The Light of the World Print
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 10 April 2013

New Pope Puts His Humility on Display, reads the headline, with no trace of embarrassment or irony. We miss the days when an editor, an expert handler of words, of their weight and feel and color, would have caught the gaffe, or would have recalled the saying of Jesus, that when we give alms we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing.

Yet there is a sense in which our humility is to be visible. Or perhaps I don’t have that right, either. It is not so much that the humility itself must be visible, as that it must make the love of God visible. So says Jesus, hardly a moment after He has said that they who long most for the kingdom of heaven will be reviled and persecuted and slandered:

     Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.
     Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick;
and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
     Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify
your Father which is in heaven.  (Mt. 5:14-16)

We are to give alms in secret, even in secret from ourselves, so that our Father who sees into the recesses of the heart will reward us.  We are to let our light shine out boldly, so that men may see our good works, and give glory to our Father in heaven.

I suspect that if one of these commands had appeared in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the other in his letter to the Ephesians, we would have scholars, adjusting the spectacles on their noses as they glance to the footnotes at the bottom of the page, informing us that the most recent research had proved, on just such grounds as these, that the letters could not have been the work of the same man. So it is that people educate themselves into a proud smallness of mind, which can no longer hold two great truths of a paradox together. The reader will no doubt have encountered various manifestations of the malady.

             The Pharisee and the Tax Collector by  Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794 – 1872)

When Jesus sees the Pharisees praying on the street corners and letting their faces go unwashed so as to make their fasts conspicuous, He condemns the hypocrisy and says that such men already have their reward. They have turned themselves into idols, for both themselves and others: for an eidolon is just that, an object to gaze upon, a vain spectacle, like a whiny songster strutting on a stage before thousands of fans, or a politician beaming before the crowds. They receive exactly what they have sought. The circle is closed. There is nothing more to say about it. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” says the conspicuous Pharisee, or the celebrity, or the politician, or any one of us when we turn to that most deceitful of all idols, ourselves, “who is the holiest of them all?” – or the most talented, the wisest, the smartest, the strongest, the best. “I am,” says the idol.

But we are to let our light shine before men, just as one would light a lamp and set it on the lampstand, to shed light for everyone in the house.  If we consider the metaphor, which is really a compressed parable, Jesus is suggesting a brave kind of humility. No one lights a lamp so that people will look at the lamp. We see the things that the lamp illuminates. To be the light of the world is not to be the object of the world’s attention; it is to be the medium whereby the world can see the love and the glory of the Father. 

All the more necessary it is, then, for our spiritual health, that we should be blind to our own light, first because it is from God and not ourselves, and second because we too need to see the light of God shining in the good works of other people. Jesus says that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing. He does not say that our left hand should not know what someone else’s right hand is doing; rather we should see God by the light of those works, and give Him glory. That glory-giving, that doxa, is our share in the generosity of God. We become most like Him when we lose ourselves in light.

Self-satisfaction is, then, is darkness. We are to be the unseen ambassadors of God, making Him visible by the light shed by our good works.  That is a difficult and dangerous charge. “He must increase, and I must decrease,” said the Forerunner; words that must be the motto of every Christian acting in the world. Somehow, we must be the living stained-glass windows, as the poet Herbert put it, through which the only story shines, the story of God’s love for sinful mankind, and His redeeming us from our slavery. 

We are to make that love manifest to the world in ways unique to each Christian, as every saint is brightly colored with the distinctions of God’s particular graces; a Saint Francis here, a Saint Dominic there. But it is the story-in-the-window that people see, and not the glass itself; and it is Christ whom the world should see, and not the brittle persons we are.

Eternal destinies hang in the balance: ours, and those of the people we meet in the ordinary interchanges of life, from the most intimate to the most incidental. But we have this blessing, too. The world outside of the Church is so dismal, so cheerless, that any light of faith, hope, and love that we may shine, as marred and grimed with self-regard as we may be, will appear like a new sun in the sky. Let it be so.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is
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.


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