Chapter 9

The Encompassing Light

Jean Jacques Rousseau observed in The Social Contract, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains". In the next century Karl Marx was to identify, at least to his own satisfaction, the origin of those chains in the prevailing economic system. Thus he ended his epoch-making Communist Manifesto with the clarion call, "The workers have nothing to lose in this revolution but their chains. They have a world to gain. Workers of the world, unite!" There is certainly much truth in Rousseau's observation and in Marx's diagnosis of the trouble. Where there are intolerable economic conditions the social order is little more than mindless slavery to the hard facts of poverty on the one hand and the unscrupulous employer on the other - if indeed employment is available.

Yet the affluent are also in chains. They are bound to their money and the demands their wealth places on them. There are also deeper chains than mere outer indigence, for we are all the products of our particular heredity and environment. These play a large part in determining how profitably we will use the benefits placed at our disposal. The implementation of social justice, as far as this has been possible in our own time, has certainly seen the end of the worst excesses of poverty and deprivation, but whether it has brought in its train any conspicuous happiness or true freedom in the lives and aspirations of the people is still an open question. While no one with intelligence would tolerate a return to the social conditions of the past, it is evident that the personal fulfilment lies in a realm far beyond mere affluence. At the most, material security provides a firm basis for human advancement, but it does not afford the individual the impetus for the work he has been educated to perform. We recall in this respect an observation made some 2,300 years ago:

The man who loves money can never have enough, and the man who is in love with great wealth enjoys no return from it. This too is vanity. When riches multiply, so do those who live off them; and what advantage has the owner, except to look at them? Sweet is the sleep of the labourer whether he eats little or much; but the rich man owns too much and cannot sleep (Ecclesiastes 5:10-12).

The sweet content attributed to the labourer may seem a trifle idyllic, but the fine oracle of Zephaniah 3:11-13 amplifies the true spirit of poverty, "On that day, Jerusalem, you shall not be put to shame for your deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will rid you of your proud and arrogant citizens, and never again shall you flaunt your pride on my holy hill. But I will leave in you a people afflicted and poor. The survivors in Israel shall find refuge in the name of the Lord; they shall no longer do wrong or speak lies, no words of deceit shall pass their lips; for they shall feed and lie down with no one to terrify them." It is these poor people who, in terms of the first Beatitude, have the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3). They are the poor in spirit, the ones who know their need of God. This poverty is acquired in the course of life when worldly riches are withdrawn and the love of God, the one thing necessary for eternal life, is revealed. It alone endures.

We are born with nothing outside ourselves, and so we leave the world as we proceed to the unknown, yet dimly remembered, realms that lie ahead of us. As we have conducted ourselves here, so will the realm be that awaits us and the souls with whom we can communicate most easily. While we are alive on the earth, we have to encounter much darkness as part of the greater unfolding of our personality, but the end of all this suffering is our identification with the inner lives of our fellow creatures. Our experience of the polarities of darkness and light, of evil and good, is a part of the pageant of universal growth. If there were no temptation of evil, there would be no awareness of goodness. In a society where hatred was not countenanced there would be little love (of the type that will sacrifice itself), but only a safe, detached benevolence that effected no relationship with anything. Out of the terrible events of our tortured century much potential good has emerged. I refer to the liberation of previously subject groups of people. But the exuberance of their newly found strength has provoked a corresponding reaction on the part of the more staid, conservative elements of the population. This too is a necessary part of progress, lest one particular trend should overwhelm the world. Caution and discernment are less attractive counsels than is an enthusiastic exploration of uncharted realms of experience, but all have to work in reverent obedience to the law whereby God governs his universe. The end of life is not so much sectarian triumph as loving reconciliation, not so much the exclusion of evil as the total transfiguration of all the creation into the eternal light of God, as the physical body of Jesus was transfigured; and later resurrected, into the glory of the Godhead.

