The title of this article is the phrase with which St. John Henry Newman introduces his short poem titled: “Transfiguration.” The poem is as follows: I saw thee once and nought discern’d/ for stranger to admire;/ A serious aspect, but it burn’d/ With no unearthly fire./ Again I saw, and I confess’d/ Thy speech was rare and high;/ And yet it vex’d my burden’d breast,/ And scared, I knew not why./ I saw once more, and awe-struck gazed/ On face, and form, and air;/ God’s living glory round thee blazed -/ A Saint – a Saint was there!”
The Transfiguration of Christ, which we celebrate next Saturday (8/6), was the event in which Our Lord took three of the Apostles – Peter, James, and John – up a high mountain. There, the gospels tell us, “He was transfigured before them.” Christ Jesus, who is true God and true man, is described here as being filled with light, and changed in appearance. Normally, Christ’s human nature concealed His divine nature. But in this moment, He is allowing His divinity to shine forth through His humanity. On the mountain, that which had always been present but hidden is manifested for a short while before their eyes.
Newman’s poem, however, is not about the gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Rather, it is about a man whom the speaker encounters on different occasions. In the first encounter, the speaker notices nothing special about the man beyond his serious demeanor. But in the next encounter, the speaker notes a change in him, which he finds unsettling. The speaker is unsettled because he is encountering a converted soul, one whom we might guess has received baptism or had his faith awakened since the previous meeting, within whom now dwells the living Presence of God, which fills the speaker with holy fear. Suddenly, the speaker has a mystical experience of the man, who is somehow transfigured before him. The Presence of God shines forth through the man’s humanity. It is a graced moment, a gift of recognition that is willed by neither the speaker nor the man himself. It is a grace granted by the Indweller as a reminder of His mysterious Presence that ordinarily radiates invisibly – hidden, but real – within the soul that is alive with the Life of God.
In his sermons, Newman often chides us for having a misguided sense of what it means to be religious. Too often, he says on the Feast of the Transfiguration, we think it is only about “filling your worldly station well, being amiable, and well-behaved, and considerate, and orderly.” Thinking thus, we neglect our life with God. We do not pray. We do not confess our sins. We do not live the sacramental life. We fail to “stir up the great gift of God which is lodged deep within you, the gift of election and regeneration,” and so we “have little or nothing of the sweetness, the winning grace, the innocence, the freshness, the tenderness, the cheerfulness, the composure of the elect of God.” As we contemplate the mystery of the Transfiguration of Christ, we should ask for the grace of conversion, an awakening to the presence of the Lord in our midst, and the holy desire for transfiguration – that the glory of God might shine forth through us upon the world, according to His will.