  • But, more importantly for believers, it is the feast of the Transfiguration, which, if taken seriously, can change our lives and the course of history.

At the Transfiguration, the disciples are momentarily permitted to see the Son of God as He really is, but only because they have been transformed themselves.


The Light of Tabor

The Eastern Christian Church and the early Church Fathers remind us that mere mortal eyes and mortal flesh cannot see the glorified and transfigured Christ.

The song, “Let all Mortal flesh keep Silence” takes on profound theological depth here.

Unless we have been transformed in Christ, unless we die to self and put on Christ, we can neither see nor withstand the Transfiguration.

A transfiguration or transformation is required of the whole person in Christ, in order to see Christ transfigured. The change on Mt. Tabor in the Gospels is not in Christ so much as it is in the disciples, who were enabled to apprehend the Divine Light in direct proportion to their possession of the Holy Spirit and their union with Christ. “Do you see that before that light, eyes which see naturally are blind? Even the disciples saw that, but were unable to look steadily upon it.”
(St. Gregory Palamas).

In a recent article in the National Catholic Register (7/31), Fr. Alexei Smith, Pastor, St. Andrew Russian Greek Catholic Church in El Segundo, California, tells us that in the Christian East (unlike the West), the transfiguration is “the fountainhead of a whole spirituality.” He quotes the early Church fathers, such as Origen, emphasizing that “spiritual advancement is needed in order to see Christ.”

What a challenge to us! Popular spiritualities today sometimes omit or mock the idea of advancement in prayer, although the mystics have always seen this at the heart of the spiritual life, a preparation for being able to see the vision of God.

We sometimes see incredible examples of the transformation that takes place in people’s lives when they are comtemplatives who are transfigured as they put on Christ. One does not have to live in a monastery to be a contemplative–in fact, some of the greatest examples are also people of action.


Transfiguration of Bartolomé de Las Casas, O.P.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish Dominican priest and missionary of the sixteenth century, experienced a transformation that completely changed his life, after he began to work with the Native Americans of Latin America.

His was a tremendous transfiguration.

In a wonderful book Gustavo Gutierrez describes Las Casas’ personal transformation as he is profoundly changed from a priest who had his own encomienda and his own Indians (he was once refused absolution because of his neglect of sharing the faith with them) to a prophet who spent his life in defense of the “scourged Christ of the Indies,” the suffering Native Americans. (Gustavo Gutierrez, Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ, Orbis Books, 1993).
Las Casas arrived in the Indies only ten years after Columbus. And so he saw almost from the very beginning the “untimely and unjust death of the dwellers of these lands.” It was the massacre of the indigenous people that led to his transformation, and his insight that it was difficult, or rather, impossible to preach the Gospel to the poor under these circumstances, as he wrote in his last work:

“When we preach to the Indians the humility and poverty of Jesus Christ, and how he suffered for us, and how God rejoices in the poor and in those the world despises, they think we are lying to them.”

Gutierrez tells us that having spent his entire life meditating on the person of Christ, Las Casas was overwhelmed with the injustices done to the Indians by the Spanish conquistadores. He believed in Matthew 25: “Whatsoever you do to one of these least ones, you do to me.”

His personal meditation on the figure of Christ led him to put himself at the service of the proclamation of God’s love for each and every person, especially for the poor of his time, the indigenous. The great theme of his life was the God of Jesus Christ, the God who dwells in history. This was the foundation of his acute sense of the value of persons, of their life and freedom, and of his particular sensitivity to the most forgotten and those whom the world despises.

To maintain this witness to serve Latin America’s poorest, Las Casas had to suffer much and “pass through the lake of infamy and tribulation” (his own words).

The reality of the Bible permeated Las Casas life. When he thought of the Jewish people being liberated by God from the tremendous oppression by the Egyptians, he thought of the awful oppression suffered by the indigenous population of South America at the hands of the conquistadores. Las Casas knew he had to be like Moses–and never let down his arms nor his efforts for the suffering poor.

He wrote and wrote about these injustices, traveled back and forth to Spain and did not stop speaking about the need for a change of heart.

