Transfiguration: I Saw a Tree inside a Tree

Vincent van Gogh. “Peach Tree in Blossom” (“Souvenir de Mauve”)

Transfiguration Sunday

The indispensable website Journey to Jesus alerted me to this Christian Wiman poem inspired by the Transfiguration story. The poem speaks of those moments where, to borrow from Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, “we see into the life of things.” The Transfiguration was one such moment:

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36)

Wiman describes seeing another reality beyond the one that normally presents itself to us (“I saw a tree inside a tree”) and like the disciples concludes that what he is witnessing “is not the life of men.” He senses “a single being undefined” or perhaps “countless beings of one mind.” Whatever it is, it has a “strange cohesion/Beyond the limits of my vision.”

“And that,” he concludes, “is where the joy came in.”

From a Window

By Christian Wiman

Incurable and unbelieving 
In any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree 
Rise kaleidoscopically

As if the leaves had livelier ghosts. 
I pressed my face as close

To the pane as I could get 
To watch that fitful, fluent spirit

That seemed a single being undefined 
Or countless beings of one mind

Haul its strange cohesion 
Beyond the limits of my vision

Over the house heavenwards. 
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood 
Exactly as it had and would

(But why should it seem fuller now?) 
And though a man’s mind might endow

Even a tree with some excess 
Of life to which a man seems witness,

That life is not the life of men. 
And that is where the joy came in.

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