The Divine Light

Even without frequent references, the New Testament is far from silent on the topic of God's luminous characteristics. In 1 John 1:5, we have spelled out for us that "God is Light." When the apostle Peter was in jail, God sent a liberating angel, "and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell from his hands (Acts 12:7)." In the introduction to the Gospel according to John, we are told that

There was a man sent from God
, whose name was John.
The same came for a witness,
to bear witness of the Light,
that all men through him might believe.
He was not that Light,
but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
That was the True Light,
which lighteth every man
that cometh into the world (John 1: 6-9).

That Light was Jesus, the Word of God, the Son of God, who also was God. The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus was "the brightness of [God's] glory, and the express image of his person..." (Heb. 1:3). Paul ought to know; formerly known as Saul, he was an enemy of Christians. Saul tried all he could to discredit Jesus' teaching. One day, on his way to Damascus to round up Christians, Saul came upon a remarkable sight:

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus:
and suddenly there shined around him
a light from heaven:
And he fell to the earth,
and heard a voice saying unto him,
Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
And he said, who art thou, Lord?
And the Lord said, I am Jesus
whom thou persecutest... (Acts 9: 3-5).

Needless, to say, this experience had quite an influence on Saul, as it resulted in his conversion to Christianity.

The early theologians of the church, also, made reference to God as Light. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the 2nd century, tells us that "the divine Word, the Light who is the archetype of light, is a genuine son of mind...." Jesus has allowed us to see the light because he "has made clear the mind that lay buried in darkness, and sharpened the 'light-bearing eyes' of the soul." For those who have received the divine vision, Clement would have us all say,

"Hail, O Light."
Upon us who lay buried in darkness
and shut up in the shadow of death,
a light shone forth from heaven,
purer than the sun
and sweeter than the life of earth.
That light is life eternal,
and whatsoever things partake of it, live...

O pure Light!
In the blaze of the torches
I have a vision of heaven and of God....1

Similar views are expressed by 4th century theologian Gregory of Nyssa. Commenting on the Biblical story of Moses encountering a "burning bush," Gregory interprets this as a symbol of the way the Divine light works through humanity. The "light shining from the bramble bush" represents the "Radiance which shines upon us through this thorny flesh and which is... the true light and truth itself." God is the light, so "what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness, and the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in light."2

At the turn of the 4th century, St. Augustine had more to say on the topic. Augustine addresses God as "Thou true-speaking Light," one whom he had seen in "Thy brightness." With the "eye of my soul," Augustine says he saw

the Unchangeable Light....
He who knows the truth knows that light;
and he that knows it knoweth eternity...
Thou didst beat back the infirmity of my sight,
pouring forth upon me most strongly
Thy beams of light...3

This light is generally regarded as being beyond description by those who have seen it, because it is beyond the grasp of the physical sense of sight. Consequently, the mystics of the Christian tradition occasionally use "negative" terminology to describe the indescribable. Pseudo-Dionysius, the Eastern Orthodox mystic, used this kind of language extensively:

Trinity!! Higher than any being,

any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
Higher in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture.
where the mysteries of God's Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.4

The anonymous Book of Privy Counselling, probably written sometime in the 15th century, likewise refers to God's "luminous darkness."5 In The Dark Night of the Soul, written in the 16th century, St. John of the Cross asks of his own work, "Why, if it is a divine light (for it illumines souls and purges them of their ignorances), does one call it a dark night?" The mystic answers this by way of analogy:

...the clearer and more obvious divine things are
in themselves, the darker and more hidden they are
to the soul naturally. The brighter the light
the more an owl is blinded; and the more one looks
at the brilliant sun, the more the sun darkens the
faculty of sight, deprives it and overwhelms it
in its weakness.
Hence when the divine light of contemplation strikes
souls not yet entirely illumined, it causes spiritual
This divine and dark light causes deep immersion of
the mind in the knowledge and feeling of one's own
miseries and evils; it brings all these miseries into
relief so that the soul see clearly that of itself it
will never possess anything else....6

Most other Christian mystics prefer to use language drawn from ordinary life to describe this extraordinary Light. St. Symeon, the mystic "New Theologian" of the Eastern Orthodox church, wrote extensively at the turn of the first millenium (1000 CE) in an attempt to describe what this Divine Light is like. In The Discourses, Symeon acknowledges that God is "the Light that is ineffable, inaccessible." God shows Himself in "the form of an incomprehensible, inaccessible and formless light...; still, He appears clearly and is consciously known and clearly seen, though He is invisible."7 On the other hand, Symeon tells us unequivocally that

We bear witness that "God is light," and those
to whom it has been granted to see Him have all
beheld Him as light. Those who have received Him
have received Him as light, because the light of
His glory goes before Him, and it is impossible
for him to appear without light. Those who have
not seen His light have not seen Him, for He is
the Light, and those who have not received the
Light have not yet received grace...8

