Light inaccessible

A church I once frequented used to give me one of the best spiritual moments of the year by timing the Easter vigil so accurately before daybreak that the sun poured in exactly as the bells rung, the veils were pulled off the crosses and statues, and the first Gloria in Excelsis of the new season was sung. 

It’s no mere pagan hangover that churches are traditionally oriented, in the proper sense of the word, towards the East. We rely on the sun for the heat that gives us growth and life, and the light that lets us see. God is like this, the source of both existence and intelligibility, as the one who creates the world and gives it rational order. 

Of course, if you were able to fly to the sun, you would be burnt to nothing before you even got close; and if you stare at the sun, you will lose your sight. This is also true of God. Moses had to enter the cloud around God and only see his surrounds. He needed a veil even to glance at God obliquely. S John the Evangelist insists that no one can see God and live. His ways are higher than our ways, and in his innermost essence, he as inaccessible to our minds as he is to our bodies. 

His ways are higher than our ways, not in the way that our ways are higher than a chimpanzee’s or an ant’s, that is, different as matter of degree. They can in some limited way do many of the things that we can, and evolution tends towards greater intelligence over time. Rather, our difference from God is absolute. In many ways we are closer to an ant than we are to God. One might even say that it is our shared absolute difference from God that puts us in what moderns might call radical “solidarity” with everything else in creation, though I prefer St Francis’ word: brotherhood. The things of this world are more than colleagues or comrades. Rather, the animals, plants and even inanimate things of this universe are our sisters and brothers, under the paternity of God, and we humans are ordained to love and care for them as such. 

Yet, for all the absolute transcendence of God over his creatures, including us, he is also most intimately among us. For all his incomprehensibility, he does make himself known. If this sounds like nonsense, think back to the sun. We cannot enter the sun, yet we can feel its heat; and even when we don’t, at midnight or midwinter, we know that it is at work, exercising its gravitational influence, nurturing the plants around us that give us breathable air. We cannot look at the sun, yet whenever we look outside, everything we see reflects its light, even if we are looking out at night by its rays bouncing back from the moon. Even while we cannot reach it or look at it, the sun is present among us by its gravity, heat and light. 

No wonder then that early Christians should find the sun such an apt symbol for God. Of course, they were not alone, nor by any means the first to do so. Plato used the sun as a metaphor for the Good, that prime source of all being and intelligibility which later Platonists came to identify unequivocally with God. Jews and Christians alike seized on this imagery. But as with any metaphor, it contains similarity and difference to what it describes. Early Christians were as resolute as Platonists in their insistence that the sun is not God, and differs from God because it is only one thing among all the other things in the cosmos. Certainly pagan Platonists thought the sun could be a “god,” but absolutely not God proper, the God of gods, otherwise known as the One or the Good. For this God is not a god at all. God as the source of all being and intelligibility – that is, the source of everything – is beyond anything else, incomparable to anything else, “gods” or any other spiritual entities included. Indeed, to use the same word for these fundamentally different entities has been the cause of much misery and confusion over the centuries. For if we think as God as one great, big example among the general category of “gods,” we are defining God as one “thing” among many. 

This causes two considerable problems. First, it limits God to a category we can comprehend: and as St Augustine said, “if you comprehend it, it is not God.” Second, it puts God as someone or something in opposition to all the other things in the universe, including us. We end up differentiating God by scale, and worse, by power. So, the transcendent source of being and understanding is reduced to the atheistic bogeyman of an arbitrary tyrant, a big child playing with plastic bricks and smashing them up when he gets bored. And if that’s our model of God – the macho God of sheer power – what do you suppose our ideal model of humanity is going to be like? Something, dare I suggest, like the president of a bellicose nation not entirely absent from the news or other countries’ borders at the moment. 

But why not render God in these terms? If God is beyond comprehension, surely God could be anything at all? How can I say that God really isn’t like a shirtless ex-secret serviceman on the back of horse? 

This is where revelation comes in. But before you accuse me of pulling a Deus ex machina like a rabbit from a hat, let me clear up a misconception. I’m not talking about revelation as the arbitrary mandates of an arbitrary, divine dictator. I’m not talking about a hundred impossible things to believe before breakfast. I am of course talking about the Bible, but not just about the Bible, by any means: because even a theologian as Bible-based as Calvin affirmed that God reveals himself through the “book of nature” as well as the books of Scripture. When I talk about revelation, I am not talking of something super-added on top of an otherwise pristine, neutral, “scientific” universe. I am talking about the revelation of the source of being through the universe of beings. 

