Thursday, September 24, 2015

Column: What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish

Maybe the lines from Frank Sherlock's poem stuck because I've been writing about light in other contexts.  (It's the International Year of Light, marking 1,000 years since Persian natural philosopher Ibn al-Haytham published his work on optics and I wrote an essay about chemistry and light for Nature Chemistry.) Or maybe it was the plea to "give me what it takes to dejewel" and thinking again of the jewel-like interior of the Fish Church?

I had already written the section about Merton's epiphany in Louisville before I listened to the Pope's address to Congress, where he highlighted the Cistercian monk's dedication to peace through dialog. Maybe all those papal documents I read had an effect too.

You can read Frank Sherlock's What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish here, scroll down to the end.

This column appeared at on 24 September 2015.

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” — St. Francis of Assisi

I spent yesterday at the World Meeting of Families, walking through the convention center. There are talks to go to, and hundreds of exhibits to browse and so many wonderful books on display. But it’s the people that keep drawing my attention.

The group wearing matching orange sunhats, maps in hand, standing at a crossroads, trying to find their session. A family with four overtired little ones fleeing for a quiet corner. Lidia, in front of me in the long line to pick up tickets for the Papal Mass, waving her Colombian flag so her parents could find her. The homeless men hidden away on the thin stretch of grass between JFK and the train tracks. The sisters waiting for the traffic light to change at Broad and Arch, veils fluttering in the wind, faces raised to the warming sun.

Standing there watching them, I couldn’t help but think of Cistercian monk Thomas Merton’s epiphany at a street corner in Louisville, his sudden realization that we were not strangers to each other, but one family, one people, all walking around “shining like the sun.”

If only we could see each other as God sees us, he prays — as I do, now, here in Philadelphia. Each person a light, each a light capable of sweeping away darkness by its mere presence, each a light to be tenderly shielded from the winds that buffet each of our lives.

I heard, too, fragments of Philadelphia poet laureate Frank Sherlock’s poem “What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish,” written for this historic visit. “Allow me to be passage for the newest arrivers; eyes to see sisters/brother in the convent the rowhouse the tent…”

I prayed as I walked: Give me eyes to see my sisters and brothers, the ones newly arrived, the visitors, those who live in convents and those whose only shelter is a blanket or bundle of newspapers.

This morning Pope Francis went St. Patrick’s Church in Washington where he was to have lunch with the homeless. In his remarks there he reminded us that beginning with the Our Father, prayer teaches us to “see one another as brothers and sisters.” Jesus, he said, keeps knocking on our doors, not with fireworks, but in the faces of the people next to us. We are called to answer, in love and compassion and service to each other.

I am, of course, eager to hear Pope Francis speak in person this weekend, but as the time draws near, I find myself even more joyfully looking forward to hearing Jesus knock on the door of my heart in the faces of everyone I encounter. I pray that I might be a channel of peace, an image of love, a witness to the light that all the darkness cannot dim. Not just this weekend, but all the days of my life.

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