Let there be Light
I don’t imagine I am alone in my conservatism when it comes to hymns. There is a reluctance to look for the new, rather a preference for the old and familiar. Not that all hymns first sung when I boasted fewer years than now are equally agreeable, for there are some that I have never particularly cared for. “When a knight won his spurs” for example; and I wouldn’t grieve overmuch if I never heard “All things bright and beautiful” sung again. “Onward Christian Soldiers” has not seemed the same to me since many years ago a boy I taught wrote that was his favourite hymn, writing memorably (spelling was always a struggle for the child) “marching out to war” with war spelt w-h-o-r-e.
The other day I was glancing through a hymn book, looking for hymns for a service I was to take, when I came across one remembered from the past, but which I haven’t heard sung for many years. It was Lead, kindly light.
“Lead, kindly light, Amid the encircling gloom!
Lead thou me on.”
It is not one of my favourite hymns – rather too doleful for my taste – but it recalled evening services attended long ago when it was commonly chosen. The stained-glass window, based on the picture by Leigh Hunt entitled “The Light of the World” over-looked the end of the pew the family normally occupied. The high electric lights gave hardly adequate illumination to read the words on the page of the hymn book. Reading those verses again, my thoughts moved on to thinking about lights. It came to me just how many of lingering memories are connected either with light, or, alternatively, with the lack of it.
Bonfires and fireworks on November 5, with rockets snaking heavenwards, and sparks flying like glow-worms over the roof tops, as branches crackled and burst into flame came to mind, with the communal celebration on the spare ground behind my childhood home visualised in the mind’s eye. Strange patterns dancing on the ceiling from the front room open fire – it was always called the front room in my childhood, the lounge is a modern affectation – on a winter evening as dusk fell and before the lamps were lit. Fairy lights flicking on and off on the Christmas tree in the window. The comforting light shining into the bedroom from the landing before one fell asleep.
To many in my generation, the years of the Second World War remain fertile ground in which to delve for memories. Many are connected with the black-out when streets were unlit. Phases of the moon were followed with keen interest, for we re-discovered how bright a full moon could be. On dark clear, nights the stars, normally obscured to town and city dwellers by street lighting, were suddenly revealed. Hand held torches shining dimly downwards tracing a small illuminated circle, were an accompaniment to many a journey after sunset.
Those who did not live through those years will find difficulty in understanding how heartfelt was the relief when street lamps were once more lit, and lights could be switched on in houses, shops and offices when night fell without first meticulously blacking out windows and doorways. Most of us are creatures of the light, and enforced darkness is not to our comfort.
Many memories that linger, however, are not of darkness, or conversely, of light itself, but rather of darkness punctured by light. I remember once when I was what we would now call a teenager (a word not yet coined in my youth, weren’t they then called adolescents?), walking home from some social function with a group of friends. The road wound above the town which nestled below in the valley and on the lower slopes of the hills. As we walked we could see the roads delineated by the lines of street lamps, the un-curtained windows of houses and shops sparkling like jewels on a black cloth of felt. Amongst them crawling clusters of lights that were the buses and trams carrying their human cargoes.
It was a common enough sight, and yet I found it an arresting one. For some reason the memory has remained fresh for more than half a century.
Yet another memory which returned as I thought about lights was one of our local football ground. One side consisted of a roofed area under which spectators stood. The other sides were largely uncovered. On a winter day, when the nights started to draw in before the end of the game, from the opposite side of the pitch the spectators under the roof were invisible in the gloom. Small pin-pricks of light however would momentarily flicker and die from all parts of the darkness, as men lit cigarettes or pipes as they watched the last minutes of the game.
So one knew the darkness was inhabited, and this was comforting and re-assuring. The flickers of light through the darkness confirm human presence, even though no-one is visible. Perhaps the memory of the view over the town, or across the football pitch, has remained because of the realisation that light in the darkness represents contact with others; more of that later.
