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Where Does the Light Go? – Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas Bartoli

Matthew 6.19–24

Years ago, I would often practice something called “authentic movement,” a kind of contemplative, movement-based exercise with similarities to Carl Jung’s active imagination. In authentic movement you typically have your eyes closed, cultivating an inner stillness of the heart from where you listen for subtle impulses and intuitions guiding spontaneous movement. There would also normally be an observer, whose role it was to witness your movement, and then together you would explore the experience.

I was introduced to the practice as part of a class taught by one of my instructors at the time, a woman with extensive skill and experience as a dance therapist, also trained as a psychological analyst. And I remember one class in particular when I was assigned the role of mover and she the witness.

Starting from a place of stillness, with my eyes closed, I very soon felt a kind of a pull toward what seemed like a source of light. I began reaching for it, orbiting it, losing track of it, then finding it again. In felt like a dance in which we sometimes made contact, and then the distinction between myself and the light would seem to blur. As the time of movement came to a close, I slowly opened my eyes, and found the instructor, my witness, gazing at me with an open, gentle expression.

We spent a few moments together in silence before I began sharing my experience. I used words like “warmth,” and “goodness,” and “beautiful” to describe the light, and recounted a searching, but also playful and joyful quality to the movement. We sat in silence a while longer, and then she shared her experience as the witness. It very closely matched what I had described, and, to my surprise, she anticipated some qualities I hadn’t yet mentioned.

At one point she offered a question. “Was there any darkness?” she asked.
I paused for a moment, and replied, “Well, at the end, while I was opening my eyes, it felt like leaving the light behind, and its absence felt like darkness by comparison.”
After another minute or two of silence, she asked, “And, so, where is the light now?”
I remember considering the question for a few more moments, before answering, “I don’t know.”

As far back as when I was a small child, I remember being fascinated with light. Even the physical, empirical qualities of this electromagnetic phenomenon seemed wondrous. Light that I couldn’t even perceive as its own thing could be split up into a rainbow of colors using a triangular piece of glass. And then in high school I learned of the famous double-slit experiment, proving that light, in a way defying our commonsense understanding, was simultaneously both wave and particle.

There’s also divine light, light as a description of spiritual reality, and used to indicate both God’s presence and our awareness of this. Faith traditions almost universally use light in this way. We have the light of creation from Hebrew scripture, for example, and, of course, the light of Christ born in our hearts. There’s the Eastern Orthodox uncreated light or light of Tabor, the Quaker inner light, and the light of illumination of the Desert Fathers. Our Muslim sisters and brothers have Al-Nur, the light of understanding, along with the Sufi conception of the Muhammadan Light. In Hinduism light symbolizes Brahman and the higher Self, while in Buddhism there’s enlightenment, a kind of spiritual liberation.

God’s glorious Light comes up so often and in so many ways partly because so much can be said of it, and partly because so much more cannot be said. The nature of divine light is impossible to fully describe, and it’s probably for this reason that so many confusing and unhelpful ideas have sprung up around it. 

For example, take “enlightenment.” The popular stereotype would picture an ancient-looking man, with a long, white beard, gaunt-looking from ascetic disciplines, sitting alone on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere, and perhaps even demonstrating some miraculous abilities like hovering a few inches above his mat.

This stereotypical view is unfortunate, because it paints spiritual enlightenment as something rarified, extraordinary, and even magical. At best, it’s a very improbable event or condition that we, as mere mortals, will almost certainly never see. And yet, as we know from the New Testament and in the early history of the church, being enlightened with the Light of Christ was assumed to be a process all Christians would partake in.

People who were blind, living in darkness, were healed by Jesus, the lamp of their body cleaned as Christ’s light poured into their hearts. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he writes that we are “children of light,” and commands us sleepers to “awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’” In the early church baptism was called “enlightenment,” and those who were baptized were “persons being enlightened.” The baptized would enter a pool of water from one side, and emerge from the other, symbolizing a dying to their old self while being reborn as a new creation in the light of Christ.

