Love, Not Comprehension

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.