One of the psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures captures best the interrelation of life and light that contribute to the educational project. “For with thee is the well of life; and in thy light shall we see light” (Ps. 36.9). It is an important insight: our knowing depends upon a principle of intelligibility, the idea that there are things to be known but always in terms of our own capacities about wanting to learn and know. That pursuit of learning properly belongs to the life of schools and colleges, an endless, life-long quest for understanding and wisdom. Light that is life.
Thursday, January 25, was the Conversion of St. Paul who was blinded into sight by “a light above the brightness of the Sun,” the divine light of the Epiphany, we might say, or, perhaps, an image of Plato’s Good which is beyond both being and knowing as the principle of each. This week in Chapel we had Luke’s story of the infant Christ being taken to the temple of Jerusalem as an unspeaking infant forty days after his birth. Known as Candlemas, a festival of light, called “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple” and, more commonly, “The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin,” it is a double feast at once of Mary and of Christ. While marking literally the fortieth day after Christmas (Feb. 2nd), it points us to Holy Week and Easter. I forebear to mention anything about Groundhog Day except to note that it, too, turns on the idea of light and shadows as the prognosticators of spring.
Christ is at once “a light to light the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel,” as ancient Simeon says. To Mary, he says, “a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also,” in reference to Christ’s Passion. “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” These powerful images signal the transition from the Christmas cycle of light to the Easter cycle of life; of light overcoming darkness and life overcoming death. And all through a kind of spiritual awakening, of our coming to a better understanding of ourselves.
Conversion and purification are essential to the pilgrimage of faith, of faith-seeking understanding, as the Anselm window in the Chapel reminds us. Conversion is the constant turning of our souls to the things of God. Purification has to do with the call to repentance, the call away from all that hinders and hampers the journey of our souls. These two themes complement the transition to the pageant of God’s redeeming grace in Christ’s sacrifice.
Conversion is the constant work of attending to the things of God. Conversion consists of two interrelated parts: repudiation and recapitulation. Both have to do with a new understanding of spiritual matters that propel us into the motions of discipline and service; in short, of learning and sacrifice. Repudiation marks the sense of a change in outlook from old ways to new ways or old ways as newly understood; hence recapitulation, the recalling in a new understanding the things of the past. Conversion is transformation in the radical sense of the breakthrough of understanding, like Saul who comes to see that the sufferings of the Crucified are precisely the marks of the Messiah’s glory. That is the breakthrough moment whereby Saul is renamed Paul and who will play a major role in the subsequent emergence of Christianity.
Purification presupposes a sense of our impurity or sinfulness, hence our need for the grace that comes from God for our sanctification. The ancient Jewish customs of the rituals of purification are taken up and transformed in Mary and Christ. They are about our active participation in the divine will which seeks our perfection, hence our purification from all that defiles us and makes us less than who we are in God’s sight. “In thy light shall we see light” and embrace the path of learning. That path requires sacrifice that leads to self-knowledge, at once of our shortcomings and of what ultimately speaks to the truth and dignity of our humanity.
It is found in the radical meaning of Candlemas as the meeting of God and man, of mother and child, of old and young, of things new and things old, a meeting which happens in the temple, itself an image of Mary and of the humanity of Christ. They become the meeting places of our learning about the things of God and in so doing learning about ourselves. We see as Paul will remind us, “in a glass darkly but then face to face,” seeking to know even as we are known. The juxtaposition of these two feasts marks this time of transition where already we are beginning to see the lengthening of the light of the day; a kind of turning towards the hopes of spring in the bleak mid-winter. Yet the images of nature and physical light convey a greater symbolic significance in the life of the School (and Chapel) as a place of light and learning. In the spiritual understanding that light and learning comes from the light and life of God. “In thy light shall we see light;” the light that enlightens and ennobles and dignifies.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy