Light as a Metaphor for the Divine

'God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.’ (1 Jn 1:5)

In The Celestial Hierarchy the great mystic Pseudo-Dionysius refers to God as the ‘light which is the source of all light’ and writes: ‘Of course God himself is really the source of illumination for those who are illuminated for he is truly and really Light itself. He is the Cause of being and seeing.’

In The Divine Names the same writer has this to say about God (whom he refers to as ‘the Good’) as light:

‘[T]he sun by its existence gives light to whatever is able to partake of its light, in its own way. So it is with the Good. It sends the rays of its undivided goodness to everything with the capacity to receive it. These rays are responsible for all intelligible and intelligent beings, for every power and every activity …’

The psalmist wrote, ‘with you [God] is the fountain of life: in your light shall we see light’ (Ps 36: 9). So, light---and we are not talking here about a visible light---is the very foundation of our being, the ground of being Itself, unlike the Zoroastrian concept of God wherein God is seen to be in contradistinction to the reality of life itself . The Judeo-Christian scriptures tell us that we live and move and have our being in that mystical light, and it is by means of that light that we exist and can come to know the true purpose and meaning of life, which is to radiate light to all around us. In short, light is the medium in which all things exist and have their being.

Now, what do we actually mean by ‘light’ when we speak of the divine, or the sacred or the holy, as being light? Well, firstly, we need to recognize that we are using metaphorical and poetical language. Indeed, all talk of the divine is of a poetic nature. There is no other way we can speak about the ineffable and the sublime. In the case of the word 'light,' used in a spiritual context, we are using the analogy of physical light. Secondly, we need to keep in mind that light in this context is in the nature of an absolute and not an attribute. We are talking about something that is substantive in its own right. Saint John tells us that God is light and all through the Bible the word light is used to signify things such as truth, love, purity, wisdom, knowledge, joy and prosperity, just as darkness, being the absence of light, is used to signify their opposites. We are told that the divine is light, not ‘the’ light or ‘a’ light but light itself. This light is the source of all light. Thus, Saint James writes: ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no variableness, or shadow of turning’ (Ja I: 17).

Note how James refers to God as the ‘Father of Lights’, that is, the source of all light. He also makes something of a comparison between God, which never moves, and the Sun which, from our earthly viewpoint, appears to do so. Saint Paul, too, sees God as the Father of Lights, for he instructs us to ‘walk as children of light’ (Eph 5:8). Yes, that which is of ultimate importance---the sacred and the holy---is said to be light, and to the extent to which we individually accept the reality of that truth, the greater will be the intensity and brightness of that light in us.

It is this divine light---this inner light of wisdom in the form of that ‘still small voice’---that enables us to see the darkness of our manifold imperfections and shortcomings. In a sense, since what is sacred or holy is light, and what is sacred or holy is omnipresent, there is no darkness at all. However, as human beings we often wander from the path which leads to righteousness, so to speak. Indeed, we are capable of committing acts of almost unspeakable darkness. Yet, whether it is the force of conscience, or simply the result of conditioning, there is always an inner light of wisdom---again, this is metaphorical language---that reminds us that we are not living and acting as we were meant to be. The prophet Isaiah says as much: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined’ (Is 9:2).

We dwell in ‘the land of the shadow of death’ when we fail to recognize that light or life is our very being, the very livingness of life itself, the one presence and power in which we live and move and have our being. We imagine ourselves to be separate from the rest of life and other persons and beings, and so we find that there is darkness all around us.

Now, here is a paradox. All religions tell us to seek the light but, as we are told in The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century masterpiece of medieval English Christian mysticism, that we must ‘learn to be at home’ in darkness. In The Cloud of Unknowing, we read this:

‘For in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing. You will seem to know nothing and to feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. Try as you might, this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God. You will feel frustrated, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love. But learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and this cloud.’

We are told that we must ‘learn to be at home in this darkness’. Why darkness? Because the things of this world are no longer visible, and we can’t see them. It does not mean that ‘ultimate reality’ itself is dark. In fact, we often refer to that ultimate reality as being light, which, of course, it is. We are talking about a state of uncaused bliss or blessedness, which was a familiar theme of the late, great Paramahansa Yoganda who was brought to the United States of America by Unitarians as India's delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals which was held in Boston in October 1920 under the auspices of the American Unitarian Association (now the Unitarian Universalist Association).

Meister Eckhart, another great Christian mystic, speaks of the need to cultivate an inner silence where, he implied, one may be aware of the Divine Presence. The Quakers use the phrase, ‘life lived at the centre’. Mother Julian of Norwich, anchorite and mystic of 14th century England who was the first woman ever to write a book in English, stressed that the ‘passing life of the senses’ does not and cannot lead us to knowledge of what our ‘true’ or ‘real’ self (‘Self’) is, but, she wrote, when we clearly see what our Self is, then ‘we shall truly know our Lord God in great joy’. Mother Julian saw God as the ultimate Being, the ‘endlessness’, the natural substance in which humans are immersed, the source of everything, encompassing and enclosing all and in all in an everlasting manner … an expanding universe of love.

