Into the Light of God's Face
While on vacation in coastal Maine recently there was one particular day when the area was enveloped in a deep fog which seemed to come up out of the water while simultaneously coming down from the sky. I had awakened that day to the low blasts of a ship’s horn as it was trying to maneuver safely out of the harbor. The shroud of mist and the forlorn sound of the horn created an atmosphere of mysteriousness. However, during the day the fog broke intermittently and the sun shone through for brief moments so that one could see life going on despite the cover of mist. It was truly surreal, but also beautiful in its own way. The fog was present throughout the day, but when it would lift everything beneath shone with a vibrancy which would have gone unnoticed if not for the contrast cast by the heavy mist. Upon reflection it gave rise to the thought that life is like this: although we might feel like we are caught up in fog in our attempts to make difficult decisions or to simply get through the day, we have God as our light. He illuminates all that there is, especially by giving us His Word as a lamp and His Spirit as our guide. Without living in the light of God, as on that foggy day, we would become lost and enshrouded in darkness. Not only do we need it, but we yearn for the light of His face; and God will guide us home, toward Himself, if we let Him.
Unfortunately, it is not always so easy to see in the fog or in the darkness of confusion. There are countless decisions we have to make, and of these, some feel nearly impossible. In the Book of Psalms there is a verse that says “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.” (Ps. 119:105) It is true that if we are in need of some advice, the Scriptures are a great place to seek it out. Between the wisdom found in the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, we have everything we need to find our way. It is important to have a familiarity with the Bible because in it we discover the mercy and love of God, as well as a way of proceeding if we want to become holy. We find a way of responding to the mercy continually offered by our Father and a way of living such that our very lives can become a “thank you” to Him.
An important part of the Old Testament involves the light of God’s face. In Exodus, the cumulative effect of Moses going into the Shekinah presence of God on Mt. Horeb was that his face began to glow. It glowed so much that the radiance was impossible for others to look upon, so Moses had to wear a veil to cover his face. The light of God’s face illuminated Moses’ face, just as the holy ones radiate God’s presence and are depicted in iconography with a nimbus of light around their head.* In the Gospel of John there are many references to light, including Jesus’ reference to Himself as the Light of the World. And in the time after Jesus, as we are guided now by His Holy Spirit, we continue to hear about the same radiance of God manifesting as beauty in His creation. For example, we hear it in what St. Hildegard of Bingen referred to as viriditas; that is, the ‘greening’ of all that there is, such that all creation is imbued with God-given vitality and the light of life. There are many ways the saints have revealed that the light of God’s face is indeed given in glimpses, though the fullness of this light is what awaits us in Heaven.
One of the lines in the second Eucharistic Prayer at Mass refers to this light which we are seeking in God. It comes after the consecration, during the petitions for the Church and the world. At this point we are praying silently, along with the priest, for our beloved dead who have gone before us. “Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection, and all who have died in your mercy: welcome them into the light of your face.” That line is actually about all of us, the Church, the Body of Christ. Isn’t this what we are hoping for, to be in the light of God’s face for eternity? This prayer reminds us that not only do we petition God to welcome us into Heaven, but that God wants this for us and for Himself: He wants us to bask in the light of His face simply because He loves us, as if our presence with Him makes His light that much brighter. – That is not a theological statement because clearly we cannot add to who God is. I mean this as an inflaming of His love which is so great, so unfathomable, and yet so completely desirous for us to be with Him. – God wants for us to enjoy the light of His face even more than we are able to yearn for it. It is the promise of salvation which He has offered us through our baptism, won for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so He does everything He can to help bring us home to Him.
Therefore, while we are enveloped in the fog of living (due to our human limitations) God is right with us throughout our life which is filled with both joys and sorrows. Jesus promised to remain with us until He returns and left us access to His Body and Blood as food for the journey, but also to the Holy Spirit to whom we can turn for graces, guidance and protection. The Spirit leads us through our prayer and through reception of the sacraments; though largely unseen, this is the same Spirit who appeared as the fiery Shekinah ‘cloud’ of the Old Testament and at the Transfiguration of Jesus. Furthermore, we have one another: we have our family in the Body of Christ. The Eucharistic prayer says to “remember our brothers and sisters who have gone before us,” a reminder that we are all one in this Body which includes the living as well as the deceased. Therefore, if we yearn for the light of God’s face, we must look into the faces of our living brothers and sisters because we will find Him there, too.
