The Catholic Thing
Love, Not Comprehension Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 20 November 2013

In the old translation of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, there’s one verse in particular that has always given me a shiver of awe. It is this one, which I cannot pretend to understand: 

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. 

I know the reason why that won’t do. It’s the verb to comprehend. We now use it to refer only to the understanding, and often a shallow understanding at that. We have tests of “reading comprehension” designed to see if Johnny can remember whether Spot chased Fluffy or Fluffy chased Spot. So we have to turn the verb away from a supposedly false field of meaning, and to supply it with additional force: 

And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness has not overcome it. 

And that I do understand. At least I understand what the sentence means, though I must still and always meditate upon that eternal failure of the darkness in its ineffectual war against the light. 

But what if I am not supposed to understand what the sentence means? What if the Lord, working through Saint John, did not want it to be so easy for me? John was not writing in his native Hebrew, but in Greek. The simplicity of his sentence structures gives him away. But it’s also clear that John has the soul of a poet. It’s no accident that the Christian iconographers associated him with the eagle, the bird that soars the highest, and that was thought to be able to gaze directly into the sun.

He feels truths as other people feel the earth beneath their feet, or the wind against their cheeks. Those truths are few, and massive, too large for words. They would exhaust any attempt to describe them. We could spend our lives trying to elucidate one of them: And the Word was made flesh. John does not try. He places them before us, to behold, then to behold another, then to return to the first, always to behold, always to accept in gratitude, and always to return to each truth as if we were seeing it for the first time.

Therefore his prose, in its very paucity of words, is all the more profound in its implications. His words are like tremendous single notes in a tone poem, or the monoliths of a true Stonehenge, or the archangels in their terrible and glorious individuality. 

For the fact is, the Greek katelaben that we translate as “overcome,” really does mean, more literally, to obtain, to grasp, to catch; and its figurative meanings have to do with the understanding. We in English use our verbs in a similar way. We grasp someone’s intent. We catch someone’s meaning. We comprehend it, meaning, in the original Latin, that we have seized the whole thing from both ends. We’ve got it in our custody. 

Saint John the Evangelist by Bernardo Cavallino, c. 1642

But the darkness has not caught the light. It has not taken it in handcuffs. It has not blocked it in all directions. It has not grasped it. It has not comprehended it. 

Nor have the people to whom the Word has come. We read a few verses later that the Word came into the world, and the world came into being through Him, but the world knew Him not. And He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. And here words fail us again. 

Maybe, five hundred years ago, the verb “receive” still retained some sense of taking, catching. That’s what the translators probably were struggling to convey, since the Greek word is parelabon, a play on katelaben, from a few moments before. We cannot comprehend the Word. We cannot capture it and tie it down. But we can let it capture us.

We can accept it, we can take it in. For to all who did take hold of it in this way [elabon], there was given the power to become children of God, born not in the ways we can comprehend “not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of a man, but of God.” 

I am struggling to say that the words are rightly mysterious. No man has seen God, Saint John tells us. I cannot overcome or overtake or comprehend or fathom the mystery of the eternal Word. But why should I want to do that? When does the true lover ever wish that the beloved were less than an endless mystery of truth upon truth, revelation upon revelation? 

The darkness has not comprehended the light. Perhaps we can say that the darkness seeks to comprehend the light, and that is why it is the darkness. The only way to grasp the Word is through the self-forgetting acceptance of love. That does not mean that we turn the Word into an echo of our feelings. We had better not read ourselves into the Word; Saint John calls that darkness, too. That is just another way of having things as we would please. It is to try to clamber upon the throne of God. 

Love does not do that. It is caught up in beauty: “And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

It is content to wait upon the Lord, who will bring us into glory in the fullness of time.

“Beloved,” the now elderly apostle writes to the churches, “now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” 

So give me that old time translation. It tells me the truth, most honestly when I cannot pretend to know it: And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.  

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (13)Add Comment
written by ron a., November 19, 2013
Anthony--Thank you for this.
written by Stanley Anderson, November 20, 2013
My wife and I have a smile-inducing memory of a very charming expression that our son used when he was a very young child. "I can't know it" he would say in response to a question, when clearly he meant something like "I don't know." But to our "literal" minds, his actual words just sounded so unexpectedly and comically philosophical coming from his small innocent young mouth.

Seeing your near-ending line, "I cannot pretend to know it" brings new life to that cherished memory. And perhaps that is the difference between an innocent view and a dark view even though both have an incomplete view or understanding -- ie, the darkness "pretends" to know, or, as the serpent in the garden tempts, the darkness suggests that there is an alternate and hidden way around and "outside" God to arrive at that knowledge.
written by Sherry , November 20, 2013
Thank you! This is breathtakingly beautiful...
written by Other Joe, November 20, 2013
Where I live there was a particularly dramatic sunset last night. Anyone who has tried to paint pictures would have been staggered by the display of light. Then a thought came to me - I can't imagine why it waited so many years. Satan wants to run what he could never create. He wants to comprehend the light, but he can not - in any sense.
written by Cornelius, November 20, 2013
Who said, "We do not possess the truth; the truth possesses us"?
written by Mack Hall, November 20, 2013
Well said, but about the third paragraph -- that connects directly with the unhappy reality that only half the electorate votes in presidential elections, fewer vote in state and local elections, and no one votes in school board elections. People are constantly surprised to live under the government entities for which they voted by not voting.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, November 20, 2013
"and the darkness comprehendeth it not" suggests that darkness cannot recognize light, as in, "doesn't know what to make of it..baffled by it"

The hidden poetic mysteries found in John's Gospel reminds me of something my then 6 year old son wrote when asked in the 1st grade to describe the quietest sound. He wrote, "The quietest sound is the sound of the sun rising over a barn in the morning." He drew a picture to capture the mystery of such an experience.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 20, 2013
Grammarians do talk about the literal and figurative, or metaphorical, meanings of words like "grasp," but it seems to me that, historically, we may well have an ancient unity of meaning that was both. There is not a shred of evidence that the literal meaning is older than the figurative.
written by Titus, November 20, 2013
Professor Esolen, as always, delights. But while one would not quibble in the least with the way in which he presents the essay, is there not a further depth to the use of the word "comprehend"? In a classically philosophical sense, comprehension requires a certain parity in being: e.g., man cannot comprehend God because God, by His nature, is infinite, while man is finite.

So to say that the darkness "did not comprehend it" is to say something about the inherent nature of the two forces under discussion, and the existential chasm that separates them. It implicitly reiterates St. John's express point that Christ is God; the forces of evil, by contrast, are directed by mere creatures.

Perhaps Professor Esolen could take up that angle next time. But even if he does not, the results will be edifying.
written by Hen, November 20, 2013
Anthony, You've put me into a nostalgic trance, remembering the Mass as an Altar boy in the early forties, standing mostly in silence, often daily while the spiritual Father read this gospel of St John there at the end. Thank you.
written by JRF, November 21, 2013
Another message that grows the mind and soul. Thanks
written by debby, November 21, 2013
but not awe-some. awe-all.

and the old art.
the Light
always greeting without blinding that curious darkness

and if i hang on to darkness, my soul is only more the weary for the greyness about it, like a hazy, humid, uncomfortable thickness. rather let it all go and become embraced and warmed by that Light.

thank you, dear teacher. you sit low at His feet gazing ever upward, now don't you.
written by Chris in Maryland, November 22, 2013
Tony Esolen again shows how impoverished the modern translation is, compared to the Douhy-Rheims - which is the 16th C English translation that retains the meaning of the Greek - i.e., "the darkness has not comprehended it."

And of course - our souls when darkenned by sin - fail to comprehend - because to sin is to worship idols - rather than worship Our Loving Father. And what have Jesus and his prophets taught us about idolatry? Because we worship idols of stone - we will become like them - with ears of stone, eyes of stone and hearts of stone - who cannot hear, cannot see, cannot feel for others...we cannot comprehend The Light of The Redeemer.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author