The hidden light

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.

This fragile life

I had a new experience this week which moved me greatly. For reasons of discretion I won’t explain the circumstances, but the parents of a small baby asked me to be present at an operation on their child; it was important to them that a rabbi should be there. Realising that this would bring them comfort, I accepted and inwardly resolved that the squeamish side of me would not come to the fore.

Far from being eyed with suspicion, I was welcome by the surgeon with great warmth (‘I’m a Christian; we belong to the same family’) and shown how to change into that blue gear which I’d previously only seen at a comfortable distance. There was the whole world inside that theatre; we were black, white and Asian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. A Scottish sister explained to me how to scrub my hands, while a nurse with an American accent told me where to stand. But unlike in geopolitics, everyone was united in a shared bond of tender skill, of extreme care and thoughtfulness in every word and movement. I watched how the implements were prepared, the wrapping which kept them sterile carefully peeled back but nothing inside touched except by the gloved hands of those most involved in the operation.

As the images from the tiny camera inserted in a keyhole procedure appeared on the screen the surgeon quietly explained exactly what we were seeing: the orifices, the surfaces, where in the body we were. So these were the wonders which lay hidden beneath the skin, living, breathing, allowing us to exist! I thought of the blessing said every morning after that first ritual of washing one’s hands: ‘Blessed are you God, sovereign of the world, who fashions human beings with wisdom and creates within them different apertures and vessels’: There they were before my eyes. ‘It is revealed and known before the throne of your glory that, were just one of them to be opened [which should be closed], or one of them to be closed [which should be open], we could not survive and stand before you even for a moment…’

For decades now I’ve said that blessing every morning, and other times in the day besides. It would be untrue to say that I simply gabbled it away while reaching for my clothes. Like many others, as I’ve got older I’ve thought about it more and more, experiencing the body less and less like an unbreakable tool I can mistreat at will, and more and more as it really is, the robust yet vulnerable bearer of this, my life, which I do not and never truly will understand. ‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb; I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it well’. (Psalm 139:13-14)

I am regularly aware too of that prayer for healing which ascends from tender, complex flesh: Let me not be crushed or cut or torn; may no hidden illness thwart my growth; let me live! Help me, God, to breath, to be, to see the sky, to hold a warm human hand!

I left the hospital humbled, struck by wonder before this fragile life, and before that remarkable coming together which I’d been privileged to witness of such sophisticated skill and such simple tenderness.

Every life is a world

‘Forgive me’, he said, and wept. I leant close to hear his words in the windy night. ‘It was when you mentioned the name of Gertruida Wijsmuller-Maijer. If it hadn’t been for her I wouldn’t be alive today. I was on the last group of Kinder to get through. We were stranded in Germany; she hired a bus and collected us. The main roads were blocked but she guided us across on country lanes. Then she phoned the port and told them to hold the ship till we arrived’. We reached Britain on 1st September 1939.

We were standing in Hoek van Holland near where the Rhine finally meets the North Sea, within sight of where thousands of children had boarded ship bound for safety over seventy years ago. I don’t normally gate crash, but I’d begged to be allowed to attend and speak at the dedication of a statue in memory of the Kindertransport. The monument, similar to those already in location at Liverpool Street Station here in London, and in Berlin and Gdansk, was created by Frank Meisler, himself one of theKinder. It showed a group of children carrying backpacks and suitcases. Situated about a kilometre from the port, it was decided to place the statue not precisely where the children had embarked but here by the sea, that girdle of safety which the Nazis had, thank God, been prevented by the British from crossing.

Tens of Kinder came from all over the world, amidst numerous guests. Children from local schools lit the path to the statue with candles, then presented each Kind with a white rose.

I found myself caught between waves of feeling. I looked from the bronze children in the statue to the Kinder now in their late seventies or eighties and then at the rows of young schoolchildren. I thought about the meaning of the phrase ‘in the image of God’, which describes the sanctity with which every human life is endowed. Does this ‘image of God’ refer to the heart, which seeks to love and be loved? Or does it signify the intelligence, eager to engage with the mystery and beauty of the world? Or is it about the creativity waiting in every child to make and fashion, imagine and design? For every life is a world.

Then I thought about those suitcases. With what anguish did their parents choose their contents and steel themselves to pack them? As the children sat in the those trains, now five, now fifty, kilometres from the station, the parents were slowly walking back to an empty home. What courage, to part with their children! What terrors, that made it their best, their longed-for, option in those unthinkably awful times! What burning love could no longer put its arms around their offspring now, but only post letters to a foreign, unknown address! Yet still today we allow families to be split apart by war and hatred. ‘Do you hear from your family?’ I recently asked a man from the Congo. He turned his face away. Silently those suitcases command us to respect the holiness of the bonds of parent and child.

Then I thought about the chesed, the kindness which had brought those children across the seas, the women offering hot chocolate and white bread (‘like cotton wool, we’d never seen anything like it’, one Kind recalled); of the courage of Gertruida Wijsmuller-Maijer (it was she who persuaded Eichmann in Vienna to allow children from Austria to travel too); of the English woman who took in Vera Gissing and whose first words were, ‘Here you shall be loved’ (though many Kinder were far less warmly received).

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