Faith: Spiritual Light that Enlightens the Mind

A student of mine was recently reading a book on faith, which said that faith is a “spiritual light that enlightens the mind” and that “we see by its light.” “What does that mean?” she wanted to know. What would a “spiritual light” be and how could it “enlighten the mind?” “I know ‘light’ is just a metaphor here,” she told me, “but it’s still kind of fuzzy and vague. What is he talking about?”

Consider the following case, I told her. Let’s say that we have a chronically depressed young woman who has had, from a very early age, body image problems. She thinks she is fat and ugly, but she is not. Indeed, she is probably a little too thin to be healthy, but she is certainly not unattractive.

Now let’s say that this young woman gets a certain kind of help from a good counselor, and/or she responds in the way we might hope to the love of a parent, friend, or husband. And let’s say that, after this change in her disposition, when she looks at herself in the mirror, she doesn’t see herself as fat and ugly anymore, even though her body-mass index is exactly the same as it was before. For some reason, she now believes her husband (or mother or friends) when they say, “You’re not fat; you’re beautiful,” whereas before, she simply didn’t. In fact, before, it was painful for her even to hear these words.

How would we describe this new vision this young woman has gained both of herself and of herself in relation to the world? How about as a kind of “spiritual light” that has “enlightened her mind?”

Why describe it this way? Because prior to this, she was convinced in her mind that she was fat and ugly. No one could prove to her anything else. So the change didn’t come about purely intellectually. No one gave her new evidence; no one showed her pictures she hadn’t seen. The change came in a place deeper inside her than merely her intellect. It wasn’t just a change in her mind; it was a change in an entire attitude toward herself and her relation to other people and the world.

"Girl before a Mirror" by Pablo Picasso, 1932
“Girl before a Mirror” by Pablo Picasso, 1932

Where before there had been despair that things could never be different, now there is hope, a hope not based on some illusory, impossible dream (as if, for example, I were to say to myself, “someday I might be able to play in the NBA”), but a hope based on a new perception of the reality of things as they really are. We don’t say that she just “hopes” she’s not fat. No, she sees the truth that she’s not fat, whereas before she couldn’t see – couldn’t even imagine it. Thus can we say that this new “spiritual light” has “enlightened” her mind, so that she can now see with her eyes and understand with her mind her true image and true value, whereas before she was mired in illusion?

It might be that this new ability to see herself and her world has been made possible by her finally believing in the love of a friend or husband, for some reason she probably can’t explain. Or perhaps it was something beyond “reason” as she previously conceived of what seemed “reasonable.” And this new “vision” of herself and of world, that finally saying “yes” to love made possible, also made possible a new hope and a new ability to love more fully. Indeed, perhaps she finally simply said to herself, “I’d prefer to say yes to the reality of love and all that it promises rather than say no and remain stuck in the sad reality I’ve convinced myself is the only one that could possibly exist.”

This saying “yes” in hope to the promise of the reality that love can make possible is what Christians call “faith.” It is not merely an act of the will; I don’t merely will myself to believe what is impossible. Rather, it is a newfound vision of the intellect, a new spiritual light in which we can see ourselves and our world more clearly, a vision made possible by saying “yes” to love and to its promise of what might be but isn’t yet.

It would be nice if when we were dealing with young women of this sort who have convinced themselves of their ugliness we could simply provide them with scientific proofs and demonstrable evidence. But for whatever reason, the “yes” of faith, hope, and love often must come first. Such women don’t first see the truth and then decide based on rational criteria to love themselves and others. They first have to accept the reality of the love and then let the love give birth to a new kind of hope allowing them to see reality the way it really is.

If you doubt that love makes possible a clearer and truer vision of reality, especially the reality of persons, than would otherwise have been possible, then you probably haven’t spent enough time listening to mothers talk about their children – especially, say, a mother of a child with Down Syndrome. As far as I can tell (not being one of those who makes a big fuss over babies), if you couldn’t see with the eyes of a love able to look beyond the present evidence and with a hope for possibilities not yet present (or seemingly even very likely), you wouldn’t be betting your life on the future of most of these children.

And yet mothers do all the time.

What do they see in these children that I usually don’t? Probably much the same thing that the saints see in the world and in other people that the rest of us so often don’t: God’s loving grace at work, making realities possible that we can barely conceive and too often scarcely imagine.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.