"The Light of the World is not the sanctuary lamp in your favorite church." -- Evelyn Underhill
I recently read a fascinating book called "Hild," by Nicola Griffith. It's a fictionalized account of the early life of St. Hilda of Whitby, who lived in the later half of the 7th century. Griffith writes that Hild was called "the light of the world." She was raised to think that it was her path in life to be a guiding light for her people. When I first read that appellation applied to Hild, I was startled. To me, Jesus is "the light of the world." To hear someone else called that was surprising. It was only later that I remembered that Jesus also said to all of his disciples: "You are the light of the world." Still, I wondered as I read, was Hild really called "the light of the world"? Midway through the story, the desire to know how much of it was fact and how much was fiction, was compelling. So I did some research.
All that is known of the life of St. Hilda is written in St. Bede's An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In that account, while Hild was in her mother's womb, her mother had a dream in which she finds a beautiful jeweled necklace in the covers of her bed. In the gemstone in the necklace, her mother sees all of England illuminated by a great light. Hild's mother connected this dream to the child in her womb. During Hild's life, the many small kingdoms that made up England continually warred against each other, vying for supremacy. At the same time various competing faiths were also vying for supremacy. Yet Hild was able to wade through these many competing agendas. Kings sought out Hild for advice, she trained many bishops, she recognized the gifts of a humble shepherd named Caedmon (who became England's first poet), she founded two "coed" monasteries, and she led the first ecumenical synod in England. St. Hilda truly was a remarkable guiding light during a pivotal time in medieval England.
Griffith beautifully imagines how Hild became such a source of wisdom. She describes how Hild was raised from early childhood to be very aware of everything in the world around her: the life of plants, the changing weather, the habits and movements of all kinds of animals, and the words and actions of people. She was taught to look for patterns, and to rely of the connections she discovered among the deep, almost hidden, forces in the world around her. And so, by watching and listening, Hild was able to find the truth, a truth that cut through all the ignorance, fear, and the power plays, and be a guiding light to those around her. Amongst all of the palace intrigues, bloody battles, and love triangles in Griffiths book, I found the character of Hild to be very inspiring.
Does it matter that this part of the story is completely made up?
I don't think so...because, whether it actually happened that way or not, I found great truth in this story. In many ways, Hild's experiences resonated with my own life experiences. I could relate to her awareness of the revealing patterns in the world, though I am only now beginning to understand how much the whole world has to teach me. I loved how she tried to unite groups that had always viewed themselves as separate. And I mirrored her deep abiding love for Yorkshire. Like all great novels, "Hild" transcends the world it describes.
Lately, I've been thinking about the many stories that surround Jesus, especially the stories that surround his birth. Was Jesus born of a virgin? Did God become incarnate in the body of Jesus? Did three wise men from the east pay homage to him?
I don't know for sure, but, really, does it matter if any of these events actually happened as long as they reveal a truth that resonates with my (our) experience?
Karen Armstrong writes in "A Short History of Myth," that mythology (like good fiction) is fundamentally about our experience. "A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence...." (pg. 7) A myth is a story that people share because it reveals timeless truths.
But, Armstrong notes, "myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave.... Correctly understood, mythology puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action, in this world or the next. ... A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth. Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives. A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly." (pg. 4, 10) A myth is true if it helps us live wisely.
So, either way, whether they are true accounts or mythologies, these stories we tell year after year about Jesus must reveal essential truths. Otherwise, why would we tell them? And so, how will we let them guide us?
Well, the last time I wrote, I was exploring the meaning of Mary's willingness to be a womb for God. It was a story that provided much appreciated guidance. Now, I wonder... What does it means to be "the light of the world"?
Jesus did not say, "I am your own personal light." He said, "I am the light of the world." That's significant. To be "the light of the world," you have to bring light to everyone. As Jesus did. He revealed a love that knew no boundaries. Samaritans, Romans and Jews; prostitutes and Pharisees; women and men; the believer and the unbeliever -- everyone was loved equally by God, everyone could be guided by God's love. The only important difference between people was whether they knew this or not. And so Jesus told his disciples to share this message, to be a light in the darkness, so that everyone would know of God's love.
What does this mean for me today? Do I share God's love with everyone, whether they are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or none of the above? Do I share God's love with my fellow churchgoers as well as with those who go to the church next door? Or have I, like Jesus said, hidden my light under a bushel? Have I, like Evelyn Underhill says, kept the Light of the World in my favorite church? Or worse yet, have I, as some Christians do, beaten someone over the head with the Light of the World?
Evelyn Underhill's words strike a chord. I write about God from the comfort of my home. I talk about God with faithful friends, and other people at my church. I volunteer my time in various church ministries. The focus of my light is pretty narrow. Perhaps it's time to let this image of being "the light of the world" change me more completely. Perhaps it's time to see how far my light can shine.
May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you