As I’ve already indicated, the sun is a good place to start when thinking about God’s self-revelation in the cosmos. It is the main thing in the universe that our world really cannot exist without. So what does it tell us about reality? Chiefly, it suggests that the universe is rationally ordered, and that it is ordered towards the end of generating and sustaining life. Not just any life, either. For although evolutionary theory suggests that beings evolve towards ever-increasing multiplicity and variation, they also evolve towards ever increasing intelligence. As the diverge physically, they converge intellectually, as it were. One may object that the universe is in fact far more chaotic than the neatness of Newtonian physics might allow, but even this objection is grounded in the prior sense that there is something comprehensible as “order” against which chaos and disorder can be measured. While humans may not understand the physical laws of the universe as well as we once assumed, we can still say with confidence that such laws exist, even if all we are prepared to affirm, as the absolute minimum, is the existence of the numbers from one to three: for if one thing exists, it exists in differentiation from a second thing, and thirdly, in relation to that thing. There are of course considerably more and more complex rules in the universe, but it suffices at this point just to say that there are rules: we cannot see them, but they exist. They constitute the cosmos and give it a certain rationality; a certain logic, we might say. 

Scientific theory, insofar as my limited understanding grasps it, maintains that these rules erupted with the matter they govern from a singularity which earned the mocking nickname of the “Big Bang.” Mocking, because the astronomer who bore this brainchild was a Catholic priest, and despite his protests to the contrary, secular scientists feared he was muddling his science with his religion. This is because, contrary to the tiresome propaganda of school Religious Studies textbooks, the Big Bang is not an alternate theory to traditional theistic theories of divine creation. The singularity was the source of physical matter, but scientists do not think that it was itself material. The closest description I can find in layman’s terms is that everything came out of “nothing.” The reason Fr Lemaître’s critics were so sceptical is because creation from nothing is precisely what the Christian Church had been preaching for centuries. And the question it raises is one which science, which is necessarily limited to the material realm, simply cannot answer: namely, what is that “nothing”? 

Clearly, it cannot be nothing in the sense of the nothing inside an empty biscuit tin, from which universes tend not to unfold. If it is an emptiness, it is a plenitudinous emptiness, a veritable cornucopia. And this, too, is not a bad point to reach in thinking about what God might be – if we are thinking of God not as a being (a “god”), but as the source of all being in its rational order, and yet in His essence beyond all being and being all rational understanding. Talk of God’s “existence” is, I think, futile. The distinction of existence and non-existence is too limiting to apply to the source of existence. God is beyond the distinction of “something” and “nothing.” And so while God is the source of spiritual light, that is, the invisible ordering of reality which gives shape to the cosmos and allows it to be understood, God per se is beyond even the distinction of light and darkness. Something like this was revealed to the Psalmist who praised his maker by singing: the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike (Ps 139:11)

So here is the irony: while we cannot know God in his unknowable essence, we can know Him in the “rays” of light, the ordered forms which proceed from him and give being and comprehensibility to everything in the cosmos. Another way of putting it: God in his essence is unknowable and indescribable, unnameable; but we can know, describe and “name” him by every single thing in this universe. All things are given shape and life because they proceed from Him. All things are manifestations of God. As we say in theological trade, while God’s essence remains unknown, each thing manifests God’s “energies.” The whole cosmos is a “theophany,” a divine revelation. We see something we can, really, properly attribute to God in the people and things around us; and yet, the divine essence remains beyond our intellectual grasp. 

I have waited until now to introduce Christ into the picture, and for good reason. There are simply too many misconceptions around Christian doctrine to have brought Our Lord in earlier. All too often, the revelation of God in Christ is used as a handy “magic wand” to dispel all doubt. It is easy to say that we know what God is like because we see Him in Christ, and this is true; but if we don’t show our workings, it is equally easy to dismiss such a claim. It comes back to God as mere assertion of something arbitrary, one hypothesis among many. But without a reasoned reflection on what God is (with all the caveats piled up above!), we won’t get very far with who Christ is. 

It is I hope still fairly well known that in Christian theology, Christ is believed to be God. Alas, the matter is often left there, for fear that it might get too difficult. The liturgical repetition of the Trinitarian formula, “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost/Spirit,” whilst meet, right and just, can dim the memory that Christ is not only God’s Incarnate Son but also, and arguably more fundamentally, God’s Incarnate Word. And, as any (or at least, many) fule know, the Greek for Word in this context is Logos. When I mentioned that the universe is ordered by a certain logic earlier on, I chose the word carefully. For what Christians are not (meant to be) saying when we profess that Christ is God Incarnate, is that He is the Father and the Spirit Incarnate. No. Rather, we believe Him to be the Word by which the first chapter of Genesis reveals that God “spoke” (or perhaps better, with Clement of Alexandria “sung”) the cosmos into existence. And as the Preface of S John’s Gospel reveals, this Word not only was with God, as though God’s Word were something separate from God, but was and eternally is God. The Word is the principle of order which we might cautiously identify as the Mind of God; and God without a Mind would not be recognisable as God. The Mind/Word proceeds from the unknowable essence of the Father, and while we can differentiate these two rationally, they are eternally inseparable and One. There is no “time” when God was without Word (that is, Mind) or Spirit. This leaves us with the Christian dogma that Christ is the Incarnation of the all-ordering Word by which everything is shaped and made. Now, we see why S John can also call Him the divine “Light” which gives being and intelligibility to the cosmos: hence, the Divine Word calls Himself Life and Truth. 

