The Jewish mystics have taught for millennia that in our world there are two kinds of light. The first type derives from God’s creation on the fourth day of the sun, the moon and the stars. We might want to add, galaxies, milky ways and black holes. This is the light which provides the rhythm of our days and nights, the flow of our seasons and years:
The sun rises; [the animals of the night] slink away and couch in their dens.
Man goes forth to his work, to his labour until evening.
How manifold are your works, O God! (Psalm 104: 22-4)
This ‘ordinary’ light often has a poignant beauty. It smites the heart to see the moon in the black sky before dawn, before the first sun makes the first birds sing. Looking west across the sea, watching the twilight turn the water red, the heart falls silent as if we were beholding time itself, watching the process which brought us here, and into which we will dissolve.
But the mystics also speak of another kind of light. If the world is lit by the sun and the moon, what then happened to that original light with which God divided the darkness to create the very first day? The traditional answer is that this light belongs to God, and God has hidden it away.
Yet it is present, nevertheless, concealed deep within the heart and soul of every person. It is the secret light which guides us, even amidst darkness, difficulty and struggle, towards truth, love, wisdom and wonder.
Sometimes we witness this light shining out in the life of an individual person, when she or he shows selfless love, or great courage. We may see it in the strength of spirit of the person who, in spite of illness, speaks of the world with deep generosity and loving appreciation. We witness it in conduct, often sustained through many tribulations, of gratuitous love and selfless courage and humility.
That hidden light within all life illumines the core of my faith. I often change that second verse of the famous priestly blessing in my mind so that it says not, ‘May God’s face shine upon you’, but ‘May God’s face shine within you’. For God is within us all, and in our most blessed moments that latent presence can become an open flame.
Sometimes that light even shines out into history. Vaclav Havel died this week. He was, it has been widely said, no saint. But something of his moral heroism in defying tyranny is captured in the speech he made to the Polish Parliament in 1990: ‘My presidential program is, therefore, to bring spirituality, moral responsibility, humaneness and humility into politics, and…to make clear that there is something above us, that our deeds do not disappear into the black hole of time but are recorded somewhere and judged’. By that credo he strove to live.
Of course, the Chanukkah candles remind us of the Maccabbean victories and the unpolluted oil which they kindled in theTemple, and which burnt miraculously for eight days.
But they also testify to the flame of the spirit which is God’s hidden light and which, though often concealed even from our own selves, burns in purity in the temple of every soul.