Here is the heart of the matter: our lives are meant to be a journey from the Lord back to the Lord. In between we are given many gifts to help us on this journey. In addition to the great gift of life itself, we are given countless gifts of family and friends, material goods, health, various graces, love, mercy, and things unique to our identity. For some there is much more intense suffering than for others; for some there is poverty of the material, physical, or spiritual sort, but this does not mean that the light of God’s face is any less present and available than for those who have less suffering or less wealth. What it does mean, however, is that we are meant to bring the light of God’s face to those who are in the fog, obscured by pain and suffering, to remind them that God has never left them for one moment. It is through our works of kindness and mercy that we are the ones who become the carriers, so to speak, of the light of God’s face like a beacon in the fog to those who are feeling lost and forgotten, or who are simply beaten down by the stuff of life. Conversely, when we are the ones in need, we find the light of God’s face in the love of the ones who bring kindnesses to us.
Therefore, the light of God’s face is not only intended to be something we encounter at the end of the journey. Rather, God sends us beacons of light so that we might find our way home. Every time we do a work of mercy, a small act of kindness, or something to alleviate the suffering of another person; every time we forgive or show mercy to one who has hurt or betrayed us; every time we go before one who is lost and let them know how very important they are to God and to us, we are bringing the light of God’s face to them. It becomes a reminder that in the end, we will be out of the fog and immersed forever in light indescribable, the very light of Love. Let us trust that in the darkness the Light has indeed come, and let us look hopefully toward that day when we are guided to our true home, safe and welcomed into the light of God’s face.
May we hope in the promise of God that one day we will be in the Light of His face! May we persevere when we are in confusion or are bearing the weight of a difficult decision! May we bring the light of His love to those who are estranged from God or who have not known Him so that we might aid in guiding them to God! May we trust in the Holy Spirit to guide us with grace and in the saints to inspire us on our journey! And may we be aware of the presence of Jesus Christ as we make our way through life so that we may ever be in the Light of God’s Face! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Dedication: To all those who have entered into the light of God's face, particularly my mother in law, Reba. May she and all our beloved dead rest in peace.
Note: Next post will be on October 10
* All icons are ‘about’ light, actually. According to Paul Evdokimov, icons convey the same Shekinah presence of God which was seen by the three apostles on Mt. Tabor during the Transfiguration of Jesus. For an interesting treatment of this topic, see the chapter called The Theology of Glory Light (chapter 17) in Evdokimov’s book, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty.
Photos and images:
All of the photos are my own.
The first two were taken in Bar Harbor, Maine. I chose them because they were taken on the foggy day I was describing in the text. The second photo reveals the depth of the fog: the cruise ship anchored on the left was eventually 'swallowed' by the fog, but is still mostly visible at the point when this was taken, while the island to the right had almost vanished.
Third is an image by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Hebrew Name of Yahweh-adam Kadmon. I chose this image because it portrays the Shekinah fire and presence of God who revealed Himself in the Burning Bush. The image contains the tetragrammaton, the letters of the words "I Am Who Am" superimposed and aflame. You can find this image at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/hebrew-name-of-yahweh-adam-kadmon-183-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next are three paintings from totally different artists,eras, and styles all of which use light magnificently. (I was going to say "brilliantly," but the pun would have been too much.) The first is Place des Lices St. Tropez (1904) by Henri Matisse. I chose it because of how he used the colors to make light come alive especially in the tree, which seems to be its own kind of burning bush. I love the way Matisse used light and colors in his painting. http://www.artionado.com/Matisse/Matisse%20fauve%20works%202.html
-The second painting uses light totally differently: this is Rembrandt's Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661). As I indicated in one part of the entry, the darkness which frames the figure makes the contrast with the light of his face all the brighter. It truly captured the themes of this entry. See http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n23/tj-clark/world-of-faces
-The third is Saffron (1957) by Mark Rothko. Regardless if one is a fan of more modern art like Rothko or not, the usage of light in this painting shows his genius in the usage of color. The light seems to jump off the canvas. See http://www.artnet.com/artists/mark-rothko/saffron-nG2OSKJQAki3a9PW57faHw2
Next is another photo which I took in the Bar Harbor, Maine, area. This was one of those moments when the fog lifted revealing movement and vibrancy which was then brought into the light.
Next is a rather ethereal photo which I was able to take of the moon. I had my camera as 'zoomed in' as I could manage and as I took a series of shots as the clouds were moving. I used no filters except a UV filter and there was no retouching of this image. It is "as is." It was a quarter moon and the black marks that seem to be nibbling on it are actually bits of the passing clouds. I chose this shot to represent that the light is present even when we cannot see it or when it is enshrouded by passing darkness, just as the moon is always there when it is in a phase where it is not reflecting light or when it is covered by the clouds.
I took the last photo on the coast of Maine; it is the Pemaquid Lighthouse. I chose it because lighthouses are beacons which help ships when the fog is thick, representing the beacons we are meant to be for one another, as well as the beacon that God is for us when we are encased in darkness, fear, or doubt. I also chose this because it was a sunny, bright day, in contrast to the fog in the other photos.