Jesus was, of course, very familiar with the writings of the prophets. He was undoubtedly aware that the prophet Isaiah had described God as light. Jesus is reported to have said: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (Jn 8:12). Now, despite what we have been told for decades by fundamentalist and other evangelical and mainstream Christians, Jesus was not claiming to be God in any exclusive sense or unique way. Something that evangelical Christians altogether ignore is that whatever Jesus claimed for himself, he also claimed for those who were his followers. Thus, not only did he say that he was the light of the world, he also said, ‘you [sic] are the light of the world’ (Mt 5:14). That is why the New Testament says, ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven’ (Mt 5:16).

Neither Jesus nor any other person can do for us what we must do for ourselves in order to make contact with our inner light. To use a Biblical metaphor we must take up our cross---daily. Jesus’ cross was a personal one for him. He says to us, if you follow me, you will never walk in darkness, but you will walk in the light. Why is that? Because we are thinking of others. When we are self-absorbed and self-centred, we are in a state of darkness. As soon as we start to move from a sense of self to a sense of non-self, the darkness begins to disappear, for light diffuses. It spreads abroad everywhere. It is continually giving out, yet it is never exhausted. This is the nature of the divine, which ‘gives to all men liberally, and upbraids not’ (Ja 1:5).

The need for us as human beings is to become ‘so irradiated’ (that is, treated, and thereby cured, by exposure to the light of the divine) that we may ever shine as beacons amid the stormy sea of life. A beacon, according to the Macquarie Concise Dictionary, is ‘a guiding or warning signal … a lighthouse’ as well as ‘any person … that warns or guides’. We, too, are to be way-showers, way-makers, and lightbringers (or lightbearers). The image or metaphor of a lightbringer with the ‘Inner Light’ can be found in virtually every world religion. We find it among the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). It can be found in the Qur'an (An-Nur [The Light] 24:35: ‘Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth … Light upon Light’). Then there is the Ohr [‘Light’] in the Kabbala of Judaism; Ohr Ein Sof is the primordial 'Infinite Light,' and Ohr Pnimi is 'Inner Light.' The metaphor can also be found in Zoroastrian mysticism (viz the sharing of the uncreated primordial light out of which Ahura Mazda is said to have created everything in existence), the annual Autumn festival of Diwali common to Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism (which celebrates and signifies the victory of light over darkness), and in the Buddhist notion of bodhi [from the verbal root budh (to awake, become aware, notice, know or understand)]. So, all religions---not just Christianity---exhort us to let our light so shine before those around us that they may see our good works and thus come to know, love and glorify the indwelling divine life in all things and as all things, the latter being not only a state of consciousness but also the very ground of being itself.

If we turn to the First Epistle of Saint John in the New Testament we are told that if we ‘walk in the light’ we will have fellowship one with another. It is the nature of light to give of itself to those around it. Not only that we are told that if we say we are in the light but hate others, we are still in a state of darkness. Thus, light and love are one and the same thing. That should not come as any surprise, for we are told that ‘God is love; and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God in them’ (1 Jn 4:16b).

Of course, all too often we fail to radiate out the love and light that was made manifest in the lives of holy and decent men and women throughout history. Disturbingly, we are reminded that the light will not always be with us:

‘“You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”’. (Jn 12:35, 36)

So, while there is life in us, and we have the opportunity, we are to let our light so shine that others may see our good works. Not that we should boast, for love ‘seeks not her own’ (cf 1 Cor 13:5), and is solely concerned with the welfare of others. That is the nature of light, and love. It perpetually offers itself, and ever gives of itself to itself in manifestation, so that life, in all of its multiplicity of form, is perpetuated.

Getting back to our theme of the divine as light, our life can be ‘brighter than the noonday sun’ (cf Job 11:17), and we can shine even in darkness. Christianity, sensibly and rationally interpreted, is not a religion of happiness. Jesus never promised perfect health or freedom from pain, sickness and suffering. What we are promised is the ‘overcoming’ of pain, sickness and suffering. Yes, ‘this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith’ (1 Jn 5:4, original emphasis). Each one of us is all too aware of the ‘stormy sea of life’ and how we are so often ‘weary and tempest-driven souls’. Returning to the theme of The Cloud of Unknowing, we are most likely to come to know what is truly divine, sacred and holy as light in that darkness, that cloud, that remains between us and the ultimate.

That is the world in which we find ourselves placed, but there is, we are told, a haven where we can find rest in the ‘eternal sunlight’ of the presence of the divine. We are here to build a temple ‘eternal in the heavens’. It is a temple of light---and that must include love, equality, mercy and justice as well---and it has been written that there is a ‘great white throne, whence flow all love and light and blessing through all the worlds which [God] hast made’. May we never forget that each one of us is an altar on which sacrifice can and must be offered. Let us offer up ourselves to others, and to life itself. Yes, let us crucify our selfishness and egotism on the altar of light and love so that our hearts may be irradiated by the glory of the divine light that we may ever shine as beacons amid the stormy sea of life.

Note. This article is based on an address delivered by the author at the Liberal Catholic Church of Saint Francis (now the Church of Saint Francis and Saint Alban) in Gordon, New South Wales, Australia on 17 June 2007.