To the Pure All Things Are Pure

Rafael, "The Transfiguration"

Rafael, “The Transfiguration”

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s lectionary readings include two moments when humans met the divine face to face: Moses receiving the ten commandments from God and Jesus being “transfigured” by his encounter with Moses and Elijah. In a wonderful poem by Edwin Muir, we are reminded that we can all catch a glimpse of the divine in our fallen and broken world.

Here’s the reading from Matthew (17:1-9):

Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

In Muir’s version, for a moment it is as though “the source of all our seeing” is “rinsed and cleansed/Till earth and light and water entering there/Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.” The soot covered stones appears “clean at the heart/As on the starting day,” and the lurkers, the murderers, and all who are “entangled in their own devices” step out of their dungeons and are free. For a moment we have a glimpse of life as it could be and then

                                                                   the world 
Rolled back into its place, and we are here, 
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn, 
As if it had never stirred…

But if we use that glimpse to guide our steps, we will not be overwhelmed by the inevitable reversals that bedevil our attempts to build a better world. Here’s Muir’s poem:

The Transfiguration

By Edwin Muir

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch 
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists 
As fresh and pure as water from a well, 
Our hands made new to handle holy things, 
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed 
Till earth and light and water entering there 
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world. 
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness, 
But that even they, though sour and travel stained, 
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance, 
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us 
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined 
As in a morning field. Was it a vision? 
Or did we see that day the unseeable 
One glory of the everlasting world 
Perpetually at work, though never seen 
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere 
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone, 
And the enormous earth still left forlorn, 
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world 
We saw that day made this unreal, for all 
Was in its place. The painted animals 
Assembled there in gentle congregations, 
Or sought apart their leafy oratories, 
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together, 
As if, also for them, the day had come. 
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath 
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart 
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps 
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world; 
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’ 
And when we went into the town, he with us, 
The lurkers under doorways, murderers, 
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came 
Out of themselves to us and were with us, 
And those who hide within the labyrinth 
Of their own loneliness and greatness came, 
And those entangled in their own devices, 
The silent and the garrulous liars, all 
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free. 
Reality or vision, this we have seen. 
If it had lasted but another moment 
It might have held for ever! But the world 
Rolled back into its place, and we are here, 
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn, 
As if it had never stirred; no human voice 
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks 
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines 
And blossoms for itself while time runs on. 

But he will come again, it’s said, though not 
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things, 
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas, 
And all mankind from end to end of the earth 
Will call him with one voice. In our own time, 
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe. 
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified, 
Christ the discrucified, his death undone, 
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled— 
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood 
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree 
In a green springing corner of young Eden, 
And Judas damned take his long journey backward 
From darkness into light and be a child 
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal 
Be quite undone and never more be done. 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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