As a Light in the Darkness
Much has been written about St. Teresa of Kolkata (also referred to as Mother Teresa of Calcutta) especially in the weeks surrounding her canonization on September 4th. Because she lived within the age of media technology we have had great access to her both while she was alive and also in the years since her death. For someone as humble as she was, it must have been difficult to be the object of worldwide attention, especially since she made it clear that what she did was for each individual person pulled out of the gutter and that she and the Order she founded did not do their work for public acclaim. Mother Teresa of Kolkata did not see herself as any sort of a saint, but only as someone who tried to give every person, regardless of religion or background, the dignity that they deserved in life and especially in their final days. In choosing to work surrounded by the poverty and filth of the slums, she saw the richness of each life and the value of each person in the same way that Jesus sees each person as a child of God. I would even go so far as to say that she saw beauty where no one else saw it because she had a heart filled with love in the midst of her own personal spiritual darkness. She, who could find no light in her own life of prayer, was a light in the darkness for many.
Mother Teresa was born in 1910 as Agnes Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Albania, now Macedonia. She entered the Sisters of Loreto at 18, traveling to Ireland to learn English so that she could become a missionary in India where her ministry was to teach lessons in English. After about twenty years in India she found herself questioning her ministry and the focus of her true calling. She experienced a ‘call within a call,’ as she described it, which led her to leave her congregation and to begin picking up the poorest of the poor out of the gutters in the most disgusting, filthy slums imaginable in Kolkata, taking them off the streets and helping them to die with dignity. She took the most unloved, abandoned people, at first mostly Hindu, and gave them a clean place to die with someone to care about them and for them. She took the forgotten and helped them to feel remembered. Amidst adversity, she soon attracted some followers who helped her in the work of helping the poorest of the poor, eventually founding the Missionaries of Charity.
One of the most remarkable things about St. Teresa of Kolkata was her ability to see what no one else saw; she noticed what others either failed to notice or refused to see. She saw the ‘invisible’ ones, the nearly naked, starving, disease-ridden people who were literally dying in the streets, and she was moved to action. She could see the light of God in those poor ones despite the intense spiritual darkness she experienced for years. It was well documented by Teresa herself that at almost the precise moment when she accepted the call from Jesus to minister to the destitute, she ceased to feel His presence. For the rest of her life she felt as if Jesus had not only abandoned her, but that He did not want her at all. Although this caused excruciating interior suffering, the flip side of this circumstance was that it gave her deep insight into what the forgotten poor must have felt like, forsaken by all. It also gave her a sense of how abandoned Jesus must have felt when He went through the Passion. The suffering she experienced was heart-wrenching and continuous, but day after day she ministered to “Jesus in His most distressing disguise” [her words] despite the darkness in which she personally lived.
St. Teresa noticed those who were in great need, the abandoned and alone, because she had learned to see the beauty within the souls of all people. She disciplined herself through long hours of prayer, all of which may have felt empty in her darkened spiritual state. But because she had faith in the promises of Jesus, the result of her prayer was that she was able to see as if with His eyes. What others saw as ugly, she saw as beautiful; what others saw as impossible, she saw as possibility; and what others saw as futile, she saw as opportunity to share mercy. Because of this, we can learn much from Mother Teresa. We do not have to make grand gestures such as beginning a religious community or saving every poor person we encounter, but we can do “small things with great love,” as she used to say. Small gestures can add up to become something very large, as in the case of St. Teresa. In her wisdom she did not expect others to do exactly as she did, but simply taught that we are each to follow the call we are given, especially the basic, universal call given through Baptism. All of us are called to make those small gestures of love and compassion in daily life whether it means helping the materially poor in a tangible way or if it is in a kind action for the emotionally or spiritually impoverished, the forgotten or lonely, by noticing them and then acting on alleviating their pain as best we can. Whatever it is, St. Teresa teaches us to trust God, have faith in the presence of Jesus even in the darkness, and that small acts done with great love are the works Christ calls us to do.
What is especially helpful about St. Teresa of Kolkata is that when we feel like we are stumbling around in the dark with no discernible sense of the presence of Jesus, He is, in fact, right there. In St. Teresa we have a friend in whom we can trust to intercede when we are feeling alone on our spiritual journey. Like her we can continue to pray, trusting that Jesus is guiding and inspiring us with graces which we simply may not feel at the time. She teaches that when we feel a lack of connection to God, counter-intuitively we must push against that feeling. If we trust Jesus and we continually ask Him in prayer to show us how to see Him in ourselves, others, or reflected in creation, our awareness will grow so that we begin to see light in the midst of darkness, beauty in the midst of what might otherwise seem bleak or overwhelming. We are united to Christ at all times: we received this gift at our Baptism and it is nourished by the Eucharist. (See Romans 8: 35-39) Poverty in parts of India (and elsewhere in the world) is rampant and yet St. Teresa never gave up on a situation so dire that her early attempts may have seemed futile. But after a number of years there were so many helping her in this work that today the Missionaries of Charity are found all over the world dealing with one abandoned soul after another. A small gesture became a huge one, but it all started with picking up one dying person.
