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

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Christine Hickey

    Beautiful, Mr. Esolen…as always. Thank you for sharing your gift.

  • Michael Dowd

    If we love God we will wish to share Him with everyone. In fact, we will be compelled to do so in order to bring light and love into their lives.

  • Rich in MN

    I have been catching some of your lectures on the Divine Comedy that you recorded for “Catholic Courses” almost a decade ago. It is an amazing series, and you speak with as much animation in front of the cold eye of the camera as I would imagine you do in front of the sometimes warm, sometimes vacant eyes of your undergraduates. While I am just a bit jealous of them, wishing that Providence had led me to Providence, I am still so grateful that I get to be enthralled again in the luminosity of your extended classroom. Thank you.

    • Chris in Maryland

      I read Prof. E’s translation of the Divine Comedy, and am getting the lectures one day I hope. Light is beautiful…

      • Rich in MN

        I am so very grateful for the many erudite Catholic writers and speakers working today, but I must confess a particularly acute inability to pass up any column or book written by either Anthony Esolen or George Rutler.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I love that word “colander,” especially in your use of it here as a sign of willful stupidity. Even just the sound of the word seems to convey some of that willfulness somehow. And it strikes me that it provides a delightful analogy (among the many already there in your column), perhaps illustrated by something like this:

    And God created the colander and saw that it was good for straining and salad-making. But man then turned it upside down to upend its purpose and place it thus upon his head as crown and visor that he might gaze into its mesh and strain to see spaghetti flight as god instead.

    • Bro_Ed

      I don’t think the colander is just a metaphor. It is a fact. There was an article on-line recently about a woman in Florida who was bringing suit against the city as her “religion” (yes, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster” religion exists too) requires her to be photographed for her driver’s license with a colander on her head. I do not know the suit outcome – but it all happened.

    • PCB

      You might be straining to make a point – but I like it, just the same! (sorry, can’t resist a pun when its within reach).

  • Rick

    Having fasted all day and because there was a new moon, it was especially cold and dark when arrived home at my apartment yesterday evening. As I entered I was so happy to see the tiniest light emanating from the power strip behind the tv. It seems that we need darkness to realize and be thankful for the beauty and comfort of light.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Beautifully written and agree with essential point of irrefutable existence of God perceived in His creation. Unfortunately being a poor addled ill-taught sub pagan I find difficulty with your drift toward a form of pantheistic Eastern mysticism. “A thing itself hides in its being” is preposterous and relates to your notion sharing the light of God’s countenance. The analogy of “intelligible beings filled with light” to the Divine Light meshes the infinitely distinct Light that is God [The Word was the true light that enlightens all men. A light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower] with a commonality in man. Tony that is too close to Gnostic thought and pantheism found in Eastern mysticism. My advice is soak your head in cold water, sober up and go back to rereading Aquinas.

    • Tony

      Hello Father — It’s Pieper and Hopkins and Bonaventure that I’m thinking of. I really do believe that the individual creature “participates in being, without remainder,” as Marilynne Robinson’s Reverend Ames puts it in Gilead. Every creature is an object of wonder and is inexhaustible, because it has come forth from the hand of God. What do you think of the song that the angels sing at the end of C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra, in which every creature in the universe from the greatest to the least proclaims that it is at the center and that all things were created for it, “and let none gainsay it”? I would like to express myself most clearly on these matters and not risk confusing my readers — or my own thought.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Thanks for the pointed reply Tony. It is beautiful stuff literature wise and philosophically. I love Bonaventure’s more Platonic emphasis on created beauty giving us a deep sense of the divinity which is lacking in Aquinas.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Recall the words of a great Catholic poet, sadly neglected now:
        All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
        Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
        That, changed through all, and yet in all the same;
        Great in the earth, as in the ethereal frame;
        Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
        Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
        Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
        Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
        Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
        As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart:
        As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
        As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
        To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
        He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.

        • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

          Beautiful poetic verse Michael. I revised my response to Tony in order to clarify a real difference in apprehension of truth. For example the measure of the real distinction between God and His creation is the measure of free will in man and his capacity to know and love God.

  • Of course they are not ashamed, for in their ignorance, they have given up human reason and thus do not have the sense of shame.

    • RainingAgain

      Or, as Chesterton would say, their premises are wrong and they have nothing left but their reason.

  • olhg1

    Satisfying, metaphysically (Aristotle-wise). THX. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

  • xabi kiano

    Lovely way to drop intellectually into Lent’s first “full” day, Esolen. Much appreciated.

  • Harry

    Christ, the Word, God Himself, said “I am the light of the world.” Light in its purest form is experiencing God. It seems to me that the Word saying “Let there be light,” might have brought the angels into being, creatures with the capacity to experience God.

    As Jerome points out, ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. Christ is the light of the world. To know Him is to experience God. So until we familiarize ourselves with the Scriptures and come to know Christ in doing so, we are attempting to make our way in darkness. And if the light inside us is darkness, how dark will that darkness be! (Mt 6:23)

    This explains why letting atheism become the de facto state religion has led America to the precipice of national disaster. We have it on highest authority that the blind leading the blind doesn’t end well.

  • Fascinating. Very well put. You didn’t even mention John chapter 8 where Christ says, “I am the light of the world.” Ponder that in the context of being, love, and light.

  • Quo Vadis

    According to Genesis the world, (or the universe), was in darkness. “Then, God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”
    Those who believe in the Big Bang Theory of Creation, say that the first thing that happened after the “bang” was light appeared.

    Either way, you believe God was directly involved in creation or you have to believe that something came from nothing and He was not. But it is quite a coincidence that light was the first manifestation against the darkness.

    • Andrew

      that may be the best argument for God, actually.
      that light came from darkness is impossible, but that something came from nothing is to vauge to reason about.
      That was going to be my question to atheists if the opportunity arose…not, where did everything come from, but where did – light – come from?
      Fiat Lux!

  • PCB

    I do agree with the others regarding the high-quality proses contained in this essay!

  • Dave

    One could, as a devout Christian, have that conversation with any or all of the religious leaders of other religions that Dr. Esolen mentions precisely because there is still in their religious and philosophical thought a captivation to wonder and to the gift that life really is. Only when life has been utterly instrumentalized into means for a human (or other) agent’s ends, not in keeping with divine law found in nature itself (natural law, as opposed to divine revelation), do these kinds of conversations become impossible. And it’s sad to note how often in contemporary Catholic circles they have indeed become impossible.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    I’m just learning about up or down votes accidentally triggered an up vote on one of my comments. Can someone explain if I delete my up vote?

    • Rick

      Haha…I did the same thing once with my fidgety finger. I wouldn’t bother; however, If you are ever in the running for being the next Pope, make sure you vote for yourself.

  • Jordan

    1)Divine perfection is one of the attributes of God.
    2)But the Flying Spaghetti Monster could be made better by some Parmesan cheese and a reasonably priced bottle of cabernet.
    3)Therefore, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not God.
    4)Therefore,the proper response to Flying Spaghetti Monster is not adoration but digestion. QED

    • Joseph Drummond

      That’s pretty good

    • Andrew

      the flying spaghetti monster is not an absolute unity – and that’s the final test, but I am sure capes and pastry and tomato sauce will always have a place in rome.

  • Tony

    Alexander Pope.
    Not a single one of my freshmen students, in the Honors Program or otherwise, has heard of Alexander Pope. In Canada things are even worse.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Perhaps, he is too civilised for modern tastes.

      As GK Chesterton said, “Pope was really a great poet; he was the last great poet of civilisation. Immediately after the fall of him and his school come Burns and Byron, and the reaction towards the savage and the elemental.”

      I don’t suppose they read the great Catholic poet of the previous generation either, John Dryden.