I sometimes think about Arthur Koestler, a representative man of the twentieth century, whose novel Darkness at Noon formed the basis of a previous chapter of this book. Born in Central Europe of Jewish parents, he exhibited the intelligence, zest for living, and adventurous spirit so typical of the ancient people of God. He was successively a Zionist - until he was disillusioned by the situation in British-administered Palestine - a Communist fighting in the bloody Spanish civil war of the thirties, and then a captive in the hands of the nationalist forces under Franco. During his imprisonment he had a remarkable mystical experience that changed the course of his life. He was too honest and intelligent a man to confuse spirituality with organized religion - and certainly none of the current religious denominations, whether eastern or western, could inspire a discerning seeker with great enthusiasm, although esoteric offshoots might stimulate the appetite for a limited period. His interest moved latterly in the direction of psychical research, and in his will he endowed a chair for that nebulous, and scientifically unpopular, subject. Several universities distanced themselves from the bequest, and it is to the credit of the University of Edinburgh that the money was accepted and a department set up. Time will tell whether its researches can establish psychical phenomena categorically within a scientific framework. The Koestlers, husband and wife, took their lives together when they knew they were suffering from progressive, ultimately fatal, illnesses. Here we see an adventurous life of exuberant activity moving dramatically to the spiritual dimension, but then stasis, increasing debilitation and the sad resignation of suicide. One is tempted to speculate what the outcome might have been had he and his wife submitted to the discipline of a particular spiritual path as defined in one of the world's great religious traditions. While on earth, no matter how enlightened we may have become, we have to enter fully into the existence of the many less aware people around us. This is the meaning of incarnation on a personal level, and it finds its supreme example in the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh. He did not spurn his mother's womb or the embarrassing process of infancy, childhood, adolescence and early manhood, before the brief period of active ministry formed the peak of his life and crucifixion its end. Humility is indeed the basic spiritual virtue.

It is therefore worthwhile plumbing the depths of humility to see its place in the spiritual life. It comes to us when we do not know how to proceed, when all previous teachings and certainties have been found to be unavailing. When we are in the suffocating darkness of our own hell, like that of Job or the Prodigal Son we are suddenly confronted by a light of radiance that illuminates our total situation. We at once accept its glow and loving warmth with relief, but as it leads us on to the fuller light, it makes demands on us. It requires nothing less than a complete change in heart, so that we may take up the darkness of the world around us in the light that had so recently lightened our own darkness. As we proceed into the full strength of the light, so we have, at the same time, to penetrate the full darkness of life and accept its corroding stench: the higher the ascent, the deeper the descent. Nothing human, indeed nothing created, no matter how debased - or depraved it may appear, can any longer be alien to us. And as we assume the world's darkness in our ascent to the Supreme Light whom we call God, so that darkness is lightened and its obscurity is made visible and intelligible. The light not only encompasses us in a radiant aura but also purifies the depth of our personality until we may be an immaculate chalice of God's uncreated light. As our depths are illuminated, so we take our place in the light of God. It is then that we know the meaning of love. It had, of course, not been far from our awareness since the time of our release, but at last it becomes integrated into our very being. And then it radiates to the entire cosmos as a beam of the love of God. The light of God in this way releases the love that is native to the soul but usually imprisoned in it.

In that love everything is taken up, the unclean as well as the clean, the evil as well as the good, the darkness and the light, the resentment and the pardon, and all are transfigured into the supreme love of God and the uncreated light of his outflowing energies, indeed of his very essence as far as we may dare speak of these summits of reality. Of God's love and light our own corresponding qualities are at most pale reflections. But they may increase in strength. The process is slow and painful, for the will of the sluggish, unyielding creature strives constantly against the divine law of growth and reconciliation, until its ignorance is dispelled by the light of purification. No creature is outside this transfiguring presence.

We thought much earlier on about the pot that God had created misshapen, the person so defective in mind through congenital abnormality as to be a mere parody of human nature. We also reflected on the tragedy of a once vibrant personality now shut off from the world because of senile dementia. But now we can begin to see, by virtue of enhanced spiritual understanding, that all is well in God's greater counsels. What we now are is what we have to give to the world. Behind the tragic mask of total impotence and humiliation there lies a soul gaining in experience for work that lies ahead of it in a realm beyond mortal limitations of time and space. In any situation of tragedy the question is the same: what does God want me to do with it? If it cannot be ameliorated by rational means, the truth still shines out: the greater the humiliation, the greater the mastery; the greater the suffering, the greater the glory. The passion of Christ has to be repeated in the lives of all rational creatures. Its end is universal resurrection. And then the light is of a quality that transfigures the lesser light as well as the darkness of our mortal lives and the world in which we move day by day. All this development calls for a progressive unfolding of the soul in the reaches of the life beyond mortal death; as it comes to know Christ better, so the soul partakes more fully of the Christian way of loving service, sacrifice, and rebirth into the glory of the risen Lord.

God has boldly been defined as transcending all the qualities of the mind, even those of good and evil. In him there is the supreme good whose created image, the Lord Jesus, is love. To learn this love, not merely intellectually but also in experience, is the object of all life. The instruments on the way are the full complement of individual attributes; the lights on the path are truth, beauty and goodness. It takes so long to master this work of love, which is accompanied by a downpouring of healing light, that time dissolves into eternity and the present moment is the constant point of action.

Back to Index Page