Have you ever come close to walking into a telephone poll because you were too busy looking at the stars to watch where you were going? When I was growing up, I did that so often that it is now a family joke. That “someone better look out for where Kathleen is going because you never know what she will walk into.”
I grew up in a tiny coal-mining village in Pennsylvania. Even today, at night it is much darker there than it is here in the suburbs of Boston. The nightly display of stars is extraordinary. And I am told that there are places where the displays of stars are even more dramatic than they are at my parents’ home. I cannot even imagine that.
I have been fascinated by the stars all of my life, and I have spent many hours watching them. I have even had what I call close encounters with God, what may be considered a mystical experience while gazing at the stars. These were moments of extreme clarity, where everything made sense, and I knew I was ultimately going to be all right. Here is how I described one such event in my journal:
“Gazing at the stars tonight was like looking into the deep dark eyes of a lover. It was true. There was clarity. Everything seemed clearer. There was peace. I could see forever. I was drawn into deeper understanding. And yet I was only there. Even the back recesses of my mind, the darkest places were touched by the light. I knew I was going to be OK; no matter what happened.”
Another time that I recognize a particular closeness with God also included light from a celestial body. In my journal, I wrote:
“I awoke last night with moonbeams dancing on my forehead. It was as though the very hand of God reached down to wipe the frown from my brow and stroke my head into peace.”
It is the light of the heavens that captures my attention. From watching these glimmers of something far away and very old I achieve a perspective that is comforting. It is like I can recognize my place in a universe that is so incredibly vast. On a crisp winter night the stars take my breath away. During this time of year, when it seems that all major religions have been celebrating the presence of light in some way, I wonder, while we each go to our own separate places of worship and conduct our own particular services of worship, what is it about light that is so appealing to so many in so many different ways?
From the very beginning of civilization, when humankind first created the concept of ‘god’ light has been used as a metaphor for God. Peoples over the millennia have worshipped the light of the sun, the light of the moon, the light of fire, the light of the stars, the light of knowledge, the light of wisdom, the light of reason. Over this time the symbol of light has been a perfect synonym for God. Light was immaterial and indefinable, yet was also the most obvious fact of life in the world; totally self-evident, it required no definition but was perceived by everybody as the element that made life possible. It was all pervasive; whatever luminosity belonged to material bodies came directly from light, a source outside themselves.
Mystical experiences in particular have often involved an encounter with light. For example, when the apostle Paul had his conversion experience on the road to Damascus he was knocked from his horse by a light from heaven that left him blind. And when people have a near death experience they often talk about being drawn to a bright light.
Catherine of Siena, a 14th century Italian Mystic, as, often used ‘light’ as a desirable aspect of God. A mystic is someone who has a relation to mystery that grows out of the desire toward an intimate union with the God. For some, mysticism represents the highest form of consciousness. Catherine writes “You are the dawn bearing the light of divine grace.” And again she writes: “In your light you have given me light.”
Over the last century or so cosmologists, physicists and astronomers have proven that light is a particularly good metaphor for the God, each of which transcends both time and space. I have been able to identify five scientific attributes of light that have been discovered in last century or so that correspond to characteristics people have given to God from the very beginning.
The first of these scientific attributes is that light travels at a constant speed of 186,282 miles per second. Contrary to normal intuition, Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that light always travels at the same speed relative to some observer, no matter what the relative motion of the observer. For example, the light emitted from a moving airplane does not travel with the speed of light plus the speed of the airplane, it travels with the speed of light, no matter the speed of the airplane.
When the speed of light is reached, time basically stands still. The nearer we come to the speed of light, the more time slows down. In other words, we must adjust our normal understanding to conform to the nature of light, because light is not going to change its constancy to accommodate our limited minds.
And so it is with God. God is often referred to as being unchanging, or constant. No matter the season or the condition of life, God is. Today we have come to realize that religious differences can be negligible, because ultimately there is only one divine reality. To think that God prefers the Catholics over the Protestants is absurd. To think that God prefers my team over your team is absurd. To think that the God of Islam is not a real god, when my God is very real is absurd. God does not change because we do not understand, rather our ability to understand needs to be enlightened and enlarged.
