Death & Transfiguration

Down the precipitous switchbacks at eighty
the pokerfaced Palestinian cabby aims his Mercedes
while the three of us, ersatz pilgrims, blank-eyed, lurch,
and the droll Franciscan goes on about the Art Deco Church

of the Transfiguration crowning the summit of the Mount.
Up there I’d touched the damp stones of the old Crusader fount,
paced the thick walls, imagined Muslims circling below
on horseback, muleback, then ascending for the final blow.

A decent pasta and a dry wine, thanks to the Fratelli who run
the hostel at the site, followed by an even drier lecture in the sun-
drenched court, then back down to the glinting taxis, ready
to return us now to the same old, feverish, unsteady

world half a mile below. I thought of the old masters, so
many of them who had tried to ignite this scene: Angelico,
di Buoninsegna, Bellini, Perugino, the Frenchman John of Berry,
the Preobrazheniye (Russian, Novgorod, sixteenth century),

and thought at last of what Raphael had wrought. It was to be
his final work, commissioned for some French cathedral, his early
death at thirty-seven intervening. For those who only dream
of some vertiginous, longed-for transfiguration, he would seem

to hold out something magnanimous and large: the benzine brightness
of the Christ, eyes upraised in the atom flash of whiteness,
that body lifted up, cloud-suspended feet above the earth. There,
on either side, with the Tablets and the Book: Moses and Elijah.

Below, his fear-bedazzled friends: Peter, James and John. And though
paint is only paint, we can almost hear the Father’s words again, so
caught up in the vision was the artist: This is my beloved Son,
on whom my favor rests. Listen to him
. Meanwhile, someone

in the lower half of the picture is gesturing toward the transfigured
Christ. He is part of the curious and anxious crowd
that surrounds the epileptic youth, whose eyes, like Christ’s, are wide,
but wide with seizure like some frenzied Sibyl’s: the great divide

that separates him from the others, as if he understood the same strange
thing Raphael came to see as he composed this scene: that the deranged
youth has somehow come upon a mystery. Like us, he has been bound
round with fear, and only the One descending as he comes can sound

those depths of cosmic light and dark, in which the young man
writhes honeystuck in death, though he will—the gospel says—be raised again
to health and to his father, in this prologue to the resurrection.
That’s it, then, it would seem: first the old fears descending, then dejection

and the dunning sameness in the daily going round and round of things.
Then a light like ten thousand suns that flames the brain and brings
another kind of death with it, and then—once more— the daily round
again. But changed now by what the blind beseeching eye has found.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The appointments are part of an ongoing effort to give a greater role to women in the work of the Roman Curia offices, the central administration of the Catholic church.
Gerard O’ConnellApril 21, 2018
Ivette Escobar, a student at Central American University in San Salvador, helps finish a rug in honor of the victims in the 1989 murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter on the UCA campus, part of the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Jesuit martyrs in 2014. (CNS photo/Edgardo Ayala) 
A human rights attorney in the United States believes that the upcoming canonization of Blessed Oscar Romero in October has been a factor in a decision to revisit the 1989 Jesuit massacre at the University of Central America.
Kevin ClarkeApril 20, 2018
Journalists photograph the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2010. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
In California, Catholic opponents of the death penalty are trying to protect the largest population of inmates awaiting execution in the Western Hemisphere.
Jim McDermottApril 20, 2018
Photo: the Hank Center at Loyola University Chicago
Bishop McElroy said that Catholics must embrace “the virtues of solidarity, compassion, integrity, hope and peace-building.”