How God Is Light

Attention Californians: TCT’s founding editor-in-chief, Robert Royal, will be in the Golden State later this month. Here’s Bob’s schedule, with a couple of links for more information (and more to come): Sacramento Catholic Forum, noon on Thursday February 18; Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, Napa CA, 7:00 PM on Friday February 19; University of Santa Barbara, Catholic Chaplaincy, 6:30 PM Monday February 22; and Claremont McKenna College, 4:00 PM Tuesday February 23.

Readers may have heard of a couple of escapees from a Scottish mental ward, who ran about town naked except for upside down colanders on their heads, raving and crying out for their god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to shower upon them its glutinous grace.

Well, it didn’t really happen that way. It might have been better if it had. We don’t despise the uncle in Arsenic and Old Lace, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and must be addressed as Mister President. We pity him. Madness is a malady.

But willful stupidity is an offense to God and man, and that is what two Scottish lawmakers evinced when they were sworn into office invoking the New Atheists’ mock god, clad in suits if not in wisdom or in the slightest cultural knowledge. Not colanders, but coxcombs should have crowned them.

Perhaps schools in Great Britain have abandoned English poetry as utterly as schools in the United States and Canada have. Here is the blind poet Milton, invoking the Holy Spirit as he turns his attention from Hell to Heaven:

Hail, holy Light, offspring of Heaven first-born,
Or of th’eternal co-eternal beam
May I express Thee unblamed? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity; dwelt then in Thee,
Bright Effluence of bright Essence increate.

“For God is light,” says Saint John, “and there is no darkness in Him.” (1 John 1:5) What does he mean by that, and how can we use the insight to give reason for our hope, to the poor addled ill-taught sub-pagans among us?

When we say “God is light,” we cannot refer to the light that is first of all creatures, when “God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” What that light is, the rabbis and the Church fathers speculated about. One common interpretation is that it is intelligibility itself, the prime effulgence of the universe to be.

Such speculation is not merely fanciful. Mister Apollo, or Mister Spaghetti Monster, may be a relatively big fellow taking some already existing stuff and shaping it into our world of squirrels and acorns. But the God revealed in Genesis speaks this light into being, from darkness. To create from nothing is to impart being itself, and to bring forth from darkness is to impart light. We are to see here an intimate relationship between existence and splendor: between the act of being, and the pouring forth of light. Epiphany is inseparable from the living God.

Burning Bush by Sébastien Bourdon, c. 1644 [Hermitage, St. Petersburg]
Burning Bush by Sébastien Bourdon, c. 1644 [Hermitage, St. Petersburg]

Let us meditate upon that for a while. The fundamental utterance of any thing in the universe is this, “I exist!” As the poet Hopkins puts it, referring to kingfishers and dragonflies and stones tumbling into wells, “What I do is me: for that I came.” The infinitesimal quark flickering here and there “inside” a proton flashes forth its being. It does not possess its existence from itself.

It need not have been. Its kind need not have been. It is not HO ON, as the Septuagint so powerfully renders God’s revelation from the lightsome bush: The BEING. But it has being, as it sheds light: the light of being the sort of thing it is, and of being the individual thing it is. It is, and it is intelligible.

Yet there is more, always more. God dwells “in unapproachable light,” “dark with excess of bright,” as Milton says, and so we should not be surprised to find that His creations are also in a way too bright for our comprehension.

We cannot reduce even the quark to any mathematical function describing its behavior, no more than we can reduce a fire to a painting of a fire. The thing itself hides in being.

About the humblest thing in the world there is never a dull completion of our knowledge. We do not simply imagine “infinity in a grain of sand.” The infinity is there to apprehend, if not to comprehend. We see light, though we cannot pierce its heart and have done with it. Light is not a mask upon nothingness. It is the countenance of being.

If that is true of the intelligible grain of sand, it is incomparably truer of the intelligent beholder of the grain of sand. The sacred author reveals God to be the first beholder: the first whose countenance brightens, to stretch a figure of speech, before the beauty of being. We share in this delight in splendor, and perhaps that is a good way to define what it means to be a person made in the image and likeness of God.

Intelligible things are filled with light, and “love” the light by their existing. Intelligent beings are drawn to the light in a light-shedding love of their own, saying, “How good it is that you are, and that you are what you are!” And when we behold not a grain of sand but a fellow beholder, the only thing that keeps us from being lost in wonder is that we are too accustomed to things. It is like no longer noticing the sky above.

I am the last person to lie back in self-satisfaction and say that all religions are basically the same. They are not. And yet I imagine that all I have said above would at the least engender a spirited and friendly discussion among a Catholic philosopher, a Hindu swami, a Buddhist lama, a Tao monk, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, and so forth.

We would be all turned towards the light, and therefore towards one another. This would be so, even though a Christian, recalling the words of the beloved apostle, would be thinking of how being and light and love lead us towards that mystery, shrouded in brightness, of the Three-Personed God.

So Dante:


O Light that dwell within Thyself alone,
who alone know Thyself, are known, and smile
with Love upon the Knowing and the Known!

Colander wearers, ain’t you ashamed?

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.