There was a time in my life when all I wanted to be was a photographer for National Geographic magazine. Maybe everybody has that dream at some time. But I took it further than most: I traveled from Charleston, West Virginia, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a Greyhound bus when I was nineteen years old and spent a month studying photography with my great aunt Caroline. I learned a lot. I learned that the word photography means “to write with light.” I spent a month trying to do that, trying to coax the light into the lens of my camera and onto the film in such a way that my great aunt would say, “You got it. That’s it!” She did say that—once—but by the time I took the bus back to West Virginia I had pretty well given up on my dream. That month in New Mexico did make a lasting impression on me, however: I fell in love with the light. I began to see it everywhere, all the time, began to see how it fell on the landscape, how it changed from early morning to the middle of the day, how precious it was in those last moments before twilight. In fact, this afternoon I spent an hour driving my brother Billy around Richmond and everywhere we went I pointed out the beautiful light, and the way it was falling on the buildings or reflecting off the water.
In a book called, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith spends a whole chapter talking about light. He begins by saying that light is a universal metaphor for God. And then, borrowing the language of quantum physics, he talks about the way light transcends time and space, the way it shares the properties of energy and matter, the way it can make something out of nothing through the process of photosynthesis. He doesn’t say that light is God but he comes close, so close that I began to think about the similarities, about the way light is everywhere in the universe, how just a little bit of it can drive back a world of darkness, how it warms, and cheers, and brightens.
I read that book in the days just after September 11, 2001, when I was living and working in Washington, DC, and it was a huge help to me. Those were days when I didn’t get on the Metro in the morning without thinking that something terrible could happen, and as I rode the escalator up from the Dupont Circle station I would pray, “Lord, if this is my day to die let me do it with courage and strength.” Everybody seemed shaky in those days. We all needed to be reassured. And so here I was, reading a chapter in Huston Smith’s book in which he was talking about how much light and God had in common, and on that day, as I came up the escalator praying my little prayer, I looked up and saw the light just falling all over the buildings on 19th Street. It was that beautiful, golden, early morning sunlight. It was dazzling, and fairly dripping down the sides of the buildings, puddling in the streets. I don’t know that I had ever seen it so perfect and pure. I found myself thinking, “God is here, right here, pouring out his blessing on the city.”
Huston Smith may stop just short of saying light is God, but 2000 years ago the author of 1 John said God is light. Do you remember that? “God is light,” he said, “and in him is no darkness at all.” It may have been the same author who said, “the true light that enlightens every person was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, and yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him, but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God” (John 1).
Not long ago I read a blog post by a Canadian named James Loney who lives in Baghdad. He talked about the violence in the city, about bombs exploding so close to his house he could feel the sound in his chest, about friends who witnessed the aftermath of a bombing, who saw the blood-sprayed wall, and body parts, and people carrying away the victims. But somewhere in the middle of that horrifying report he wrote this:
I have fallen in love with the light in Baghdad. How can I catch, hold, describe it in words, except to say there is just something about it. In the mornings, when I go onto the roof of our apartment building to hang my laundry or greet the day, the light rushes about me, kisses me everywhere. It is fine and simple and gracious, cheerful and embracing and flowing, a pouring swimming breathing medley of lemons and yellow roses and honey. More than this I cannot say: you must come see for yourself.
I think about that light falling on the bombed-out city of Baghdad, about the writer of 1 John, maybe looking out through the bars of his prison cell as he writes, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” I think about the golden, late-afternoon sunshine that washed over Richmond today and I fall in love with the light all over again. I think of God, embracing the city with these radiant beams, blessing it before moving on to the west to bless the cities of Chicago, and Dallas, Los Angeles, and yes, in due time, the city of Baghdad, where little children feel the morning sunlight fall across their faces, kissing their beautiful brown cheeks, waking them up with a strange and wonderful sense of hopefulness that today will be a better day.
So may it be.