Mount Tabor’s twin caves

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The Icon of Transfiguration attributed to Theophanes the Greek, usually dated to about 1403, or at least to the beginning of the fifthteenth century, depicts two hermit’s caves in the shade of two small trees on the slopes of Mount Tabor.  Easily overlooked, these hermit cells appear dark within, in contrast to the uncreated light of Christ’s transfiguration, but if their darkness is the dazzling darkness of apophatic Hesychasm, they represent cave entrances into the dazzling darkness of Mount Sinai as well as Tabor, not to mention the mysteries of the Holy Name revealed in the Burning Bush.  Theophanes’ icon shows three disciples, Peter, James and John, blinded by the uncreated light of Christ on Mount Tabor, Peter reaching towards Christ, the others coiled up within themselves and shielding their faces.  If there were hermits concealed in those caves on Mount Tabor, they were hidden with Christ in the dazzling darkness of God.  Two twisted trees at the caves’ entrances suggest that it was trees of life that shaded and covered them, holy wisdom beholding the glory that transfigures them.  Perhaps two hermit caves in Theophanes’ icon suggest a cave of wisdom and a cave of glory, both plunged in dazzling darkness, both overshadowed by a sacred tree.  In which case, transfiguration caves concealing the mysteries revealed on Mount Tabor might signify a cave of wisdom unveiling glory and a cave of glory sustaining wisdom.

The cave of wisdom suggests that Hesychasm never forsook the desert wisdom of her elders and saints, whilst the cave of glory suggests that Hesychasm never forgot their desert witness to the light of glory.  Desert wisdom addresses the illumination of the transfigured mind, whilst desert saints bear witness to transfiguration of the awakened heart.  Twin caves on the Mount of Transfiguration may point to mysteries of both unions, a transfigured union of the mind but also of the mind with the heart, because both caves lead directly into the dazzling darkness of Tabor, which is a union of wisdom and glory.  An awakened mind becomes an eye of the heart when the mind descends into the illumined heart, unveiling glory to wisdom, sustaining wisdom in glory.  Healthy Hesychasm holds wisdom and glory together, curing any gnostic tendencies that might over-stress the mind and any Messalian tendencies that might over-stress the heart.  Saint Diadochos of Photike was witness to this healthy union of the illumined mind and awakened heart in the fifth century, integrating the legacies of Evagrius and Macarios as a union of mind and heart.  Hesychasm bequeaths this conjoined legacy to all succeeding generations of elders and saints.  John Climacus hands on the joint legacies of both caves in his Ladder of Ascent, an inheritance of wisdom as glory and glory as wisdom.  Prayer of the heart unifies the illumined mind with the awakened heart in the remembrance of God, perhaps suggesting that both caves meet beneath Mount Tabor in the midst.

Transfiguration unveils the glory of Christ, ascribing all light of glory to the Father. But transfiguration also embraces everyone and everything, transmitting the wisdom and glory of both caves to all.  The glory of elders and saints is hidden in their midst until they are glorified, when glory then crowns them in uncreated light like Christ on Mount Tabor.  Christ was always glorious but the eye of the apostles’ heart was closed until opened on Mount Tabor.  Two caves beneath Christ might perhaps also signify the two wounds in Christ’s side, wounds which release the waters of baptism as wisdom and blood which pours forth life of glory through the Eucharist.  

In the transfiguration icon of St Andrei Rublev (c 1405), the two caves have become one but the two trees have become four.  The two caves were perhaps always one because wisdom and glory are forever one, but four trees might signify the cosmic scope of transfiguration in wisdom’s embrace.  In Rublev’s icon, transfiguring glory lies concealed in two caves made one, overshadowed by four wisdom trees, giving life to all.  The famous fifteenth century Novgorod icon of transfiguration also has a single hermit’s cave, indicating that Hesychast mysteries of wisdom and glory continue to inspire the Russian iconographical tradition.  

Two caves and two trees on the slopes of Mount Tabor might continue to be overlooked if it were not that Hesychasm still lives the mysteries of wisdom and glory.  Elders still transmit wisdom awakening hearts to glory.  Doxological time begins with glory in the age to come, weds it with original glory in the beginning, consummating both as presence of wisdom and awareness of glory now.   This is the experience of the hallowed Name that opens to the kingdom come.  This is the experience of glorification which transfigures the saints, two hidden caves of dazzling darkness manifest as one radiance of wisdom and glory.   Two caves or one, it is a hermit’s cave that opens to the dazzling darkness of transfiguring wisdom, beholding as in a mirror the transfiguring glory of God’s Kingdom come.