He also calls Himself the Way. This Way is, of course, the Way of the Cross, the Way of self-renouncing love. Yet the Cross is the Way, and not the destination. Christ shows us the destination vividly while He is still walking that Way, making His journey towards Jerusalem, but stops to climb Mount Tabor. There, Ss Peter, James and John see Our Lord as He truly is: illumined with a light “brighter than the sun.” The pun works only in English, but here, the Son of Righteousness is revealed as the Sun of Righteousness, whose light drives even the “Sons of Thunder” (as Our Lord called those two brothers) to their knees. There, Moses and Elijah appear: Moses, type of the Law, who ascended into the dazzling darkness of God on Sinai; and Elijah, type of the Prophet, who was borne aloft in a chariot of fire. God of God, Light of Light, begotten, not made! Nature reveals Him as our source; but Christ is the confirmation that He is also our goal and destination. So it is that the Father’s voice rings out over the mountain where Christ is transfigured, as it did over the river where He was baptized, in the heights as in the depths. Our passage is illumined: from baptism, death with Christ to sin, through to Resurrection in eternal life and light. 

Sometimes we encounter that uncreated light of God even in this world. It leaves us, as it left Peter, in something of a delirium, a trance. It can be seen only by crucifying our reason and calculation, our obsession with utility and idolatry of matter; and when we see it, we see it as in a dream, for it is not something that can be seen with our mortal eyes. Sometimes we speak of “hearing” God, as S Luke’s account of the Transfiguration alludes to, because sound is somehow less material to our minds than the sight of those things illumined by light. We might go further, and say that wordless music, like the groanings of the Spirit S Paul mentions, can communicate things to us which are inexpressible by words. Yet the most direct of our senses is taste, and it is perhaps the least describable. The most direct apprehensions we can have of God are more like taste than anything else. Taste and see, wrote the Psalmist, for the Lord is Good. 

These tastes of God are immediate in the way that God’s own knowledge is immediate, for God in his essence knows all without reasoning, without differentiation. We are as light to Him as dreams, and our highest experience of Him is dreamlike, direct yet undirected. Even the weight of the world’s sin, the world’s tanks and nuclear weapons, is less than a grain of sand to God. And yet the nature of the Divine Word is such that He would enter our suffering and death to set us free from sins. Not because He needed to, for God needs nothing, but because that is who He is. This, above all, is what reveals His nature as Love – and affirms the ordering of the cosmos towards life, even life everlasting. 

S Peter’s dream faded, at least for a while. The vision of light subsided, and all that was left was the Jesus he knew form before. This, too, is a divine revelation. God’s transcendent light radiated through Christ’s perfectly ordinary, human body. Likewise, we can see God’s light through ordinary material things. It is a matter of training the vision. This is one of the many mysteries of the Eucharist. It is a school for seeing things as they really are. The glorious, resurrected, luminous Body and Blood of Christ become present to us in bread and wine, not by destroying and replacing their elements, but by perfecting them. 

Coronavirus may have prevented many of us from receiving the sacrament as often as we like, or even at all. If we have the chance this Lent to reactivate our adoration of Christ in the Sacrament, then we should take it. Even if we cannot receive, prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle is a tried and tested means of basking in the glory of God’s presence. It is the next most immediate way to tasting Him and being consumed by Him in the Mass. For those who cannot get to church, the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary offer a profound way to meditate on Our Lord as He is present in Scripture, for the Word of God Incarnate is none other than the Word of God in Bread or Book. Seek His glory where you may find it. 

But we must be warned. As glorious as the light shining through the East window, the moment of Communion, the ecstasy of a sudden realisation of Christ in prayer with Holy Scripture or on a charming mountain top may all be, any experiences of glory we sense are only delusions, if we are not also seeking that glory in our fellow creatures: in people, particularly people in trouble, in flora and fauna, and in our natural environment. If we truly see Christ’s glory in Scripture or Sacrament, we cannot help seeing it in world. And we must act on it. 

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