Blessed John Henry Newman’s uplifting poem, “Transfiguration,” reminds Christians of something wonderful, and that’s “the beauty of holiness.” The title, naturally, brings first to mind *the* Transfiguration, Christ’s; however, the poem is not about His transfiguration but the one that He effects in us when he makes us saints. When this poem was written, Newman was soon to begin the Oxford Movement with some of his friends, and he was keenly aware that what moves others is holiness. The renewal of the Anglican Church called for personal holiness and sacramental life.
In the poem, the epigram beneath the title, “They glorified God in me” from Galatians 1:24, gives a hint of this poem’s meaning.
“They glorified God in me.”
I SAW thee once and nought discern’d
For stranger to admire;
A serious aspect, but it burn’d
With no unearthly fire.
In this first stanza, Newman has seen or perhaps met someone, and this person seemed to be lacking something. Newman, identified as a stranger, remarks that this person didn’t seem to “burn” with anything extraordinary … or supernatural (that is, unearthly). The person possessed gravitas, or seriousness, however.
In the second stanza, Newman comes upon the person another time, or else, he looks more closely at him; in either case, this person seems to have changed in Newman’s eyes. He writes:
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.
In this stanza, Newman notices the speech of the stranger. The stranger’s speech confused, or vexed Newman – but he doesn’t understand why he’s had this reaction to the stranger’s speech; this confusion burdened him, and “scared” him; the synonym “intimidated” might make more sense to us – the stranger’s speech, so high and rare, intimidated Newman, and he couldn’t figure out why. The final stanza explains the glorious reason!
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!
In this last stanza, Newman has looked again, and all of a sudden, it becomes clear to him! This stranger is shining with “the beauty of holiness”! The stranger has been transfigured – either Newman now sees for the first time this holiness, or else, the stranger, since the first meeting, has had a conversion. Newman now, as in Galatians 1:24, glorifies God in the person! He recognized God’s work in the stranger, whose face, form, and even the air around him – seemed to blaze with “living glory.” Newman has recognized him as saintly – our being taken up into Christ has visible and noticeable effects.
Our relationship with Christ first begins with an interior conversion, but through this interior conversion, the relationship grows, and, as Newman taught, a life in Christ will move also outwards. It radiates goodness. It becomes visible, or at least, recognizable. There is a beauty. The eyes, the gentleness, the gestures, the open nature: beauty! – a transfiguration! The invisible becomes visible. May our light also so shine before men, that they glorify God in us!