In the Cathedral Church where I minister as a priest, there are a number of beautiful stained glass windows featuring many of the saints. If you enter the Cathedral at night time, even if all the lights are on, the windows appear grey and vague. Only with the daylight of the sun from the outside, can the beautiful images of the saints be seen in all their glory. I believe that a stained glass window symbolises something important about our human condition and can help us understand ourselves better. It teaches us that only with the illumination of God’s Word and life from outside us can our humanity radiate with the splendour, goodness and beauty that God intends. Just as a stained glass window is illuminated by the sun from outside itself, so our humanity is at its best when harmonized with the life of God that comes to us a sheer gift.
We live at a time when messages of self-empowerment are very much in vogue. If you enter a bookstore, there are literally hundreds of books on self-help that are based on taking absolute responsibility for our own lives. The philosophy that underpins the majority of these books and similar programmes is best summed up in slogans we hear all the time – ‘search for the hero inside yourself’; ‘Be who you want to be’; ‘No one has power over you except the power you allow them to have’; ‘Let your light shine’, etc. Many of these self-help messages have become enshrined in best-selling books: ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’; ‘You can Heal your Life’; ‘How to Change your Life in the Next 15 Minutes’, etc.
There is something valuable and important in all these books and programmes. They remind us how people called to maturity take responsibility for their lives and actions. The problem with them is that they are like the lights in the Cathedral on the stained glass windows at night time. They shed some light but not enough to penetrate the full mystery of our humanity and on their own can’t reveal what our true identity is. Taking responsibility is important but alone is not enough. Sheer will power is not the answer to everything because as we know from our experience, our wills can be weak and divided. Therefore we need something more than an appeal to our wills and the choices we make. How can the solution to our problems be in our wills when it is the divided will that is the source of the problem to begin with? For example, an alcoholic needs more help than to be told – ‘Just choose to stop drinking!’ While many self-help slogans at first glance appear inspirational, there is something terribly isolating in a veiled message of ‘Go be your own Light’ or ‘Be your own salvation’. That is why the first of the twelve steps programme is the recognition that I cannot be my own saviour. I need the help of a higher power.
In biblical imagery, the divine presence or glory is represented by light. When the divine presence comes in contact with his creation, creation is not overwhelmed by that light but becomes radiant. When Moses saw the burning bush, he noticed the bush was not destroyed despite being aflame with the divine presence (Ex. 3:2). Within the Temple in Jerusalem, a branched lampstand symbolised the divine presence and glory. The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple was known as the Feast of Lights for God’s presence illuminated his dwelling place (John 10:22). For Israel, she is not only to walk ‘in the light of the Lord’ (Is. 2:5) but become ‘a light to the nations’ so that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth (Is. 49:6). In the New Testament, the Church is entrusted with that mission to bear Christ’s light to all the nations (Acts 13: 47). In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, he tells us that the life of God that we have received in Jesus is ‘the light of people, a light that shines in the darkness’ (John 1:4). Jesus described himself as ‘the light of the world’ and that anyone who follows him ‘will have the light of life’ (John 8:12). For the Christian, the person of Jesus Christ is the source of light that gives ‘sight to the blind’ (Luke 4:18) and ‘brings to light everything that is hidden in darkness’ (1 Cor. 4:5). He is the light that illuminates the mystery of our existence. His Word and his presence penetrate deep into our soul in a way that ignites a fire within. From the Church is meant to radiate a light by which ‘the nations walk’ (Rev. 21:24). This is the light of the divine life that she has received from God. This is the light that glowed from Jesus at his Transfiguration. This was the light of his divinity that glowed from his humanity, the same light that he has conferred upon us.
In the great Tradition of the Church, St Augustine insisted that it is impossible to know ourselves without the light of Christ. He wrote: ‘That which I know about myself I know because you enlighten me. As to that which I am ignorant of concerning myself, I remain ignorant of it until my darkness shall be made as the noonday in your sight’ (Confessions, 10, 5, 7). Similarly with St Bonaventure who wrote: ‘I know myself better in God than in myself’ (Hexaemeron, 12, 9). For St Catherine of Siena, we cannot be our own interpreters for ‘we can see neither our own dignity nor the defects which spoil the beauty of our soul, unless we look at ourselves in the peaceful sea of God’s being in which are imaged’ (Look at Yourself in the Water).
The Second Vatican Council taught that the ‘light of Christ is resplendent on the face of the Church’ and that the Church in turn is to be ‘Lumen Gentium…the light of the nations’ (Lumen Gentium, 1). This is the light that reveals humanity to itself for ‘it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear’ (Gaudium et Spes, 22). In a direct challenge to modern attempts to define humanity in isolation from the Creator, Pope Benedict XVI taught that ‘without God, man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is’ (Caritas in Veritate, 78). The great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that ‘God explains himself before us as love. Love radiates from God and instils the light of love in our hearts’ (Love Alone is Credible).
What all of this teaching from Scripture and Tradition reveals is the absurdity of modern attempts to define ourselves only in relation to ourselves. The Gospel message is clear. Wherever the light of the Gospel is carried, proclaimed and lived, something new happens. A light shines that changes people by its message and power. Despite all our attempts to self-illuminate with positive messages of reassurance and positivity, nothing can replace the truth contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is addressed to us from a source outside us. This is a Word that doesn’t just advise us, encourage us or teach us. No, it says something and does something that only God can do. As an example of what God’s Word says, it declares us to be beloved sons and daughters of the Father from our baptism. No one can declare this for themselves. No one can say this about themselves without being told it. It is sheer gift. An example of what God’s Word does is the gift of forgiveness. We can try and forgive ourselves all we want but nothing can replace us being forgiven by God and hearing those powerful words in the Confessional ‘I absolve you of your sins’ in Jesus’ name. Here is the light of God’s grace that makes all things new and reveals all there is to see.
C.S. Lewis once said that ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: Not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else’ (‘Is Theology Poetry?’). If we want to know ourselves and find meaning in life then therapy and self-help programmes are good. But on their own they can never do what only God can do. Only in the light of God’s love and truth can we come to know who we truly are and come to love in ourselves what God sees and loves in us. When we read the Scriptures, pray in his presence, celebrate the sacraments, contemplate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and look for the good in all things and all people, we are penetrated by God’s holy light which is the light of life. In this light we are continually open to being surprised by God and exposed continually to a new logic, a new order and a new perspective where we come to understand how we can serve God’s kingdom and grow in holiness. Like the light of the sun that shines through the stained glass windows in the Cathedral, only then does our humanity radiate with the divine presence as we glimpse our ultimate destiny – to ‘share in the inheritance of the saints in light’ (Col. 1:12). Come, let us ‘walk in the light of the Lord’ (Is. 2:5).