This month’s reflection is less of a reflection and more of an invitation to accompany me as I unpick a thread of ideas.
Several years ago as a community we recognized the need to educate ourselves about anti-black racism and agreed to make it the focus of that year’s Lenten reading. We read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and met weekly during Lent in small groups for discussion and reflection. That book led to me reading others on the same topic and one of the things which has stayed with me, perhaps because words are the way I make sense of the world, is how language shapes not only our thoughts but our behavior and thus the worlds we live in.
Bluntly we learn that black is bad and white is good. A quick google search tells me that black is associated with dirt, anger, menace, evil– among many other negatives. White is clean, pure, innocent, good and desirable. In a religious context sin is black while righteousness is white. Anything associated with black such as darkness is negative while anything associated with white such as light is good.
During the season of Epiphany, to give just one example, we heard and read that Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12) and that ‘the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light’ (Matthew 4:16). I’m sure you can come up with many examples of your own.
I’ve been thinking a lot about light and darkness and how I experience them. Light and dark, like black and white, need each other to exist. When I’m turning something over in my mind I always seek out books to read which I think might be helpful. I started reading about physics to understand light and that lead to a pile of books about astronomy, our universe and astrophysics including a book called “The Smallest Lights in the Universe” by Sara Seager, a Canadian-American astrophysicist.
Seager has spent much of her professional life searching for exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – with the goal of finding not just exoplanets but one which might be earthlike. In describing the search for another earth, she writes, “we had to reconcile the fragilities of light. At its essence, astrophysics is the study of light. We know that there are stars other than the sun because we can see them shining. But light doesn’t just illuminate. Light pollutes. Light blinds. Little lights – exoplanets – have forever been washed out by the bigger lights of their stars, the way those stars are washed out by our sun. To find another Earth, we’d have to find the smallest lights in the universe.”
That statement has fascinated me since I read it, “Light pollutes. Light blinds.” That’s why giant telescopes are built in remote areas of the world – to situate them in the darkness they need to function properly.
The answer Seager and her colleagues came up with to block out the blinding light so they could see the smallest lights they were looking for was a new design for an old instrument called a coronagraph. A coronagraph is simply an instrument that blocks out light.
I was mulling over the idea of blocking out light to see light as Lent was approaching. This year I decided I would take on the spiritual practice known as the ‘Ignatian Examen of Consciousness’. For those of you not familiar with the Examen it is ‘a method of reviewing your day in the presence of God’.
When I decided I would use the Examen I dug through my files to find a small Examen of Consciousness card somebody had given me ages ago. According to my card, the five steps of the Examen are Ask God for Light, Give Thanks, Review the day, Face your shortcomings and, Look toward the day to come.
That’s right, asking God for light is the first step. This made me laugh which I suspect is what the Holy Spirit intended. Have I just gone around in a big circle and taken you with me? Is light good and darkness bad? No. Esther De Waal writes “the pattern of our human life means living between both dark and light in a process that is never simple.”
Not ‘one or the other’ but ‘both and’. Can you envision the interplay of light and darkness in your own life? Is there an area where you need to ask for God for light? Are you aware of God’s presence in both the light and the dark?