Symeon tells us that "the sudden flash" of Divine light "exposes every defilement of thought and deed." Therefore, if our souls were as pure as Christ's, "then the whole immaterial body of your soul will be full of light. But if the mind be evil, that is, darkened and extinguished, then this body of yours will be full of darkness." Hell, then, according to Symeon, is this "darkness of the soul." The mystic asks, "He who is blind in the eyes, how will he read the letters that are in the light when he does not see the light?" Similarly, "He who is blind in his mind and has not the mind of Christ... in himself, how can he consider the thoughts that are stored up in the light of Christ?" Symeon does "not think that such a person will ever be able to contemplate things that are spiritual, immaterial, and full of light in a place that is material and in darkness."9

Instead God only "imparts of His own brightness" to the extent that those who have entered into union with Him "have been purified." This is an inner vision; Christ "is not the light of the world as though he were seen by the senses, but as contemplated by the mind." The Lord might be called "light" and "sun," but "He is greater than every light and greater than the sun...." The saint knows that "you will enjoy the vision of Christ transfigured and shining more brightly than the sun...." Symeon tells us of his own encounter with the Light Divine:

...I perceived a Divine warmth. Then a small radiance
that shone forth. Then a Divine breath from his words.
Then a fire kindled in my heart, which caused constant
tears to flow. After that a fine beam went through my
mind more quickly than lightning. Then appeared to me
as it were a light in the night and a small flaming cloud...
What a marvel! At once I realized that He whom I had
thought to be in heaven was within me....10

In his search, Symeon had heard stories from others who had had similar experiences. The "apprentice of a venerable father" told stories of "divine illuminations sent from heaven to those engaged in the spiritual struggle, consisting of a flood of light, and conversations between God and man." A man the saint knew named George had a similar extraordinary experience:

...suddenly a flood of divine radiance appeared from
above and filled all the room.... He saw nothing but
light all around him and did not know if he was standing
on the ground.... he was wholly in the presence of
immaterial light and seemed to himself to have turned
into light...."11

Other Christian mystics relate stories that sound much the same as the ones we have just seen. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century nun, tells us that she had numerous visions of God. In the first one, she saw "a wonderfully beautiful image. It had a human form, and its countenance was of such beauty and radiance that I could have more easily gazed at the sun than at that face...." For Hildegard, God is "the true light that shone forth in eternity before the origin of everything." Jesus, the Word, "was the light that has never been concealed by a shadow... the principle of all order and the Light of all lights, and it gives light of itself." God told Hildegard that

...I, who am without beginning, am the fire by which
all fires are enkindled. I am the light that covers the
dark places so that they cannot grasp the light.
Therefore, light does not mingle with the dark places,
and therefore the darkness does not come to the light.12

Speaking of her visions, Hildegard tells us that

The light that I see is not bound by space. It is much,
much more light-filled than a cloud that carries the sun
in itself. There is nothing in it to recognize of height,
length, or breadth. It was described to me as the
"shadow of the living light"....13

For Hildegard, God "gleams with such splendour that its brilliance dazzles your eyes. For no-one -- so long as he or she is burdened by a mortal body -- can gaze upon the transcendent Godhead that illuminates everything." God is "the brightest of lights which can never be extinguished." 14

In turn, the light of God "gives light to all living things." Living creatures are "sparks from the radiation of God's brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like rays of the sun.... For there is no creature without some kind of radiance -- whether it be greenness, seeds, buds, or another kind of beauty."15

John Ruusbroek, writing in the 14th century, echoed similar views. In "The Spiritual Espousals," this mystic says that "our Lord Jesus Christ... is a beam of eternal light, a ray of God's glory, and a spotless mirror in which all things have their life." For Ruusbroek, the light of Christ's glory is "infinite, incomprehensible, inaccessible, and fathomless, transcending all created light and every finite concept...." Beyond natural light, however, lies a dark abyss, and "in this darkness an incomprehensible light shines forth; this is the Son of God...." In contrast to everyday living, in which "all powers of understanding... are enlightened by merely created light are here like the eyes of a bat when confronted with the sun's brightness." But even though "God's resplendence shines there so brightly that all powers of reason and understanding are unable to go further..., our spirit and God's spirit [do] cast a radiant light upon one another and... the two spirits incessantly strive after one another in love."16

The Venerable Marie of the Incarnation, in the 17th century, took this theme one step further. On one occasion, gazing before an altar, Marie had the sacred mystery of the Trinity flash before her. She said it was as if her soul "were suspended, and felt... an impression without form or figure, yet more clear and intelligible than any light.... My soul received the impression of this truth in an ineffable manner which deprived me of all speech; it was engulfed in this light." The venerable nun describes this newfound relationship as "the mutual embraces of the soul and this most adorable Word who by the kisses of His divine mouth fills her with His spirit and with His life...."17

St. Catherine of Siena, in the 14th century, provides us with a prayer of thanks. Catherine thanks God that "in your light you have given me light." According to Catherine, God is

that light beyond all light who gives the mind's eye supernatural light in such fullness and perfection that you bring clarity even to the light of faith. In that faith I see that my soul has light, and in that light receives you who are Light.... yourself answered and satisfied me by flooding me with a gracious light, so that with that light I may return thanks to you....18

