Light – an Icon of God

(Spirituality, Vol. 19, No. 99, November-December 2011, pp.338-340)


Light in religions

People of many traditions use light as an image of God. Hindus and Jews have festivals of light – Diwali and Hanukkah.

The Jewish Hasidim tell the story of a rabbi and his students. The rabbi asked, ‘How can you tell day from night?’ The first student answered, ‘When you look at a person walking in the distance and can tell whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s day.’ The second student answered, ‘When you look at a tree and can tell whether the fruit on it is an orange or a grapefruit, it’s day.’ The third student answered, ‘When you look at a string of thread held at arm’s length and can tell what colour it is, it’s day. And so on they went.

Then the students in their turn asked the rabbi the same question. He answered, ‘When you look at a man or woman and recognize that person as a brother or sister, it’s day. But if you look at a man or woman, and not recognize them as a brother or sister, it’s night – no matter what time it is.’

Native American tradition states,

‘The Sun, the light of the world,
I hear him coming.
I see his face as he comes.
He makes the beings on earth happy,
and they rejoice.
God, I offer you this world of light.’ (1)

Islamic tradition has a similar insight. Rumi wrote: – ‘The lamps are different but the light is the same. Forget about lamps. Concentrate on the essence, concentrate on the Light.’ (2)

A Zen koan tells how Tokusan was studying under Ryutan. ‘One night Tokusan came to Ryutan and asked many questions. The Teacher said, “The night is getting old – why don’t you retire?” So Tokusan bowed and, as he opened the screen to go out, he observed, “It is very dark outside.” Ryutan offered Tokusan a lighted candle to find his way, but first, as Tokusan received it, Ryutan blew it out. At that moment the mind of Tokusan was opened. (3)

The bible speaks of God as light: ‘God is light’ (1 John 1.5), and, as the creator of light, ‘God said, ‘Let there be light.’ (Genesis 1.3) In the Creed, we speak of Jesus as ‘God from God, light from light.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world.’ (John 8.12; 9.5) Ultimately, there will be but one light – God. ‘The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in its place in the city; his servants will worship him, they will see him face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will be shining on them. They will reign for ever and ever’. (Revelation 22.3-5) Christians celebrate light, after a fashion, on Candlemas, 2nd February.

Light is….

Religions are like stained-glass windows – but what counts is the light. It’s not surprising that people use light as an image of God; it’s appropriate. But it is an analogy, and analogies are not meant to be squeezed for the last drop of likeness. They point to resonances, are meant to be used suggestively rather than probatively.

Light is an enabler. We don’t see it, but we see by means of it. It enables us to see who and how we are. Without it, our eyes, even if in perfect condition, would see nothing. Yet we can’t look at the sun directly; it would blind us. Light doesn’t do things for us, but makes it possible for us to do things.

Light – is it a wave or a particle? Physicists say light is a particle, that is to say, it occupies no point in space. They also say it is a wave, pervading space from end to end. How can it be both? ‘Einstein proposed that there must be a wave-particle duality in light. He attempted in vain to reinterpret this duality so as to resolve the apparently contradictory characteristics of light. That duality has not yet been reconciled.’ (4) ‘There were two theories about light: one, which Newton favoured, was that it was composed of particles; the other was that it was made of waves. We now know that really both theories are correct.’ (5)

  • Light is indefinable: like electricity, we know what it does more than what it is.
  • Light is pure energy. The Greek Fathers speak of the “energies” of the Trinity.
  • Light is immaterial: it does not surrender its secrets to empirical examination.
  • Light is constant, whatever its source: the speed of light may be the only absolute in the universe.
  • Light is obvious to all but the blind. Saint John of the Cross had a favourite saying: ‘The purer a ray of light, the less it is seen’.
  • Light is indispensable.
  • Light is universal: it goes anywhere and everywhere, unless blocked.
    Light is powerful, but does not impose itself.
  • Light may be mediated through many colours of a prism, or reflected in a mirror – but its source is one.
  • Light is a gift – totally given; a mirror simply reflects what it first received.
  • Light is free: no one owns it; it is not my light, just simply light.
  • Even the smallest light can penetrate the darkest darkness.

But then again, every analogy limps

Like every analogy, the analogy of light is ambiguous and limited. As the Scholastics used to say, Omnis analogia claudet (Every analogy limps.)

Light, in some sense, needs us. In outer space, there is total darkness. In space, light becomes light as we know it only when it hits something, such as a planet.

Every light we know, whether a candle, a light-bulb, or the sun will eventually burn itself out in self-giving.

Darkness is the absence of light. Yet we began our life with nine months of darkness; it is not alien to us. Some people are afraid of the dark, but there are others who are afraid of the light. ‘Those who deny God are like a man who, forsaking the beauty of sunshine and moonlight, has buried his head in a pit, only to ask, “If the spirit of God is present in nature, then where is its light?” In order to see the beauty of God around him, he must first lift up his head and look.’ (6)

There is an ambiguity in light. ‘The Transfiguration and Hiroshima, both events suffused in irresistible white-hot light – intense, radiant, exalting, obliterating, vaporizing’(7) -both are recalled on 6 August; one brought life and hope, the other death and despair.

The divine light can equally be the divine darkness. Saint Gregory Palamas wrote, ‘There is an unknowing that is higher than all knowledge, a darkness that is supremely bright; and in this dazzling darkness divine things are given to the saints.’ (8)

Light and darkness are like the positive and negative poles of a battery; both are needed. ‘The greater light you have, the greater shadow you often cast,’ Carl Jung used to say. ‘Pure light blinds us; only the mixture of dark and light allows us to see. Shadows are required for our seeing. God alone lives in perfect light.’ (James 1.17) (9)

If it’s not paradox, it’s not orthodox.



1. Black Elk, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Penguin, London, 1971, p.83.
2. Andrew Harvey, Light upon Light: Inspirations from Rumi, Tarcher/Penguin, New York, 2004, p.14.
3. Paul Harris, The Fire of Silence and Stillness, DLT, London, 1995, p.45.
4. Daniel Liderbach, The Numinous Universe, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, USA, 1989, p.71.
5. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, London, 1996, p.91.
6. Juliet Mabey (compiler), Rumi: A Spiritual Treasury, Oneworld, Oxford, 2000, Masnavi III. 4796-7.
7. Sue Gaisford, “The BBC can still do it,” The Tablet, 9 December 2000, p.1669.
8. Triads, 1.3.18; GP, 1296-1359.
9. Richard Rohr, Hope against Darkness, St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, p.163.