On Letting the Light Shine

As a rather observant child, I made a mental note of the fact that my maternal grandmother would ask me to “make a light” instead of asking me to switch it on. When she was a child, no one switched lights on.  At night, light was not had without effort, not in her English town nor in most places yet.  She was born on the day that Gladstone introduced his Irish Home Rule bill in the House of Commons, the same Gladstone who gave a lamp to Newman who had “never sinned against the Light,” a lamp that still can be seen on his desk in Birmingham, and it certainly was not electric. Four years after my grandmother’s birth, Florence Nightingale recorded her voice on a wax cylinder patented by the Edison Company.  My grandmother harbored a devotion to the “Lady with a Lamp” for her town’s regiment had fought in the Crimean War and some of them remembered the Lady visiting at night the wards in the Selimye Barracks of Scutari and it most definitely was not an electric lamp:  that was the year Thomas Edison was born.

While eclectic in theology, and something of a Universalist, Florence Nightingale moved from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, and soon came to admire the slum work of the future Cardinal Manning who provided her with ten Catholic nuns to help nurse the soldiers in the war.  They, along with fourteen Anglican nuns, nurtured the English custom of calling all nurses, mostly secular but usually veiled, “Sister.”  A lamp, not electric, became the symbol of nursing organizations even in the United States.  Then there was the friend of my grandmother, a very old lady, Granny Pye as I called her, who had been born in Scotland in the year that the missionary David Livingston died in Zambia.  Although she belonged to the Old Kirk that did not allow ritual candles, she had a ritual of her own, for she read from the family Bible every night by candlelight, as though light bulbs were somewhat profane.

My point is that artificial light is so available now, at the flip of a switch, that we are losing a sense of wonder at the gift of light. The first creature was light itself “Let there be light….” It is hard to describe light without referring to its opposite.  “The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).  The first thing one learns in painting, after tackling perspective, is that colors seem bright only by contrast, and that principle of chiaroscuro was known well before the likes of  Caravaggio and de la Tour.  You don’t have to spend a winter in Lapland to know that:  just spend a few dim days in February, or try selling an apartment without a view.

Light and life go together and there are countless “last words” that have to do with light as life ends.  As he was dying, Goethe cried out, “Mehr Licht!—More light!” but in his case it probably had no spiritual meaning. He had also been a scientist who considered that his best book was  “The Theory of Colors.”  He most likely was just asking that the shutters be opened. To give him his due, anyone who has read his Faust, knows that he also knew of moral darkness and what happens in chambers of the mind that choose darkness over light.  In retrospect, it is poignant, though not of any religious significance, that Theodore Roosevelt said as he went to bed for the last time: “Put out the light.” He was thinking of electricity and not mortality. That good man just wanted a good sleep, but he did not know how good it would be.  Very different and far from prosaic, was what young O. Henry, abandoned by his wife Sara, said with his last alcoholic breath in the dim gaslight of his rented room: “Turn up the lights—I don’t want to go home in the dark.”  However oblique his spiritual intuition may have been, it seems laden with an ancient appeal to One “in whom is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

Our Lord’s utterances stunned, enthralled and shocked the crowds, but none was more startling than this:  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  As the light itself, his human decibels shouted to the sky that his essence is not a creature, but the divinity who creates physical light with the agency of  “the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (James 1:17), and with their Spirit who will “enlighten the hearts of the faithful” with the fire of love.  Frail human voices have the inestimable privilege of professing that mystery each Sunday in the Creed:  Jesus of Nazareth is  “Light from Light” from beyond Nazareth.

God offers the human race the light of life in order that it might “shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).  Morally, the exercise of the free will can make that light beautiful or garish.  On his visit to the United States which gave the world so many congenial quotes, G.K, Chesterton was entranced by the billboard lights in Times Square advertising soaps and cigarettes and hair tonic. He remarked, “What a garden of delights this would be if only one could not read.”

Our Lord dignifies the human race by enabling his own light to shine through his human creatures so that it might give “light to all the house” (Matt. 5:15).  That house includes everyone’s own neighborhood, with its astonishing challenges and potential. In my own instance, that neighborhood, which is my parish, consists right now in the largest real estate development in the nation, besides some venerable older fixtures including the Empire State Building. It becomes a nightly light show of colors that would have got another book out of Goethe. The saints are an even more wonderful light show themselves. They are the “generation that seeks him…” (Psalm 24:6). To risk the rhetorical indecency of a pun, the generator that lights this generation up is not in Manhattan, for it is in the City that “has no need of the sun, nor of the moon, to shine in it. For the glory of God has enlightened it, and the Lamb is the lamp thereof” (Rev. 21:23).

Fr. George W. Rutler

By

Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest book is He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016).

  • Dick Prudlo

    How lucky New York is to have such a fine priest. Would that they deserved him.

