“The Light is Fragile…”: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
On my desk I keep a small terra cotta lamp that dates from the first century of the Christian era. It is very small. The body of the lamp could be filled with a a few ounces of olive oil. A small wick, probably of linen or flax, could be placed into the “spout”. When lit, the resulting flame would be about that of a modern Bic lighter. These small lamps are found in archeological digs throughout the Middle East. They were a commonly used item through to the Byzantine era and the early rise of Islam.
Imagine, if you will, a small village dwelling from the time of Christ. The main room might be ten feet deep and twelve feet wide. Apart from a small hearth fire, fueled by animal waste and a few sticks, this small lamp provides the only other light in the darkness. Perhaps there are several in the room, perhaps only one.
Regardless, the occupants of that house would have regarded the light as precious.
I live in a community that is heavily forested with old growth trees. It’s lovely. On my acreage alone, there must be at least a couple of hundred trees of different varieties. In the spring they leaf out in a vibrant green. In the autumn, they provide a spectacular show of color. When, however, storms come through, the lights go out as branches fall on power lines. The house becomes dark and shadowed as we light candles and wait.
Most of us take light for granted.
Living in New York City in the 1990s, I was able to make some wonderful friends. One day, as I was tending to some task in the sanctuary of St. Thomas Church, I noticed a gentleman in a suit who was looking intently at an architectural detail of the church. Making my way down the aisle, I stopped and asked if I could help him with anything or answer any questions. He explained that he was an historian and a lover of Gothic architecture. We chatted casually for a few moments and I introduced myself to him. He replied and said, “My name is Norman Cantor, I teach at NYU”. Now, if you ever studied Medieval history in even the most cursory manner, you will know that Norman Cantor is legendary. His text books are standard in the field. It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that would extend over some years. We developed a pattern. Every month or two we would meet for lunch and then we would go back to the church to explore some aspect of its architecture and continue our conversation.
On one occasion we had been discussing William Manchester’s book, A World Lit Only By Fire, over lunch. When we returned to the church, Norman turned to me with a smile and said, “Do you think you could have them turn off all the lights?” It was a dark, gray winter’s day. If we turned off the lights, the church interior would be almost pitch black. I nodded my head and said, “Yes, but…” He interrupted me and asked, “Could you find two candles for us?” I knew what he had in mind. I found the candles, lit them and then asked the custodian to turn off all the lights. In an instant our world changed. All was dark apart from the small pool of light that surrounded the two of us. Norman then said, “This is the medieval world. This is how they would have experienced their churches and cathedrals.” It was an amazing experience looking up at the pointed arches that seemed to extend to eternity in the darkness. As we talked quietly and walked, Norman suddenly stopped and said, “The light is fragile and all around us is mystery… that’s the world of the early and medieval church”
“The light is fragile and all around us is mystery…”
That comment has stuck with me through the years. We live in the world of ”light on demand”. When our power goes out owing to a falling branch or tree, I still instinctively flip the switch as I enter a room expecting the light to come on. Because we are modern, because light is all around us on demand, we think of light in a certain way. Our cities are so well lit, they can easily be seen from space. We think of light in almost cinematic terms. But what if light was limited, only extending our vision a few feet or several feet at best? If we indeed lived in “a world lit only by fire” (as indeed we did for centuries) we might regard the nature of light differently.
For instance, to say that “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a lamp unto my path” takes on a far different meaning. In 2019 it says that Scripture can direct not only my immediate steps, but I’ll be able to clearly see where I am going on my journey. No darkness or mystery here whatsoever. Yet, what if the lamp only shows you the next step or two, and the path is only visible for a few feet ahead? There’s no great certainty here as we continue on the path. The darkness is mysterious and faith is required to take the next steps. We venture forward in the dark to discover the path being lit. As one writer commented, “Abraham closed his eyes and hid himself in the darkness of faith, and therein he found light eternal”.
All this is to say that we don’t need to have it all figured out. In fact, if we think that we have it all figured out, we’re probably wrong. In the Prologue to St. John, the writer says, “In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (A better translation is that the darkness could not absorb or comprehend the light.) An important thing to note here is that even the light of Christ does not eliminate the darkness that surrounds that light. Someone in the first century would have understood what was being said. On our part, however, we want the light without the surrounding darkness. We want the certainties and not the mystery. Yet sometimes, as our writer has said, we can only find the light in the darkness of faith; we can only find certainty in acknowledging mystery. Sometimes we can only know by acknowledging what we don’t know.
All of this is the paradox of the Christian life. It does not lend itself easily to simple answers or a formula that claims to answer all questions. It is why I am highly skeptical of fundamentalists of all varieties. They are offering certainties that God did not promise.
All I really need is light for the next few steps.
“The light is fragile and all around us is mystery…”