Gregory Palamas, an Eastern Orthodox mystic also writing in the 14th century, expresses views similar to the others. "The human mind," says Gregory, can "attain to that [Divine] light," and "become worthy of a supernatural vision of God." That vision, though "marvellous," is nonetheless "incomprehensible" and "unnameable." Still, the mind can contemplate the "creative and primordial beauty," and become "illumined by the radiance of God." Those who are judged worthy of this vision "are initiated unto Him, for He is Himself deifying light...." Christ is "indeed the true light, the radiance of glory," that "will remain for eternity, and has existed from the beginning."19

Teresa of Avila, a 16th century saint, provides us with a wonderful metaphor of the Divine Light. St. Teresa tells us that "the brilliance of this inner vision is like an infused light coming from a sun covered by something as sparkling as a properly cut diamond." It is as if one were "shown another light so different from earth's light that if he were to spend his whole life trying to imagine that light,... he would be unable to do so." We encounter this light in the "Interior Castle" -- the soul. The soul is capable of reflecting the radiance of God "as is crystal capable of reflecting the sun's brilliance." Teresa wants us to know about the beauty and glory of the vision of God, and the consequences of rejecting him:

consider what it would mean to this so brilliantly
shining and beautiful castle, this pearl from the Orient,
this tree of life planted in the very living waters of
life -- that is, in God -- to fall into mortal sin;
there's no darker darkness nor anything more obscure
and black....20

Reference to the Divine Light is also a major feature in the literature of the Society of Friends (Quakers). This is particularly true of the writings of George Fox, who founded the movement in the 17th century. In his personal journal, Fox claimed that "the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power... the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all...." Unsure of the full meaning of this experience at first, Fox decided to start "searching the Scriptures." He discovered that many notable people before him had witnessed the same thing; indeed "that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture... led the holy men of God."21

Through the ministry that followed his luminous vision, Fox turned his attention to showing this Light to others. At a "great meeting" that he had attended, Fox

turned the people to the divine Light...; that with
that Light they might see their sins and how that
they were in death and darkness and without God
in the world; and with the same Light they might see
Christ from whence it came....22

Fox also tells us that this Light is to be found within ourselves: "take heed and hearken to the light within you, which is the light of Christ and of God."23 Once people perceive this inner light, they will be able to see both "their sins and Christ their Savior."24 Expanding on this theme, we read that when we see the Light we will be able to see clearly "all sin and evil and corruption that are contrary to it...."25 Once one's "evil words and deeds and sins" have been thus highlighted, Christ, from whence the Light came, would come to "save them from their sins and to blot it out."26

Some people evidently challenged Fox's preaching, claiming that the light of which he spoke was simply a natural light. Fox responded that the

natural, created, made light is the sun, moon, and stars and this outward light. And dost thou say that God sent John [the Baptist] to bear witness to the sun, moon, and stars which are the made lights?

...For John came to bear witness to the light which was the life in the Word, by which all the natural lights were made and created.... And in him, to wit, the Word, was life; and that life was the light of men.27

Also in the 17th century, Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme had powerful and compelling experiences with the Divine Light. Boehme argued that the Light and even the wrath and fire of God ought to, and once did, operate together harmoniously. However, "lord Lucifer... saw the Son of God, and fell in love with that high light, and moved and stirred himself so very much, intending to be equal with him, or indeed to be higher and brighter than he...."28 Consequently, "...when a creature elevateth itself too high or too much (as Lord Lucifer and this legions did), then the light extinguisheth or goeth out, and the fierce, wrathful and hot source, the source of the hellish fire, riseth up...."29 For this "Lucifer... was spewed out with his fire-spirit into the outermost nature, wherein he had kindled the wrath-fire."30 Thus this region now exists as a "house of death and hell, also an eternal, base, loathsome habitation for the kingdom of Lucifer, and for all Godless men."31 As we might expect from a Protestant mystic, it is an individual's task to reject the Devil and return to the Divine love and light through the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Boehme rhetorically asks, "O noble Light, and bright Glory, who can apprehend thy exceeding beauty?.... Shall I compare with the love of this world? No, that is but a mere dark valley to it."32 This Light, this "all-conquering love of God is... brighter than the sun...."33 Boehme tells us that "there is assuredly a pure glorious heaven " above, "in which God's Being together with that of the holy angels springs up very purely, brightly, beauteously, and joyfully...."34 For this mystic, "the Son of God is the light or source and fountain of joy...."35 The "Father's power... generateth the light... and is called, the Son."36

Regarding the "spirit of man," Boehme believes that "there is hidden therein a spark of the light and power of God."37 Indeed, "in its substance the soul is a magical fire-source, out of God the Father's nature." This creates in man "a great desire for light, even as God the Father desires his heart, as the light's centrum."38 Thus when the soul is kindled or enlightened by the Holy Ghost, then it triumpheth in the body, like a huge fire, which maketh the heart and reins tremble for joy."39


Divine Encounters
The Divine Light

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