Sunday, January 01, 2012

Column: A fierce and wondrous light

The photo was taken last winter at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA. There is an article in this weekend's NY Times on making an Ignatian retreat at Wernersville. If you've wondered about what it might be like to go on such a retreat, this is a graceful, albeit slightly quirky (sphinxiness?), description of a first time retreat. And I added a new word to my vocabulary, adytum.

I can relate to her description of showing up a bit late and not knowing where to go. The very first time I went on retreat at Wernersville (many years back) I arranged to arrive a day late. My bag and I wandered the halls (without noticing the posted list) until I ran into a random retreatant and asked for help. He kindly pointed out the list and suggested I go to my room. Where a delightful note from my director for the week awaited me.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times, January 2012

He has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
Hebrews 1:2b-3a

A virtual jungle of tropical plants lines the south wall of my family room. Earlier this week, as I made room for the family crèche on the windowsill, I realized that every plant had turned its leaves until they were plastered to the window, their faces toward the sun, hungry for whatever light they can find in these short and dim days.

Yesterday, listening to the words of the second reading at Christmas Mass I was struck by the this line in Hebrews, Christ is the refulgence — the shining radiance — of God’s glory. The Latin, refulgere, implies more than just a light that shines forth brightly; this is a light that shines fiercely and intently. And like my plants, this is a light we hunger for; this is the Light that sustains us.

Standing to the side at the cantor’s stand, I could see that hunger in the faces of those who came to receive Christ in the Eucharist. The grandparents holding hopeful grandchildren in their arms, the convert received into the Church last Easter still beaming with joy, the exhausted mothers bent over holding the hands of toddlers determined to walk the aisle on their own two feet, the new widow veiled in grief, all reaching out for that fierce Light that sustains us in all things.

John’s Gospel begins with the Word resounding through the chaos, creating the heavens and the earth. But in a homily on the letter to the Hebrews, St. John Chrysostom reminds us that the Word did not cease to speak, “He holds together what would fall to pieces, for to hold the world together is no less than to make it, but even greater.” Even the discordant pieces we cannot imagine being part of the whole are held in that Light and fastened together. Proof, says John Chrysostom, of God’s “exceeding power,” of Christ’s refulgence.

I’m always tempted in the days after Christmas to give over waiting, to be done with watching. But this ancient homily reminds me that just as the Word continues to sustain what He brought into being, the end of Advent does not bring an end to being attentive to where the Light is, to where I should turn my face, for what I should be reaching.

For the next few weeks the manger scene sits among the plants on the window ledge. Each morning as I drink my tea, I contemplate the infant in the crib, brushed by the light that day by day grows in intensity. I wonder what happened to the shepherds who saw the glory of God around them and went to seek the child in the manger. Such an outpouring of Light, such a Word spoken could not have left them unchanged.

And I wonder what will God’s exceeding power make of me in the coming year? What fragmented parts will be fastened together? I hear the familiar words of St. Augustine, “become what you receive” and I know where to look for that fiercely wondrous and sustaining Light.

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. Anonymous4:12 PM

    Of course, some of us could write a different tale of our first arrival at Wernersville - one involving alleged friends who set out to ensure that we are continuously lost for eight consecutive days.

  2. Is being lost on retreat such a bad thing??