The Light of the World: a Script for Meditation

Lately I’ve been working with Revelation 3:20 as interpreted by Holman Hunt in his painting “The Light of The World.” “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him or her, and he or she with me.” This inviting text is not obviously about light, but the painter’s night vision of Jesus standing before the closed door with a lantern in his left hand is possibly the most familiar way of looking at this text. The following meditation uses memory and the imagination; then we will turn away from imagery completely.

Hunt_Light_of_the_World

This painting may be the most familiar British religious image. The interpretive title, in large letters by the artist on the frame, evokes chapter 8 of St. John’s gospel: “Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Hunt was a Victorian era Anglican painter of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He used an eerie realistic style full of symbolism. This is what he said many years later about his original conception:

[At this point, if working with a group, the leader turns on quiet music for meditation. Suggested: “Ave Verum”, Tchaikovsky/Mozart. Each person should have a print, or the painting may be projected]

“Nothing is said about the night (in Revelation 3), but I wish to accentuate the point of its meaning by making it the time of darkness, and that brings us to the need of the lantern in Christ’s hand. He being the bearer of the light to the sinner within, if he will awaken. I shall have a door chocked up with weeds, to show that it has not been opened for a long time, and in the background there will be an orchard.” Hunt said the symbols were “his own private fantasies.” The door, for example represents “the obstinately shut mind.” John Ruskin, the renowned 19th Century art critic and social reformer, defended Hunt against many who thought his painting weird and unseemly and gave it a negative first reception. Ruskin interpreted it this way: “On the left side of the picture is seen the door of the human soul; it is knitted and bound to its stanchions by a creeping tendril of ivy, showing that it has never been opened. A bat hovers about it; its threshold is overgrown with brambles, nettles and fruitless corn…Christ approaches it in the night-time –Christ in his everlasting office of prophet, priest and king. He wears the jeweled robe and breastplate, representing the sacerdotal investiture; the rayed crown of gold, in woven with the crown of thorns, but now bearing soft leaves, for the healing of the nations.” …Perhaps you see other things in this richly symbolic work. An enormous copy of it made late in life by the artist was sent on a world tour, and now hangs on the right side of the nave in the vastness of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral …It would be an impressive sight indeed to stumble upon the painting unawares. One might feel awed and overwhelmed by it –and yet warmed and drawn by the gentle and compelling majesty of the luminous face of the Lord…

And now I invite you to close your eyes, and remember the painting’s impression on your mind, perhaps vaguely, maybe in some detail; it won’t matter: …the twilight background.. the lantern in Christ’s left hand. . the door without latch or knob..the right hand, knuckles to the door; the Lord is knocking. Hear the gentle, yet firm knocking; feel the vibrations on the air….NOW, you are inside. Open the door, so the Lord can come in as he promised…There is an oval table and two chairs. He places the lantern in the center. He sits. You sit…Look at the face of Christ –now, through the lamplight, obscure maybe, yet clearly the Jesus you know.

[Turn off Music.]

NOW, still remaining in the scene, close your eyes. Focus on the light alone…When distracted notice your breathing, and quietly take the name of Jesus on the breath…Rest in that light.

NOW, eyes still closed, notice the light spreading all around your body…Now, take this warm, precious energy into your body. Breathe in the light. ..Then let it spread to your head, your chest, the center of gravity in your belly…spreading now down into your legs and feet…all over within and without…The Light.

When you are ready, come back to the group…Gently open your eyes.

 

 

 

O Send Out Thy Light (Psalm 43:3)

Film directors and painters never tire of exploring the nuances of light and atmosphere. Some time ago, after having cataracts removed from my aging eyes, I resolved never again to take for granted the clarity, color and gradations of light. There is splendor in the whole of life; with the dimming of years I had gradually forgotten to notice.

In prayer  one may expect a different, interior illumination. Light mysticism is universal and well worth exploring, though it can be a struggle. A friend related his experience with light meditation in a Yoga class. The leader expected participants to perceive and work with visionary light as instructed. Over time my friend continued to look with closed eyes and saw nothing in particular. This did not present problems as he had mostly signed up for the physical benefits of Yoga practice. But then one day it happened. Suddenly a cool, white intensity pulsed before his eyelids. Time came to open his eyes, and he suddenly deflated like a popped balloon; someone had flicked on the florescent lights in the usually dim room. “This ended,” he said, “my pursuit of enlightenment.”

Still, I think there is a rich and energizing range of inner experience open to almost everyone, which trumps our capacity for deception or credulity. There is a vast luminous world of fantasy, visual memory, imagination and dream-scape, and yes, for some, interior revelation. Working with the experience of interior light is positive and nourishing, even for people like me, who are naturally more auditory than visually perceptive. And so, for several months I have been exploring visual meditations grounded in scripture and moving toward bathing in peaceful, healing light. It all began with reflections on the star of Bethlehem, cool and distant, but drawing toward some unknown possibility. This sometimes started with Christmas card scenes in memory, with me joining the Magi on their journey; the period ended with resting in the radiance of the Eastern star. Then I began to work with the Transfiguration stories of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Since each is a bit different, I would note the difference intellectually, and then visualize that uniqueness before entering the scene with Peter, James and John to “behold the glory,” of Jesus on the mountaintop. The shining became so bright I could see only transfiguring light and rest there for a time. (As some may recall, Gregory Palamas centuries ago famously concluded it is possible for human beings to directly experience –not metaphorically, or “by faith”- the divine glory, a touch of heaven in this earthly life. He made an important distinction: though we can not experience God’s essence, the divine energies radiate all the way to those who seek with pure hearts. This doctrine was affirmed by several Eastern Church councils and is a basis for the Orthodox tradition of stillness meditation known as hesychasm.)

All the major world religions have traditional ways of practicing light meditation. The best practical advice I have been able to find is by an Australian from the school of Tibetan Buddhism, Dr. Ian Gawler. His book, “Meditation: An In-depth Guide” (Ian Gawler & Paul Bedson; Jeremy P. Tausher/Penguin, 2011, pp. 315-321.), offers a wonderful meditative scenario which I will summarize. Of course, the original version is somewhat fuller and assumes many elements of meditative technique as these authors expertly present them. He invites us to use it as we can; and so I did.

White Light Healing

1. Take time to relax physically in a quiet place, and in a meditative posture. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm and release tension.

2. Visualize the highest source of power you know…Use your imagination to come into the presence of this being. Converse or pray. Listen.

3. Imagine light coming from the very center of this figure: ”a beam of white light, like a searchlight…but this light also has liquid properties…a bit like a shower or waterfall…warm, liquid, white light…And as this warm light flows down toward you and reaches your head, it quite gently, slowly, softly flows not only over and around your body, but actually through it…a bit like water filtering down through dry sand, quite slowly…warm, liquid, white light, washing away anything that is old, worn or unwanted…and bringing with it a new sense of energy…healing…vitality.”

4. Take time to let the warm, liquid light flow through each part of your body…Notice the light becoming stronger. “It’s almost like turning up a dimmer switch…stronger, clearer, all through your body…radiant light… Let the light flow from your body into your mind…You can almost merge into that light uniting with it…” Just rest in the presence of that light for as long as you are comfortable.

5. “Remember you can come back to this experience at any time you like…and each time you do it will feel easier and more complete…You will be able to go with it more thoroughly and rest in the presence even more completely…Also remember you can have this energy, this presence with you all day…Even while you sleep…This is an infinite energy you are drawing upon…always there…limitless.”