Arthur Middleton on transfiguration in Michael Ramsey
Speaking in a retreat Michael Ramsey quotes the historian Toynbee’s description of the true attitude of transfiguration in a declining and frustrated civilization. Transfiguration is accepting ‘the situation just as it is and carrying it into a larger context which makes sense of it and gives it the power to grapple with it.’ For Christians, that larger context is Jesus crucified and risen, who calls us to lift situations into that context and find there new and exciting things beginning to happen.
Bishop Michael says that people suffer greatly and yet through their nearness to Christ, something different happens. Suffering continues but the power of prayer makes all the difference to them. Suffering transfigured. Situations transfigured. It baffles us rationally. We cannot get our heads round it or retreat from it. But seeing it in the context of Jesus crucified and risen brings it into a different light that shines on us. It was wrong to judge it hastily before taking it into the context of Jesus crucified and risen. Then human lives are transfigured.
This happens in human lives, where by God’s grace the mingled experiences of sorrow and joy bring about a transforming; the growth in grace, the growth in Christlikeness is a reality.
It is never apparent while it is happening, but growing Christlike is not something we can judge for ourselves. Further, self-conscious awareness of spiritual progress is a contradiction in terms. We must forget ourselves, putting ourselves in Christ’s hands where we know by faith that the power of Christ can and does work in us, and we can leave it at that, by faith, and not by sight.
The Bishop’s wisdom is not the fruit of philosophical idealism but of harsh experience. His mother died in a car his father was driving when he arrived at Cuddesdon to train for the priesthood. Chadwick his biographer wrote: “The resulting turmoil, mental and emotional, ruined (the word is not too strong) his preparation to be a priest, and blotted his memory of Cuddesdon. He hardly ever spoke about his mother again.’ His mental condition was ‘very adverse.’ He was in mental turmoil. He hinted later that his life was wrecked by fear, even by terror. God was cruel. It must be brought to ‘the touch of Jesus’ for cleansing. He began the practice of private confession. You cannot cure yourself. You cannot forget. You need to bring it to a place where God reaches out into the secret places of the soul.
Cuddesdon was a place of vision darkened by suffering. Later he opened his eyes and his heart to the suffering in the lives of many people across the world. In 1966 in a BBC broadcast about problems of Christian belief he said, ‘Christian faith has been for me a constant process of wrestling, of losing and finding, of alternating night and day. A sense of peace and serenity is a costly peace, a peace in the heart of conflict.’
Preaching at Cuddesdon when Archbishop of York, he said: ‘It was here that we faced the truth about ourselves before the Cross of Christ, and with the painful shattering of our pride discovered that we have no sufficiency of ourselves to think anything of ourselves.’ In the darkness he had a profound encounter with Christ crucified and risen. It was a spiritual vision that was born in him then that coloured his teaching and living.