For Las Casas it was simple–salvation cannot be divorced from justice. For him it was the proper characteristic of the followers of Jesus to proclaim and bear witness to the salvific will of God, “to establish justice and right.” It was imperative for him, a condition for attaining the face-to-face vision of God. (Gutierrez, p.10)

Transformed by Christ, Las Casas walked through the world in search of Christ’s poor. As Gutierrez tells us, for those poor he fought and from out of their midst he announced: the Gospel in a society being established on a foundation of plunder and injustice. In the afflicted and scourged inhabitants of these lands, Las Casas was able to see the presence of Christ himself.”


Las Casas was not Alone

An important discovery for us in reading Gutierez’ book on Las Casas was that he was not completely alone in fighting for justice for the native peoples in Latin America in his time. He was not only able to influence many others to share in his thinking, but also had many allies within the Church and even among some royal officials and members of the Council of the Indies.

But powerful people fought against Las Casas’ ideas on justice for the poor. They had to justify their taking of political power and the lands and the gold of the native peoples. They published their articles and attacked his positions.

Las Casas’ answer was clear: “Christ did not die for gold.” To appropriate the wealth of the indigenous without any authorization is to commit a “mortal sin of theft or robbery.”


Spain Unique

This dialogue about injustice toward the indigenous peoples of Latin America seems to be unique to Spain. Since the English (Great Britian) write history, we have heard much about the cruelty of Spain at this time in history. England and Spain were enemies and presented a cruel picture of Spain and of the Catholic Church, a picture which they could have painted so well of themselves regarding the colonization of the United States.

Unfortunately, there was no English Las Casas to protect the victims from the hands of the English. The English mentioned nothing of the rights of the native population.

As Gutierrez tells us, all of the European nations involved in colonizing the Americas “are proud of what they have accomplished in the Indies, and actually regard it as civilizing and evangelizing.” But Gutierrez emphasizes that, “Spain alone had the courage to hold a comprehensive debate on the ethics and morality of the European presence in the Indies. In the other countries of the old world, the right to occupy these lands as regarded as too obvious to be questioned.”


Latin America Today

For many of the indigenous of Latin America today, things still have not changed–they live under terrible conditions of poverty and injustice.

Many Latin Americans are still working for wages that would be considered slave wages in Western Europe and the United States.

We have the example of the maquiladoras today, where in Latin America people are paid for a week’s work what U.S. workers previously received from the same company for an hour’s work. (Thus Latin America workers are paid an average of $.42 per hour and US workers $14.00 per hour.)

One can see why General Motors and Ford recently reported a tremendous increase in profits. General Motors has 300 plants in Latin America. These profits were made off the backs of people who had to choose (while working) whether to eat or to have a place to live. NAFTA and GATT are the means of institutionalizing this maquiladora system and are billed as the wonder of free trade. Unfortunately, free trade tends to give the advantage to those who already have capital, not to the poor. It makes everything advantageous to big business and squeezes out small businesses and farmers.

NAFTA has already been passed, but it can be reformed. GATT can be reformed before it is again approved.

A September 18, 1993 editorial in America magazine warned about the effects of these practices. They gave us the background on current U.S. Business practices in Central America: “During the 1980’s the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Agency for International Development urged American producers, especially of textiles and electronics, to shift offshore, “You owe it to your shareholders,” they argued. The procedure was this: Buy fabric in Asia, have it sewn in Haiti (for 14 cents an hour in one notorious instance) or the Dominican Republic or El Salvador, and sell the finished produce in the United States or Europe.”

By abolishing tariffs and demanding that the poor countries pay their huge interest payments on debts to the World Bank, the markets in the poor countries have been flooded with imports and the smaller businesses, cooperatives, and farms (ideal Christian alternatives), have been unable to compete with big business and poverty has thus worsened in Central America.

The responsibility of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is grave in contributing to this injustice. Their massive-scale projects in Latin America in the last fifty years have caused social upheavals that included enormous migrations to the major cities, where people have no work. And the sacrifices required of the people to begin to repay the enormous debts and interest payments owed to these institutions make life impossible for the poor.