    • NE-Catholic

      Or, even heard and understood what he was saying – just returned from NYC – ALWAYS relieved to escape unscathed!

      • Adam__Baum

        You have our condolences. Be sure to launder your clothes well.

        • John Albertson

          To paraphrase the great Dr. Johnson on Manhattan, the Center of the World: A man who is tired of New York is tired of life.

          • tom

            With de Bolshevik as mayor and Cuomo II as governor, New York is a septic tank of tyranny…on its last legs. I give it 36 months.

    • John200

      Got your point.

      As Clint Eastwood might have said, “Deserved’s got nothing to do with it.” Father is serving in a place where he is needed. Manifestly needed. Desperately needed. Achingly needed.

    • Faustina11

      The Lord must think they deserve Fr Rutler. At least some of them!

  • AcceptingReality

    Great article and I like the thought of “light” being a creature, the first one at that. I think your use of chiaroscuro painting, like Caravaggio’s, as a metaphor would be made stronger with a more accurate explanation of such painting. The light in chiaroscuro is contrasted with darkness. It’s not a contrast of color so much as a contrast in value. It’s the lesser quantities of light enveloped in larger quantities of darkness that does the trick. The darkness makes the light seem luminous. Great thoughts nonetheless. Thank you.

    • poetcomic1

      Chiaroscuro is ‘attenuated light’, merciful shadows, where the hopeless sinner, half-hidden can pray. How I love my dark old Roman forest of mysterious mercies.

  • poetcomic1

    I hadn’t thought of this poem in years till I read your article. The great Maine poet had a tremendously ‘Catholic’ feeling for the sublime resonance of ‘light’ of ‘father’ of ‘hands’ of everything in a world transfigured by Incarnate light.

    THE SECRET HEART by Robert P. Tristram Coffin

    Across the years he could recall
    His father one way best of all.

    In the stillest hour of night
    The boy awakened to a light.

    Half in dreams, he saw his sire
    With his great hands full of fire.

    The man had struck a match to see
    If his son slept peacefully.

    He held his palms each side the spark
    His love had kindled in the dark.

    His two hands were curved apart
    In the semblance of a heart.

    He wore, it seemed to his small son,
    A bare heart on his hidden one,

    A heart that gave out such a glow
    No son awake could bear to know.

    It showed a look upon a face
    Too tender for the day to trace.

    One instant, it lit all about,
    And then the secret heart went out.

    But it shone long enough for one
    To know that hands held up the sun.

    • John Albertson

      Coffin taught at Bowdoin and was better appreciated then than now. His beauty was too classical for our deconstructionist culture.

      • tom

        Now, we have to hear about Nancy Pelosi being a pro-abortion “practicing Catholic”. Quizzed, she says her abbatoirs are ‘sacred ground” because of her Faith. The Bishop of San Francisco seems blinded; unable to see any Light even at the end of the tunnel.

        Last one out, turn off the Perpetual Light, OK?

    • Chris TH

      Beautiful poem

      • poetcomic1

        He was Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, 1936. His best book is called STRANGE HOLINESS. It is easily found on the internet.

  • Don

    Alright. That’s it Father . . . I’m calling you out! You couldn’t possibly keep writing so many fine articles without performance enhancing substances! (Seriously, this is yet another wonderful article that orients the soul to the Light). God bless!

    • tom

      A wonderful article and the performance enhancing substance is, I suspect, Grace.

      In contrast, we have Pelosi, the self-proclaimed Catholic, being awarded the Margaret Sanger Award. So, again, we have the Light of Salvation being contrasted with the darkness of Death.

  • The_Monk

    Calls to mind the Taize chant, “Within our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.”

    Always love to read your column, Rev. Rutler. Music to the ears and food for the soul. As also loved to read, for many years, the columns of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (of ‘First Things’). Eminently readable and thoughtful. Thank you, Rev….

    • John O’Neill

      Amen to that. We should be grateful to all the good priests we still have in this world. There are many holy men who struggle in the vineyard of the Lord and seek not the glory of this world.

  • Stefanie

    I had thought of that description of the new Jerusalem, too, Father, while studying this coming Sunday scriptures. Thank you for all the other references! Someone wrote a book a few years ago called simply “Light” — which first brought this modern girl into an appreciation of light.

  • Michael Paul

    The human race used candles, oil lamps and the like for probably hundreds of millennia, and only for a century have we had lights we could “turn on”. Electricity has disrupted our sleep, jangled our nerves,taken away our contemplative evenings where we would unwind by the fireside. We are a race out of sync with how we were made. and that is just in the mental and physical sphere, never mind the moral.

    My parents were poor German immigrants who lived in a Brownstone in New York when there were only gas lights. They had a meter in the hall where you would drop in a nickel. A few nights they didn’t have the nickel and sat in the dark.

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