The baptism initiated a journey along the Way of Jesus, an ongoing transformation into a new kind of awareness of God’s truth in the world. This sense of God’s light and presence is like having a spiritual eye, and when this eye is healthy it is a treasure to be valued above all earthly treasures.

Being enlightened by the light of Christ has also been described as God’s Kingdom, and it’s notoriously hard to talk about. Jesus, for example, would rely on all sorts of parables, presumably hoping that one of his many metaphors would point us toward this Kingdom of Light. And the reason this is so hard to talk about, why it’s difficult or impossible to conceptualize, is that the Light of God’s Kingdom is a lot like the double-slit experiment performed with physical light, paradoxically seeming like two opposite or opposing things at the same time.

Takes these lines from Psalm 139: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” I don’t know about you, but those lines seem pretty hard to square with our everyday experience of reality where dark is just dark and light is just light.

And then there’s Isaiah: “if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” So, even though the gloom might remain, it’s somehow as bright as noonday at the very same time.

Our awareness of God’s Kingdom is like this, having apparent contradictions as its nature. In other words, God’s Kingdom is essentially “nondual.” The word “nondual” suggests oneness, and a nondual awareness holds seemingly opposite qualities together in a union that encompasses both. So, for example, when we speak of God’s qualities of Goodness, Beauty, and Light those are nondual qualities. God is Good in a way that transcends our sense of good versus bad. God is Beautiful, not in terms of our limited sense of beauty versus ugliness, but beautiful in a way that embraces all creation. And, God is Light, not opposed to darkness, but a Light enlightening all things, including what we consider darkness.

In a similar way, Jesus is One with God while simultaneously maintaining his humanity. And as it is with Jesus, so too with us. We are one and not one at precisely the same time. And being aware of this truth is what it means to rest in the Light of God’s Kingdom. But how can we be aware of something so irrational, so beyond our ability to conceive of with our minds? How do we claim this strange gift of nondual Oneness while living in a world of apparent dualities? What can being enlightened by the light of Christ mean if God’s Kingdom is simply not within reach of our understanding? And where would we even begin looking for the great treasure of Christ’s light if it’s entirely unlike any sort of earthly treasure.

Well, fortunately for us, Jesus is very clear on this, telling us, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where our heart is, our treasure is as well, and so, clearly, our heart is the perfect place to start seeking. And this is why the practice of silence is so important. It’s only when we close our eyes, letting ourselves rest in stillness, that we cultivate a sense attuned to Christ’s Light. It’s like listening to the silence of our hearts, where we may begin to sense something very subtle, a light of incredible beauty and goodness, not light versus darkness, but Christ’s Light, embracing dark and light alike.

And maybe we’ll begin to dance in and with this light, coming into a relationship with God’s Kingdom by way of participation. And maybe we’ll dance with such utter abandon that we lose even our own selves, we become the dancing, we become God’s light. Eventually, though, we’re brought back to earth, the dancing slows, and the stillness of our heart dissipates in worldly ripples. We try to listen, but God’s Light seems to have vanished, leaving a relative sense of darkness. We open our eyes, and wonder, where did the light go?

And it’s here, the nondual reality of God’s Kingdom reveals itself as the amazing gift of grace it is. Because, of course, the Light doesn’t go anywhere. The darkness does not overcome the light, because in a wonderful, nondual sense, God’s Light is also in the darkness and holds the darkness. God’s presence is also, mysteriously, in God’s absence. That doesn’t make sense to our intellect, because it’s not something we’re meant to understand with our minds. Instead, the way of Jesus is the cultivation of a healthy spiritual eye within our hearts, with which we’re better able to receive this glorious treasure.

At the same time, though, it’s also true that even now we already have this treasure, because as children of God, made in God’s image we are the treasure. And so, in truth, the treasure is also the mere recognition of our own beautiful nature as children of Light. Because, ultimately, we know Christ’s Light by being Christ’s Light, and the place to begin is within.

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1 Comment

  1. Betsy Rose on June 18, 2019 at 13:33

    A thought: in a quantum state, two seemingly opposite results exist simultaneously.

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