It is of no surprise that the imagery of light is frequently used in religious literature and pictures. Whether it is the analogy of the light-house shining over a blackened sea, the candles burning in the gloom of a cathedral, or saints depicted on stained glass windows as men and woman bathed in light, the inference is the same. As light is a destroyer of darkness, so is goodness the power which overcomes evil.
We are only fully aware of light when it contrasts with the darkness, or comparative darkness around it. Fireworks need the night to show off their splendour; a torch switched on in full sunlight is unseen; a struck match, unnoticed in the daytime, shows up for a surprising distance in the blackness of night.
God make my life a little light
Within the world to glow;
A little flame that burneth bright,
Wherever I may grow
So we used to sing in our Sunday school in days gone by. The image of light contrasting with darkness is that associated with goodness, with comfort, with reassurance, with hope. But further than that, it is also a symbol of knowledge and learning.
One of the prayers commonly used in our worship speaks of “God in whom there is no darkness at all”. But whatever be the nature of God, we certainly do not inhabit a world in which there is no darkness, actual or metaphoric. Darkness is the antithesis of light, associated with evil, with unease, with fear, with despair. It is symbolic of ignorance.
Though it would be palpably untrue to say our world is unrelieved blackness, we cannot pretend that the globe is always bathed in light, either actually or figuratively. Whether we speak of our personal lives, our nation, or are referring to a world-wide stage, gloom is frequently the back-cloth. Ignorance and fear, evil and inhumanity, are all too commonly observed and experienced. Then there are lights which knife through the darkness, pushing it aside, blowing away the wisps of foggy gloom, and uplifting the spirit.
All of us, at some time surely, have sat in a cinema or theatre as the lights have gone down and been surrounded by the blackness. Suddenly a light comes on revealing a figure or a scene and our hearts leap as excitement rises. The darkness was but the prelude to the pleasure to come.
So in moments when all seems dark and depressing, a voice of reassurance, a kindly act, a thoughtful deed cuts through the gloom; the darkness is lifted, and delight returns. We watch the pageant unfold, we learn that human passions, human deeds are not all of sinfulness, wickedness or self-serving greed. There are actions which, as the old saying has it, “shine like a good deed in a naughty world”.
Earlier I spoke of light in the darkness representing contact with others. We look in the evening sky wondering if there are other dwellers in space. We look to the lit window in the distance knowing that this confirms that others are around us. The candle lit in the church represents a presence we may not see but are confident is there.
Light is thus a symbol of not only of decency, rightness and integrity, but also of companionship, of a kinship with others.
The symbol used for a place of learning is a flaming torch. As we acquire knowledge, we illuminate the darkness of ignorance. In ignorance lies misery, fear or superstition. “The light of knowledge in their eyes” we sing in a well-known hymn, confirming the third facet of the use of light as a symbol. Thus we have morality, fraternity, and learning.
But even this wide-ranging list leaves something out.
When thousands gathered to remember the unspeakable horrors that were the holocaust, many lit candles. Over a tomb a flame flickers. A small light represents memory, but surely more than that. In many places of worship, a candle is lit as the service proceeds. It is a concrete sign of a belief in a spiritual power.
A power alluded to in different words – Creator, Spirit, God, Presence, Almighty, and many, many more. The flame is an acknowledgement of a power we may not define but of whose presence we do not doubt.
“What is electricity?” said the teacher to the boy.
“I’ve just forgotten”, the pupil replied.
“Pity”, said the teacher, “apparently only you and God knew, and now you’ve forgotten”.
We may not know the nature of that which we worship any more than we know what electricity is. But of the reality, we do not doubt. The representation is in light.
Let there be light, that we may advance goodness, cherish friendship, increase knowledge, but above all bow down in humility before immensity of the force which created us, and now sustains us.
The power that is, in the words of one of our well used prayers “….the light of the minds that know thee…” This is the God in which we dwell, and from whom we seek re-assurance.
C.J. Rosling 18 March 1995
Fulwood 19 March 1995
Mexborough 19 March 1995; 16 August 1998
Hucklow 2 April 1995; 11 Mar 2001; 27 Jan 2008
Doncaster 20 August 1995
Chesterfield 9 February 1997