Being transfigured with Jesus - a graceful, beautiful, lucid novel

James Cowan, who died last month, as described here had a casual attitude to publication. Financial resources, a disregard for popularity, a taste for adventure and a focus on the realities of the sacred all conspired to keep him inconsistently before the public eye and on the fringe of the 'literary world'. A world, that in turn, he never evinced any great concern for, I recall.

I have been reading one of his later works, a novel, 'The Deposition'. It is a beautiful work that successfully weaves a credible act of literature with a profound spiritual meditation on the life of Jesus and its impact on the first disciples. It is a meditation that is at once faithful to tradition; and, yet opens up that tradition to a renewed universality.

The deposition in question is that of Rabbi Gamaliel, the grandson of Rabbi Hillel, who was the famous author of three questions: If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now when? A set of questions Gamaliel successfully lives into an answer in his contest with Caiphas about the meaning of Jesus during a later confrontation in the Sanhedrin, towards the end of the book.

For Gamaliel is one of the Sanhedrin when Jesus is tried and condemned. It is a condemnation he votes against and his perceived injustice of it, and yet the guilt at being involved drives him to question some of the key witnesses to Jesus' life - Peter and Andrew, James and John, Mary Magdala and Lazarus, a shepherd boy and the wife of Pontius Pilate. Each a very different character, different witness, all deftly drawn, real people not simply conduits for Cowan's thoughts.

All have been shifted into new possibilities of life, all are wrestling with its implications as disciples; and, all act as a foil and encouragement to Gamaliel's own reassessment of his life. What does it mean, at the end of a life, to be confronted with a radical questioning of what one's has inherited, mastered and loved? What is the relationship between the Law faithfully followed and this new language of freedom in love? How do we find the language and the faith to understand this man, Jesus, who appears to be opening to us to a new way of appreciating and living out the divine, the relationship with and in God?

Will Gamaliel himself convert and if not, why not and if so, how? It is a question that is left radically open at the end for putting into question the whole notion of 'conversion' for how can you 'convert' into what you already and always are? The truth is a pathless land that is the always present, embracing all, so, paradoxically, though there is someone to follow, you are always, already arrived. It is the truth that transforms you, acquires you, not the other way about.

At the heart of the book is the transfiguration when Jesus appears to Peter, James, and John as he fully is, radiant in his light, the light that graces all into existence and of which we are all a part. The book ends (apart from a coda) with the elderly Gamaliel taking an ass and making a pilgrimage to Mt Tabor and confessing to the winds, the ravens and, possibly the ass, his confession of faith and it does, and will, receive many re-readings for the comprehensiveness, and inclusiveness, of its vision.

It reminded me deeply of Edwin Muir's poem, 'The Transfiguration'
for its shared sense of our being invited to a common task of living into the light, of creating a world in which everything is translucent to the light, living in harmony in it; and, a living that gracefully includes and heals our brokenness and affirms our individuality, as it does so.

We are redeemed in our graced particularity - or as the image of John's Revelation has it, each carrying a white stone on which is marked our unique name, known to ourselves and God alone.

It is a novel and a teaching of a very high order and grace.


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