“For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.”
— Psalm 36:9
We all likely pray that we get through life without times of darkness, but the reality is that they’re unavoidable. That doesn’t mean we can’t overcome the darkness or move past it, however. The solution, as we say at The Christophers, is to light one candle. But where can we find the spark to ignite that candle?
Maybe it’s in the love of a family member or friend. Maybe it’s in the choice to help someone else through their own time of trouble. Maybe it’s by taking some time to pray quietly. Ultimately, the light of that candle has only one source: Jesus, the Light of the World. Whether we celebrate His coming at Christmas or His resurrection at Easter, it is Jesus who ignites the divine spark inside us, the divine spark we need to move forward with hope and love. That’s the way it’s been since the beginning of time.
Guided by the Light
It was a bright light that led the ancient Hebrews as they wandered through the desert: “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light.” (Exodus 13:21)
It was the light of a star that led the Wise Men out of the East and toward Bethlehem to find the infant Messiah: “There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” (Matthew 2:9-10)
As mentioned above, the psalmist wrote, “In Your light we see light.” Those six words may seem like a mere redundancy, but they are in fact full of mystery. What does it mean? How do we “see” light when we are in its midst? If we flip on a switch, we can see what is around us, but we put a shade over the bulb which illuminates, because its glare and brightness are too much to look at. Likewise, we see the brightness of a day about us but, even in winter, we will put sunglasses on, against the glare, and never look directly into the sun.
And yet the suggestion of those six words is that the light of the Lord — the light of the One who is the very source of All Light — is something very different. In the light of Christ, we are illuminated, yes; we are in brightness, true. But apparently, when we are truly standing within the radiance of Christ Jesus, we see something else—something of His nature, and the nature of the Creator, and of creation itself. It is literally alive with light.
A New Way of Seeing the World
The “light bulb over the head” moment is a cartoon staple, and for good reason. How many times have you heard someone relate a story about solving a dilemma and say, “Then, it was like a light bulb went on in my head, and I had this great idea!” Or sometimes, that light bulb is less about invention and problem-solving, and more about simply understanding something that we previously had not. We allude to light bulbs in connection to discovery and understanding all the time, because knowledge is illuminating. To learn something new is to take one more step out of the darkness of the many things we don’t know — not just toward knowledge but in the direction of its very source.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton had that type of experience in regard to “seeing light.” In “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” he wrote: “I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
We may believe that type of enlightenment is reserved for monks like Merton or other religious figures. The effect of spending many hours a day before the Blessed Sacrament, we think, might well bring on such a surge of insight and love, all unbidden, into a human soul. But consider the case of nine-year-old Annabel Beam, who attends a Baptist church in Texas with her family.
She told her mother that she had seen heaven and her deceased grandmother — and that she told Jesus she would like to stay, but He said she must not. She also said “I always thought that God had a big heart, and He does — His heart is so big that it glows. His eyes shine like gold glory reflected in the sun.”
Regarding heaven, Annabel later told a reporter, “Everything glowed. The light came from everywhere, from the flowers and the plants — even the grass gave off light as you walked on it.”
What both Merton and Annabel Beam describe seems very much like the “peaceable kingdom” we see described in the eleventh chapter of the prophecies of Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Infinite Goodness Everywhere
In truth, the insight into what it is like to “see light” is remarkably consistent, whenever someone tries to communicate it, whether in the modern era or the past. In the 19th century, Marie-Victoire-Thérèse Couderc — a simple woman from the French countryside — helped to establish a religious order of sisters (now known as the Sisters of the Cenacle) who were tasked with the care of religious pilgrims and the spiritual education of retreatants.
As sometimes happened in those days, with the growth of the community a woman of higher standing was put into leadership, and Sister Thérèse, as she was known, was relegated to working in the kitchen and the garden, invisible to retreatants, but steeped in prayer.
In 1866, she related her experience with seeing light: “I saw as in letters of gold this word, Goodness, which I repeated for a long while with an indescribable sweetness. I saw it, I say, written on all creatures, animate and inanimate, rational or not, all bore this name of goodness. I saw it even on the chair I was using as a kneeler. I understood then that all these creatures have of good – and all the services and helps that we receive from each of them are a blessing that we owe to the goodness of our God, who has communicated to them something of His infinite goodness, so that we may meet it in everything, and everywhere.”
The name of the well-born woman who replaced Sister Thérèse is forgotten to us, but this ignored visionary of the light in the world we now call “Saint.”
The true “Light of the World”, of course, is Jesus Christ. The light that permeates all of creation — that Merton says emanates from all of us, that Beam says springs from all things, that Thérèse says imbues even the inanimate — is the light of Christ. How do we know this? Because, Saint Paul writes in Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…All things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”
The firstborn of all creation is also the One whom we call The Word, which “was with God” (John 1:1) and was a part of the first affirmation of the Creator: “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3)
Jesus is the light apart from whom all other light is glaring and reflective. It is in His light that we see light itself. Whether decorating our houses with Christmas lights to signify His coming or proclaiming “lumen Christi” at the Vigil of Easter, we know that He is the greatest light; the light of all that begins and all that is renewed; the light that scatters darkness. He is the light at which we may look directly, without discomfort or glare or fear, because it is the very light with which we are created. Understanding this profound and heartening mystery should prompt us to let that light of Christ shine through us with the confidence that our Creator knows us and loves us and guides us toward our eventual reunion with Him.
“Let yourselves be taken over by the light of Christ, and spread that light wherever you are.”
– St. Pope John Paul II
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