Thursday, December 16, 2004

Seeking the Light

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility...
That is the beginning of the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. This theme of waiting in the darkness for the coming of the light is a common one during this season.

It is theme that is common in literature, music and poetry as well. What I'm talking about here is not simply the well-known "fear of the dark" that many of us may have experienced as children. There is a sense that this is such a powerful theme because of how deeply we long for the light rather than simply a response of fear of the dark.

I don't deny the fear, however. It is very real. I recall a time when I was in fire fighting school in the Navy. They put a bunch of us on the roof of a concrete building, and told us to hold down a large fire hose. No matter what happened, we were told, do not let go of that hose. Then they lit an oil fire below us. Slowly the thick smoke shut out all light. I've never experienced such complete darkness. When it reached the deepest hew of black, I experienced a wave of panic. If I hadn't been on a second story roof, I probably would have dropped that fool hose and took off running.

A few years later, I had a dream in which I was in a place that was much like the darkness of that roof. It was one of those dreams in which you are somewhat conscious that you're dreaming, and so you intentionally explore the strange world of your subconscious. I tried to sense what was in front of me. Then behind me. And it was then that a wave of panic came over me that was so strong that it woke me up. I panicked because what I sensed was an infinite nothing in every direction.

I think that is at the root of the fear of the dark. We connect light with existence. We think of the dark as a void. It is the void that we fear.

My faith tells me that the void is nothing to fear. Let me say more about that. In order to talk about it, I need to borrow some of the words and images from the tradition of Kabbalah. I'm not an expert on this topic, but the little I do know has been helpful in my own ruminations on this theme of the light and the darkness.

Kabbalah is not really a linear system of thought. It is more of a compilation of many generations of stories and studies. Some define this tradition as "Jewish mysticism." I don't know enough about it to know if that is an accurate definition, but I do know that when I hear it, something in me wants to say, "Yes, but, there's more!" Kabbalah is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures, however. It especially focuses on the creative act of God. The tradition suggests to us that we cannot "know" God as God is. What we perceive are emanations, or "sefiroth," which are named for the ten names of God found in the Hebrew scriptures.

To know something is to define what it is. It is through the act of creation that we gain some definition of God. As a Christian, I would also suggest that we gain this knowledge through the Incarnation as well, but that is, in some sense, another creative act which is probably best set aside for a separate discussion. We can also define what something is by beginning with what it is not. I think this is a dangerous way to go. It leads to dualism; a God of the created realm, and a God of the uncreated, a God of light and a God of dark. By the act of creation, everything has been touched by God, and, to some degree, carries the essence of God (I'm following Aristotle rather than Plato here...a personal preference, I suppose). God "rolls through all things" as Wordsworth would say. This is not a claim that God is all (pantheism) but that God is in all (panentheism).

Then how do we explain the darkness; those places where it seems that God is not present? This is where I find the Kabbalistic stories interesting. That tradition suggests that before the creative act all was God, or, "Ein Sof," which literally mean "light in extension" or "limitless light." Interestingly, Ein Sof is also described at times as the "No-Thing" which is one way of differentiating between the created order and that which has always been. Before the creative act, the light (white light, as it carries all the colors of the spectrum) was all there was. In order to create, Ein Sof had to contract himself; remove himself from a point within the light, to be able to have a space where there could be something that was other than the light. Some have compared this contraction to what we know of black holes; the gravitational force of a compact mass being so strong that it does not allow the light to emanate from it. This creation of the black space is called the "tzimtzum." The light was then poured back in as particular creations.

One of the best ways I've heard this described is to imagine a large sheet of white paper. We cut a hole in the middle of that paper. Using the cutout piece, we cut small white stars, which we then sprinkle over the hole, thus filling it once again.

The dark places are those from which there are no emanations of God, or the emanations are weak. They are not accidental, or necessarily malevolent. It is part of the way creation unfolds, as I've previously suggested while considering Irenaeus. We long for the light because we have experienced darkness. We long for God because we have touched those places where God is not.

That is true, as far as our experience goes, but experience alone is not always the best tool for defining reality. A Kabbalist would remind me that the source of all is the Ein Sof. The light does permeate all things. It's apparent absence is a necessary part of the creative act, but it does not diminish God, nor should it diminish our faith in God. We need not live in fear.

As the darkness of winter begins to recede (December 21) and the light lingers with us a bit longer each day, let us rejoice in the promise that God will be with us, within us, and all around us this day, and until the end of time.

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

(collect for the First Sunday after Christmas Day)J.

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