Thursday, December 16, 2010

Column: If you would, you could become all flame

This snippet from Emily Dickinson, which I found after the piece was written, is not a bad summary of my sense of the light:
By a departing light
We see acuter, quite,
Than by a wick that stays.
There's something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.
The light at this time of year always seems extraordinary to me, revealing much that is hidden.

The story of Abba Joseph in its full form is here. Or if you can get your hands on the latest issue of Dappled Things, read Sabrina Vourvoulias' Poem with a line from the Desert Fathers which takes its breath from the same story. Alas, it's not need to find/order a paper copy!

This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 16 December 2010.

Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. — Isaiah 8:23a, 9:2

In the last six weeks I’ve been half way round the world and back again. The trip was amazing. I took walks in the jungle where lizards the size of cats slunk liquidly down the path ahead of me and macaques hid among the trees. The jet lag was brutal. I crossed 12 time zones. Twice. For several weeks my body and the sun disagreed seriously about what time it ought to be. My perceptions of day and night, light and darkness, were thoroughly muddled.

The internal and external clocks finally realigned, but something still seemed amiss. I finally realized it was the light. At the equator, the sun soared high in the sky. The ground lay unshadowed at noon, the dawn was a quick dash from darkness to full light. Here the morning light lingers, and even at noon, the sun hangs low in the sky, barely skimming the tops of the trees. In this winter half-light, I’m vaguely aware of the possibilities, aware there could be more.

This is an unrushed light, one that lingers in space as well as time — tracing its way through miles more atmosphere than it will on the sharp edge of summer. It is a paradoxical light; despite its dimness, it reveals rather than obscures. The few leaves that remain on the trees appear lit from within. The stained glass windows in the small chapel glow in the early morning light, making the very air luminous. This gentle light sets the world afire.

Writing on the psalms, St. Augustine reminds us of our destiny — to be alight: “[O]ur light does not come from ourselves, it is you, Lord who will light my lamp.” Like the glowing leaves, what sets us alight is not anything within ourselves, but the Light that is gradually dawning in these Advent days.

We are poised at the point in the year where the darkness will cease to extend its reach, the days will grow longer. What might we do with the light we are about to be granted? Evelyn Underhill, an early 20th century English spiritual writer, echoes Augustine along with some blunt advice: “Ye are the light of the world — but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.”

This time of year where light and darkness ebb and flow in the stillness is beautiful, but there is an insistent edge to it. As tempting as it is to hunker down, to drowse in the half-light, we know there is more to come. In our memories of summer we’ve been given the measure of the brighter days to come.

We’re almost to Christmas, we might even be almost ready to celebrate the great feast. Gifts are wrapped and waiting to be opened, the cookies are baked. We’ve swept our houses and souls clean, literally and sacramentally. What do we do now?

I’m reminded of a similar question asked of Abba Joseph, a hermit living in the desert in the fourth century. Abba Lot, another hermit, came to seek his advice. “I fast,” he said, “I pray and meditate, I live in peace…what else can I do?” Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; suddenly light flickered from his fingers like ten lamps. “If you would, you could become all flame.”

Like Abba Lot, I’ve done what I can; now I have to ask myself if I’m willing to recognize that what will happen next is not up to me. It is only the Lord who can fan the embers in my heart into a fire that can be of use. Could I dare to become “all flame,” dare to let Christ be at work not only in me, but through me?

At Evening Prayer next Tuesday the entire Church will call out, as she has for centuries, “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness….” It’s a risky prayer. We are not asking merely for a light to see by, or even for a light that reveals our failings, but a light to guide us out to do God’s work: a Light to set us aflame.

Come, Lord, light my lamp. Let me become all flame.

Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came; Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not
A lightning of fire hard-hurled.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., from The Wreck of the Deutschland


  1. I seem to have connected that low sun with surviving the car accident on the solstice last December. Do you know of a Emily quote about the spirits of the dead visiting us in birds?

  2. I think you should stay home on the solstice this year!

    I don't know of that Emily quote...

  3. good idea. I read the quote at a time that was ripe for it to leap into me, but now I am wondering if I imagined it.

  4. I loved the descriptions, such beautiful language! Also, that qoute from Evelyn Underhill "get on with it" is such a message I need to keep hearing right now. Fear not, just move, just let God enflame me and guide me. Thank you!

  5. I definitely loved the practicality of Underhill's advice - as you say, just move!