Last time I pointed out the difference between the act of creation, which is summed up in the first verse of Genesis ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,’ and the ordering of this once created world. And speaking of the second thing, I drew your attention to the way in which this ordering is described. At every stage what is there is declared to be good (at every stage which begins with darkness that becomes light, or rather by evening which develops into a greater, new day). And I insisted on the fact that perhaps the most important characteristic of this passage was not its greater or lesser correspondence with what science has taught us about the progression of things, but the fact that this theme of a darkness that develops into a greater light – which in turn is an evening which compares with the next morning – this progression and increasing light means a gradual unfolding of what God had given as potentiality to the world that was to be created. And I would like now to dwell more on this notion of light and darkness.
We have just one word to signify darkness, in English and in most languages. The Greeks, who were more keen on philosophical distinctions, had two words. The one meant absence of light; the other meant some sort of substantial darkness. The one meant that something was missing, the other meant that what was spoken about was not something which was lessened or diminished but was as it should be. The word for the absence of light, the kind of darkness which comes upon us at night or psychologically at certain moments when the light seems to go out of our life, was called ‘skotos’. It was indeed a situation in which the light might have been there, should have been there and was not; it was a state of deprivation. The other one, the ‘gnophos’, of which Greek mystics speak a great deal, has nothing to do with absence of light. It has really nothing to do either with the darkness as we perceive it. It is the perception of something which leads us to speak of darkness, which we will define later.
The situation of the created world was, at every stage, ambiguous. It already possessed light, and yet it still was enfolded in darkness. And the ordering process consisted in bringing out more and more light, in revealing more and more of the potentialities of this world. So darkness was gradually dispelled and light came. And from the division between light and darkness came a compact, a dense world, where light and darkness, once divided from one another, mean light and shadows.
If from this first approach you turn to God, you will find in the spiritual writings that two words are used as far as He is concerned. On the one hand, the words of the Scripture `God is light and there is no darkness in Him’ `And the light was the life of the world.’ On the other hand, speaking of their experience of God, writers like Gregory of Nyssa and others speak constantly of the divine darkness, the ‘tenebrae’ of God. There is no opposition between the two aspects. If one reads attentively not only Gregory of Nyssa (who does not insist on that side) but Symeon the New Theologian, one discovers that, although God is in all truth light, perfect brightness, yet in the experience of man this light may be so blinding that it is perceived as darkness. It is not a deficiency, it is too much of it for the creature to perceive it as light. The image is obviously taken from the experience which we all can have if we look at the sun. We can learn from that something which is important for us in our craving for the knowledge of God and the appreciation of the knowledge which we possess. God seen as He is, to the extent to which we can see God at all, is a blinding light. It is divine ‘tenebrae’, divine mystery, divine darkness. Whenever God is perceived and described in terms of light, i.e. every time He reveals Himself, He lessens the essential light, it is a readjustment to our eyes of the blinding power of the light divine ‘(at least then we can speak of the gentle, the joy-giving light of the eternal glory of the Father).
At that point we do understand what Symeon the New Theologian meant when, speaking of all theology, of all the knowledge we can have of God and express about God, he said that even the ultimate truths concerning God are truths of the earth, but that God is far beyond them. He cannot be circumscribed by any amount of human description or approximation of His mystery. And it is very important for us to realise it, because we too often put the limit of our ability to know God too near, not far enough. All that God has revealed to us is a knowledge that we, as creatures, are incapable of possessing. We are incapable of possessing things that are beyond human expression. And so, when we are confronted with what God reveals about Himself, about us, about the created world, we must realise that this is not the ultimate, the farthest and fullest possible revelation of things, but the amount of knowledge and discovery which we are capable of holding (at that time).This makes theology legitimate and should also make theologians humble.
In one of his writings Macarius of Egypt said that a meeting of a soul and God occurs in silence, beyond words, beyond vision, beyond senses and intellect. It is a meeting which is too deep to be contained in any of our human activities, however lofty, and certainly far beyond anything we can express. Yet, he says, although this state of total silence and immersion in the experience of God would be sufficient for the seer, God has compassion also on others, and He takes away part of the brightness of the vision, for the man to be able to go back to a lower state and be able to reveal to others what he has seen, perceived. But at that moment whatever is said, whatever is used for the revelation to be expressed will be inadequate to the heavenly vision. The light of the revelation we are speaking of is a lesser light than the fullness of divine light. God always escapes us, because whatever is communicable, whatever can be revealed or discovered is still not the central core of the divine mystery; to penetrate it would mean becoming God as He is God.