I think St. Teresa is a remarkable friend for us to have. That is, we should ask her intercession whenever we feel like we do not know what direction to turn or when we are having trouble seeing how we can serve God. She can show us the way to the small actions which will make a difference for one person at a time. These little gestures can aid us in developing a habitual attitude of mercy, and likewise, we should not hope for any acclaim other than the desire that at the end of our life Jesus will meet us at the gates of Heaven and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” St. Teresa was a model of humility: whenever someone would imply that she was a saint or holy, or that her work was exemplary, she would almost recoil in horror. This was because she was truly humble and therefore never thought of herself as holy. Rather, she wanted to alleviate suffering in the people who came to be her own, her only intention to serve Jesus for His sake and not for any self-aggrandizement. For her, the work done in Jesus’ name was more important than she was. It was the light of His love which she could neither see nor feel that she was able to radiate humbly to others. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, she is truly a beacon of the light of mercy, compassion, and exemplary dedication to Jesus Christ in the midst of personal darkness. St. Teresa of Kolkata, who could find no light, continues to be a light in the darkness for many.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Teresa of Kolkata especially when we feel like we are in darkness! May we pray for St. Teresa’s intercession that we might be moved to help the poor among us, whether they are in material, emotional, or spiritual poverty! May we imitate St. Teresa in taking on the challenge of reaching out to those who are different than we are, especially the marginalized, so that we can help one person at a time to come to peace and healing! May we realize that our efforts, small or large, do elicit change, even if we do not see the results! May we learn to do small things with great love, just as Jesus taught us in His gospel message! And may we offer our efforts to Jesus as an act of love, that He may use our hands, feet, and hearts as His own to minister to His beloved people! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be Sept. 26.
The first photo was found at http://whhspatriotpress.com/3892/news/mother-teresa-made-a-saint/
The second photo is one of mine, an unknown insect sitting on the leaf of a potted plant outside the information center in Anacostia Park in Washington, DC. It actually struck me as a whimsical photo at the time I took it, but I chose to use it here because it seemed to fit the theme of noticing that which many others do not notice. The insect is actually quite vibrant and beautiful in its own way, (even for one like me who does not have a particular fondness for insects.) Yet of all the photos I took that day, this remains my favorite. It goes to show that with a little noticing, things do begin to look different...and that which would not originally be seen as beautiful, truly has its own exquisiteness and worth, transformed in the eye of the beholder.
Next is also one of my photos, taken in Orange Beach, Alabama. I chose it because it shows the shadow of an encroaching fog as it was simultaneously getting dark one evening. Without the lights on the pier there would be great danger, both for those who might walk out upon it and for boats trying to find shore. Because of the lights, the people on the beach could discern the location of the pier, as was true for the fishermen who were out on the water, though unseen in the angle of this shot. It made me see just how important light in the darkness really is. It keeps us safe.
It makes sense that after the photo of the pier I chose to use the lovely icon, Mother of God Light in All Darkness by Fr. William Hart McNichols. As intercessor, Mary leads us to her Son Jesus who is the Light of the World. In this icon we see Mary holding Jesus in her lap; in His hand is a lit candle which she is helping to shield as if from a draft (an attack?) which threatens to extinguish it. Of course, the Light of God cannot be extinguished, but symbolically we see that her prayers are important for us and offer guidance and protection. Both Mary and Jesus look outward to us in this icon; they have their eyes fixed on us, noticing what we need in the midst of any darkness which may be surrounding us, lighting the way home with mercy and love. This icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-light-in-all-darkness-016-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally, the last photo is also one of mine, and also taken at Kenilworth Marsh in Anacostia Park in Washington, DC. It shows lotus plants blooming in the ponds with their massive leaves open toward the light of the sun. Many of the flowers are not yet in bloom, but rather are still buds. But the light will do its work and assist in their flowering. I chose this because the lotus is often associated with India and with spirituality: these seem to be showing us that we need light to blossom so that what is small can become great in the eyes of God. That is, our works may seem insignificant to us, but to God they are magnificent works of mercy and love, especially because we are bringing Jesus to His people.
Heart Speaks to Heart