“I am Not Saying They Directly Wish to Kill Them”

How can a person with GM stock (or with stock in another company that is posting huge profits at the expense of the poor) receive dividends with impunity, knowing that when these companies had their plants in the U.S., they paid an average of $14.00 an hour and are now paying $20.00 a week or less?

We at Casa Juan Diego recently came into some oil stock. We sold it immediately for fear of participating in oppression, and the money will be used to help those forced to immigrate because of non-living wages.

The stockholders of these companies don’t want to hurt Latin Americans, nor force them to immigrate illegally to the United States, but they do want to make money (profit). It is easy to forget that “Jesus did not die for gold.”

Unfortunately for us, the sufferings of the poor and oppressed are not so visible as in the days of Las Casas, but we are still required to know where our money is coming from.

We are not approaching this as a political issue, but as a religious issue–a justice issue.

As Las Casas pointed out in his denuciation of the murder of the Indians and the destruction of their lands, the system had to be changed to so that the poor are not used as animals, without respecting them as living creatures. He wrote:

“I am not saying that they directly wish to kill them, out of some hatred for them. I am saying that they desire to be wealthy and to abound in gold, which is their goal, by means of the toil and sweat of the afflicted, distressed Indians, using them as lifeless means and instruments, and that upon this follows, necessarily, the death of them all” (Gutierrez, p. 315).


The Christian Response – Radically Different

How could one be so blinded by gold that one could not see that the workers are dying? How could people be so interested in profits and in maintaining an elevated lifestyle that they don’t see or are willing to rationalize and minimize the effect of decisions on the suffering poor in Latin America? It appears to be a human weakness of many centuries.

A clarity of vision is needed.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (astoundingly, high on the bestseller list in Publishers’ Weekly), gives some badly needed guidelines for today’s Catholics, telling us that “Rich nations have grave moral responsibility” toward poorer nations (2439). The section on “Justice and Solidarity among Nations” sets clear moral imperatives for nations and financial systems: “It is necessary to reform international economic and financial institutions so that they will better promote equitable relationships with less advanced countries” (2440). And “In place of abusive if not usurial financial systems, iniquitous commerical relations among nations, and the arms race, there must be substituted a common effort to mobilize resources toward objectives of moral, cultural, and economic development, ‘redefining the priorities and hierarchies of values'” (2438).

The followers of the Nazarene are asked to redefine their priorities and values to conform with the Gospel! The Catechism reminds us in the words of St. John Chrysostom, one of the early Fathers of the Church, that “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and to deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (2446).

And the Catechism reaffirms that “those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church” (2448).


Transformation Needed

There needs to be an emergence of faith-based people who can emulate Bartolomé de Las Casas in his reponse to injustice and the needs of the poor. Maybe the Catechism of the Catholic Church can help this happen. Christians of today need to participate in the same transformation as Bartolome de las Casas in realizing that Christ did not die for gold–and neither did he die for profits.

It is humanly impossible to expect people to suffer the ignominy that comes with going counter to the economic trends that dominate our Western culture. But with God’s grace and a commitment to the spiritual life, our minds and hearts can be conformed to Christ.


How Can we Respond  to Suffering?

The images that cross our television sets almost daily of suffering people from many parts of the world are overwhelming to any sensitive person and are certainly overwhelming to many committed Christians. How can we respond to men’s and women’s inhumanity to humankind? How did Las Casas respond? Did he wring his hands in despair or become immobilized?

How did Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker respond? She was a person who all of her life was very sensitive to the needs of the poor and suffering and looked to Christians to respond.

Both of these people sometimes wondered about certain people who “go by the name of Christian,” as they oppressed the poor. But both responded by living with the poor, seeing Christ in the poor and working and writing tirelessly for justice.

It is in following the example of people like Las Casas and Dorothy Day, both of whom prayed daily, meditating on the Lord Jesus Christ, that our whole being can be transfigured in order that we can truly see Christ in the poor (Matthew 25:31ff.) and with God’s grace that we may one day be a part of the “just who will shine as the sun” (Matthew 13:45) when the Lord comes in His glory, being light and seeing light, “a blessed and sacred vision, that is the portion of the purified heart alone” (Fr. Alexei Smith, above).

Pray for transfiguration in Casa Juan Diego.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIV, No. 6, September 1994.