The second scientific attribute of light that corresponds to a characteristic given to God is that there can be no life in the physical world without light. Indeed, all life is drawn to light. Have you ever noticed how blooming tulips will bend and follow the sun as it moves across the across the sky? How often do you turn your planters because the plant seem to list to the side that gets the most sun? This light is the source of life. If the sun were to cease to shine all life would fade and wither.
And so it is with God. Over the millennia religious tradition have tried to convince people that what is needed to be spiritually alive is a connection to the Source; to God. A connection to the Light of Life is essential for a spiritually fruitful life. It is through Light that the ego is shorn of its miscomprehension, and through Light that the self is reborn. Light empties the ego of its extras, which are numerous, until it can serve its intended purpose in the makeup of the individual. Light is the energy by which we become acquainted to higher truth. For us Christians, we find that truth in the Word of God; known as Jesus Christ.
The third scientific attribute of light that corresponds to a characteristic of God is that without light there can be no sight, no color. Indeed light contains all colors. There are seven colors that comprise the spectrum of light that comes from the sun. Take away the light and you rob the world of color. Even the most glorious bouquet of flowers will dim and turn dark without light. Light then reveals what there is to be revealed.
And so it is with God. From God we receive visions of what could be. Our understanding grows. Mystics often talk about having visions, moments of deep connection to the God. Let us again consider the writing of Catherine of Siena. This is from her work called “Dialogue,” which is a conversation she is having with God. In this section God is speaking:
“You know that no one can walk in the way of truth without the light of reason that you draw from me, the true light, through the eye of your understanding.” And “If you exercise this faith by virtue with the light of reason, reason will in turn be enlightened by faith, and such faith will give you life and lead you in the way of truth.”
The fourth scientific attribute of light that corresponds to a characteristic of God is that in and of itself light is nothing. Light needs to be reflected off of something in order for us to be aware of its existence. Light itself depends on the existence of other things, which are illuminated by it or which benefit from it. You do not notice the beam of your flashlight until it reflects off of something. The universe itself is full of light, however we only see the light when it encounters an ‘other’ and can thus provide illumination.
And so it is with God. Process theologians suggest that God is not here or there but is in what happens between us. God is in the in between. It is the energy we create by sharing our light through community that makes God a reality. God depends on our existence for relevance, as we reflect to each other the possibility of a life lived in God.
The fifth scientific attribute of light that corresponds to a characteristic of God is that light behaves both like a stream of particles and like a vibrating wave. This is a basic finding of quantum mechanics. These two aspects are contradictory, but no one has found a way to get rid of either. Is light a wave without a medium, or a particle without a mass? This discovery has confounded scientists for years. It is a mystery. Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “For the rest of my life I want to reflect on what light is.”
And so it is with God. The greatest thing that we can say about God is that God is mystery. Like the wind, unable to be seen, yet only detectable because we are affected by it. Like gravity, unable to grasp, yet necessary to hold on. Like light, everywhere, yet only visible through interaction.
Let us again consider the writing of Catherine of Siena. Things always seem to work out for the best. Here she is in her “Dialogue” speaking to God:
“You are the fire always burning but never consuming; you are a fire consuming in your heart all the soul’s selfish love; you are a fire lifting all chill and giving light. In your light you have made me know your truth: you are that light beyond all light who gives the mind’s eye super natural light in such fullness and perfection that you bring clarity to the light of faith. In that faith I see that my soul has life, and in that light receives you who are light…This light shows you to me, and in this light I know you, highest and infinite Good: Good above every good, joyous Good, Good beyond measure and understanding.”
Our need for light is so ingrained in us that we have created daylight savings time to give us more daylight during the summer. We think we are changing time and altering the amount of sunlight by setting our clocks ahead or back one hour for a brief period of time. But all we are doing is changing our perception of time in relation to the sunlight. And during the darkest time of the year we pause to celebrate the possibility hope and presence of light. Emmanuel: God with Us.
Our need and desire for God is so ingrained in us that we have created innumerable religious traditions to satisfy our desire and our curiosity. We think we are changing the existence of God by our skepticism and our use or misuse of religious language; by our creating or contorting of ritual. But all we are doing is changing our perception of God in relation to our lives. And during the darkest time of year we pause to celebrate the mystery and hope of God here among us in Jesus Christ.
So I say, let the light shine! Even in the dead of midwinter light is present. And on those crisp clear winter nights, watch where you are walking, because the celestial lights are a veritable distraction.