God Is Light

May 14, 2018

"Illuminated Lily 3" by Eric Rennie

 

Was it Cezanne who said, “God is light,” 
and went South to paint?
Or was it someone else who did not know
that we can take only so much light,
without going crazy?
-- From “Desert Light” by Reena Ribalow

 

Louis of Bavaria, son and heir of Charlemagne and emperor over much of Europe, died of fright during a total eclipse of the sun in 840 CE. I gleaned this fact from Annie Dillard’s magnificent essay, “Total Eclipse,” which described her own experience of an eclipse in such vivid terms that you can understand how the elderly emperor (he was all of 62) might plausibly succumb. She wrote:

  The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour….We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.  

Eclipses were not unheard of in Louis’s day. The ancients had been accurately forecasting them for centuries. But, as Dillard so harrowingly noted, nothing really prepares you for the actual event. The only preparation you usually get is advice to use protective eyewear, like the welder’s goggles Dillard wore. Except for the two or three minutes that the sun is entirely obscured by the moon, you will damage your retinas by staring directly at an eclipse.

Not long ago the shadow cone of a total eclipse cut a 195-mile wide swath across the United States, racing at 1,800 mph from Oregon to South Carolina. I live in New England, far from the cone’s path; still, the sun was two-thirds darkened at the peak of the eclipse in our region. My family and I were driving from Connecticut to Cape Cod at the time. Electronic highway signs en route cautioned us to turn on our headlights. But there was no need. The sky remained brightly lit at the midday peak, although the sun dimmed by two-thirds. Even on its low beams, the sun offered more than enough light to get us safely to the Cape. 

If Cezanne actually said, “God is light,” I can find no source, although he did go south to paint, presumably because the light was better. If too much light makes you crazy, Cezanne showed no signs, unlike poor Van Gogh, who also went south. Cezanne did say, “We are an iridescent chaos,” which might sound suspect if taken out of context. However, he was talking about his landscapes. (Presumably, a little crazy-talk is allowed if you are an artist.) The English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner would stare directly at the sun for such extended periods that others wondered how he could do so without destroying his eyesight. His dying words were reportedly, “The sun is God,” thereby confirming critic John Ruskin’s characterization of him as a pagan sun-worshipper. 

Photographers have long known there is such a thing as too much light, which is why they normally don’t point a camera anywhere near the sun, except at sunrise and sunset, when the light is highly refracted in the atmosphere. Lately I have been photographing flowers close-up in a dark room, using a macro lens. I have been achieving dramatic effects by shining a single high-intensity beam from an LED flashlight on the blossoms. However, as I am discovering, I must be careful not to overwhelm the image with concentrated light. I am usually directing the beam from below in order to capture the delicate translucent petals, but it is easy to wind up with a blown-out image, much as if I had pointed my camera too close to the sun.

Light has long been a metaphor for God, and before that people simply worshipped it. Archeological excavations of Neanderthal settlements have found that dwellings, ritual sites and graves all faced toward the rising sun. Megaliths in Britain and elsewhere are aligned with the sun and moon. Lest we dismiss such pagan practices, Christian churches were traditionally oriented to the east, and priests were instructed to celebrate Mass facing in that direction.

Divine encounters in the Bible were often accompanied by intense displays of light. Moses was warned when he went up Mt. Sinai that he could not directly look upon God’s face and live, so he hid himself in the cleft of a rock when the Lord passed by. Jesus went up a mountain with three of his disciples, and he “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light."  St. Paul was blinded by a light from heaven on the road to Damascus, presumably because he wasn’t outfitted with welder’s goggles. However, there were no recorded instances of biblical figures driven mad by too much exposure to light from heaven. 

I wonder what it would be like trying to take a picture of God -- or at least God as he is portrayed in Scripture. Suppose a photographer had accompanied St. Paul on the road to Damascus or followed Moses up Mt. Sinai. According to the New Testament account, Paul was blinded by a light from heaven and therefore saw nothing. I suspect the same would be true of the photographer, unless he had the foresight to bring welder’s goggles.  Even if he got off a few pictures, I suspect they would be completely blown out.  As for the photographer who ventured up Mt. Sinai, he would probably have followed Moses’ lead and hidden himself in the cleft of the rock. He might have gotten a few shots of the Lord’s back, which would be par for the course, since all of creation, in effect, is the Lord’s back. Would Moses (and the photographer) really have died if they had taken a peek at God’s face as he passed by?  I’m not sure we need to take such accounts quite so literally. As the hapless emperor of Bavaria demonstrated, too little light from heaven can be far deadlier than too much.