The unfolding of our potentialities is connected with the divine act of creation that has made us what we are, and there is a correspondence between us and God, there is the mystery of the image of God in us (to which we will have to come later), there is a mysterious link between God and whatever He has created, which at the same time leaves all things radically other than God and yet allows them to exist and to rejoice and to be obedient to God, but not as the subjection of things to magic power but within a relationship.
All things – and this is the absolute presupposition for the mystery of the incarnation as well as for our faith in sacramental gifts – all things are capable of being Spirit-bearing and God-bearing. All things are touched by divine grace and shine back Godwards with all the possibilities of their created being. And in the beginning of Genesis we see the joy of all things created and becoming what they are called to be, revealing their own potentialities, unfolding to a new measure and becoming more and more communicants to the divine grace, the divine life which is poured on them. ‘Let there be light’ is not simply a command, it is a word of life which penetrates into the depth of things and calls out life. You remember probably how in the Gospel we are told that Christ has the words of eternal life, how He told his disciples that they were clean because of the word He had spoken to them. It was not a magic act of God, it was the use of common words, but filled with the divine power, capable of awakening in them all there was that could live, that could belong to the realm of life and of light, of divine life.
We find in the beginning of the Gospel according to St John words concerning the light; “that was the true Light (Christ) which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto his own and his own received Him not.” And: “All things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” If we look at this passage and at what it implies, what we see is that the Word is revelation, and the Word is light and life. In the situation in which the world is, the light is present, yet it shines in darkness – not in the original divine darkness where there is no distinction between light and darkness, because this darkness is light, but in the kind of darkness which means absence of light, a deficiency; and this darkness in which this divine revelation of God, this divine presence, light, life was shining, comprehended it not. These words in the Greek text have a double meaning, it means at the same time ‘receive’ (The passage means that the darkness did not receive the light, that is, accept, be pervaded by it) but also could not put it out (smother it).
In the beginning all things were good because at every stage of relative light, all that could be, was. In the present situation of which the Gospel speaks one cannot say that all things are right, are good, because it is not a darkness full of possibilities that awaits a new divine word to unfold into a new measure of light which we observe around us, it is a darkness that has been impoverished, something that was light and has gone dark, something that was brightness and has become dim. The light is still there,- the light of which I spoke before as the substratum, the basis for the revelation of the included light – and yet it is neither received nor overcome. It can be received only if it is willed and accepted, longed for and received at a cost, because what was once lost must be reacquired at a cost. But nothing can put it out. There is a Chinese proverb that says all the darkness of the world is incapable of putting out the smallest candle. However powerful the darkness seems to be, the presence of the smallest spark of light dispels it to the ends of the world – imperceptibly for us, but truly – because the darkness cannot enfold it and limit it.
In the beginning of the evening service of Vespers, where we are confronted with visions of the Old Testament, the Church is lit, the sanctuary is aglow, the Holy Doors are open, and without a word the priest censes the sanctuary, beginning with the holy table and all there is in the sanctuary. This is a vision of the divine realm, of the light that cannot and will never be quenched. And then a blessing is proclaimed at the same time as the priest makes a sign of the cross with the censer. God’s Name is blessed (the God, One in the Holy Trinity) and at the same time, at the threshold of this vision we already see a cross inscribed in the mystery. And the next word is a call to fall down before Christ and adore Him, the ‘ford, the Light which is in the world, the One which is the light of the world. And while the choir sings the Io4th psalm the priest comes out into the church which is lit and censes round, signifying that there is no limit, no barrier between the sanctuary (the realm of God); and the realm of man. And then the Holy Doors are shut and the lights are put out in the church. This is an image of what did happen as it appears in the beginning of the Old Testament.
I want to draw your attention to this imagery of light that conveys the sense of darkness when it is quenched, and the silent worship of the sanctuary, the silent censing of the sanctuary, which is an act of adoration, which corresponds to what I said before, concerning the experience of Macarius of Egypt; no word is sufficient to praise God, nothing can be said as long as there is the plenitude of light. It is an the threshold of the darkening that words come back and on the threshold, we find the Word, Christ, Whom we glorify.
If you take our evening and morning services, you can find the whole theme of light developed from the beginning to the end of it. (This could be done one day in detail.) We begin with the brightness of the sanctuary, we fall back into the darkness of the fall, and then throughout the service there is the struggle between light and darkness, until at the end of Matins a last prayer is said, which is again a prayer to Christ in terms of light.
This is what I wanted to say today concerning light. I had an intention to speak also of the waters of creation, but I have been very long on the light, and if you do not mind, we can leave the theme of the waters for our next meeting.
Question: about the sword.
Christ has brought some sharpness that can divide between darkness and light, death and life, good and evil, God and non-God, and this act of dividing is an action that gives independence and possibilities to live to what is alive, in the same way in which casting off a dead limb might save the body.
Dorotheos of Gaza says that no man would ever sin if the devil did not mix together good and evil, that no one would choose to be a slave of the devil by doing evil, but what makes sin possible and evil palatable is that it is covered with a nice sort of veneer, like pills, and as long as the two are hopelessly intermingled, the one kills the other; obviously the thing that is dead kills the thing that is alive, not the other way round: no amount of life can bring to life something that is radically dead. Sharp separation between the two can restore possibilities of life. When we speak of surgery and say one chops off a dead limb that can poison the body, one sees at the same time charity and sharpness. When one speaks of good and evil within oneself, as long as it does not happen (we do not like the chopping and the process of the sword penetrating in us) we see the point of it, but when the sword comes between people, we find it difficult, and indeed the passage quoted goes on to says I will put into opposition people of the same family. That rejoins another passage in which Christ says that unless we are prepared to turn away from our nearest and dearest, we are no good as followers of Him.
Christ takes two opposite lines as far as loving our neighbour is concerned. He tells us to turn away from the people we love and to love the people we hate. It would be so simple to go on loving the ones we love and leaving alone those we are not inclined to love. The thing is, unless one gets free from those whom we love, we are ensnared and enslaved by our love for them and their love for us, and we are not capable of following Christ.Until we have accepted this absolute sacrifice, this radical claim of God, that you are to leave, to abandon, to turn away from every passionate love, from every love which would make you waver when He says `come along’, `do this’, we are not free to love. It is only when we have distanced ourselves from a person whom we love that we can love this person and not be possessed by our own love or the other person’s love.. We must set free the person on whom we have put a burden.. A spiritual writer says: `When Isaiah says “break every yoke” (58.6), you must begin with breaking the yoke which you put on other people, that is the sort of oppressing love which makes them victims of yours, and get loose from the kind of love that makes you a slave..There is a claim of God that we should turn away, and here His sword comes down.. but once He has set us free, then He has another claim: come back to the mystery of love, but as a free agent..
Love is both salvation and judgement.. The same thing creates a problem at the same time as it solves another problem.. The same is true with Christ. He is a stumbling-block. He is a sign of contradiction.. His presence is our salvation.. and yet He is our condemnation if we turn away and do not care.. The sword cuts, but it is an act of charity.. Unless charity and judgement meet, there is nothing done. Judgement without charity has no meaning and charity without judgement has no meaning.. The kind of love of which the Gospel speaks is not the sort of softening of the heart and warmth which we feel towards the people we like and have affection for; it is something much more essential.. Leaving aside the possessive love and all the forms of debased love (so well described in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, when he speaks of his love and Christ’s love that leaves people free) there are people to whom we are naturally attracted or to whom we are akin, we can very well love them according to the Gospel or not.. I do not think that the problem of life is to find all the people who are detestable and repulsive and lavish on them our love. For one thing, they do not care for it and they are better off without it. But the problem is that we can begin with loving in a much better way every person whom we do love naturally. The claim of the Gospel, if you begin to try to love someone according to the Gospel, is so radical and sharp. And it really begins with the recognition of this person possessing full rights apart from you – not part of your life, not in need of you for his or her existence, but a person that has complete entirety – and to approach this person as an outsider who is peripheral. Love begins with the recognition of the other as someone who has all rights of existence and not only rights connected with `mine’, and then in serving the person according to the Gospel, according to what God says to us.
If you begin to love the people you love that way, then you begin to see that other people become much more lovable, because usually we detest people simply because they do not want to recognise that we are the centre of the world – that is really the reason why things go wrong. Why should people be kind to us, why should people go out of their way for us? Only because they have no other reason to exist than to revolve around ‘me’, and `me’ of all people, because `me’ is `me’, and it is a sufficient reason. The moment you are no longer putting as a premise that `I am the centre of the world’ you discover that people have very little duty to you. Why should they? They are moving around.. The moon is not bound to pay attention to the star over there. It moves according to its own movement. And when we look at someone else, he is never `it’. We use everyone as `it’. We hardly ever have a dialogue on equal terms with anyone: a dialogue is always a dialogue which `I’ lead, or a dialogue in which `I’ am carried, it is never a dialogue of two persons face to face, with sovereign rights, recognising in one another the right to agree and disagree, to turn away, to put an end to a conversation simply because it is time to go. And that is where loving in a way which is not sentimental begins. Why should people behave the way you find most convenient? There is no reason. You can transfer that to more important values.
If you only remember that he lives in his own right, and not within your right, you can approach even people who are violent and unpleasant to you.