by Sr Ann Catherine o.p.
A reflection for Compline at the close of "Nightfever", at Fisher House, Cambridge, an initiative in which student volunteers go out into the streets and invite those they meet to come into the church to light candles and spend some time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
They will see the Lord face to face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; there will be no need of lamplight or sunlight, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.
There will be no need of lamplight or sunlight. Compline this evening has been a little different from usual. We did not start our night prayer tonight as we have come to do in this place, every Friday, with the ceremony of lighting the lamps, reminding ourselves at the end of our day, as more and more candles are set ablaze about the altar, of our need for the light of Christ. That’s not just because we began our prayer significantly later than usual, and we decided to cut the ritual down to the bare minimum so that we can all go home to bed.. At the start of this compline, our church was already afire with the light of candles, each one representing the longings, the anxieties, the prayers of those we have welcomed here tonight, representing too the Lord’s longing to shelter and protect them, to protect us, to protect our desire, and theirs, fragile and flickering as it may be, to come to him in love and faith, to give ourselves to him as fully as we can. And so it would have been a little redundant, a little artificial, on this night, to light yet more candles. The Lord’s love for each one of us is our light, and it is already shining on us here. The Lord, the light of the world, is enshrined in his Eucharistic presence on our altar, and his glory is reflected in the candles surrounding the monstrance. Our love for the Lord, however fitful and dimly burning, and our desire to serve him in our brothers and sisters, as we have done this evening, that desire which is itself his gift to us, is shining out in this place too.
If we have ever spent an extended time in candlelight, as many of us have this evening, or in firelight, we will know how there is something lovely, something seductively beautiful, about the way that naked flames play on faces and furnishings, investing the familiar with the grandeur of mystery. This is the light of poetry, we might say, as opposed to the prose of what we tellingly enough call the cold light of day, which does not warm and caress like candle light, hinting at a beauty we have never imagined, but leaves us open, unprotected, exposed in what we fear is our ugliness, sometimes pitilessly so. No wonder candles are part of the language of romance, that "real" fires evoke a nostalgia for a kindlier land of lost content. No wonder, either, that both find a place within our worship of the God who is both truth and love, light and warmth.
And yet, the very dimness of our vision by candlelight doesn't only and always hint at a deeper kind of truth; sometimes, on the contrary, it tells us lies, throwing shadows, distorting what we see, concealing as well as revealing, and this has something to tell us too, perhaps especially if we reflect on it so near the beginning of Lent. Part of the point of this season, of whatever practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer that we have chosen to adopt, is the sharpening, and the deepening of our vision. As the disciplines we have taken on chip away at our sense of self-sufficiency - and this, not some scheme of self-improvement or self-mastery, is what they are for - as we come to know ever more intimately our weakness in the face of temptation, we come to see several things more clearly. First, and most obviously we are brought to know - and see - more keenly our need of God. That space within us that is no longer being filled by his good gifts is open for him to fill; our intenser hunger for food and drink is mirrored by our more profound desire for God - a lesson we learn, incidentally, at least as well when we fail to keep our Lenten resolutions as when we succeed, because the God we long for is the God who longs to come to us in our need and frailty and to pick us up when we fall. But secondly, as our penances begin to help us to get to know both God, and our desire for him better, we come to see as he sees, to gaze upon our world, on each other, and on ourselves, in his light.
Shortly before the beginning of Lent, the Church proposed for us as the gospel at a weekday mass that curious miracle story in which Jesus restored the sight of a blind man, but in stages. At first, we are told, after the Lord has touched him healingly, he sees men, but they look like trees walking; it is only gradually that things assume their proper proportions for him, that the terror of a surreal landscape subsides and is replaced by clarity and peace. That, I think, can be a consolation to all of us, a reminder that, just as flickering flames amidst the darkness can distort, even as they illuminate, so too we all stand in need of the gradual cleansing of our vision, that gradual healing of perception of God, ourselves, and each other which, if we open ourselves to his touch, the Lord will bestow on us, not with sudden violence but with gentleness and patience. We live in a world of much anxiety, of uneasiness, of fear of violence, and God knows there is enough out there quite objectively to make us rationally afraid. But I suspect, too, that much of our disquiet comes from not seeing things as they are; at our tendency to look through eyes filmed with our own distrust; to see, in our fear, monstrosities instead of our fellow human beings; men, not trees, as it were, walking around our waking nightmares. We need to learn instead, to see as God sees, to see in the light of the God who is truth, and whose vision is therefore truthful.
And what do we see when we see men and women as God does, when, in other words, we see each other and ourselves truthfully? Strikingly, St Mark, when he tells us the story of the blind man's healing, places it just before his account of the mysterious event we will hear about this coming Sunday in the Gospel at Mass, the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor when, to the stupefaction of his closest friends, the Jesus whom they thought they knew overwhelms them with the radiance of his appearance, glowing with an unimaginable brightness. Sometimes people talk as though what is happening at the Transfiguration is that Jesus is here revealing himself in his divinity. But that, I think, at least if we think of it as the whole story, is a mistake. It's a pious mistake, and it rests on a profound theological truth of course: Jesus is God. But it's nonetheless a serious one. What is revealed as glorious on Mount Tabor, after all, is precisely the body of Jesus, that body which he took of the Blessed Virgin Mary and which is, above all, the guarantee of him being not only truly God but truly human also. What we see at the Transfiguration, in other words, is humanity as it is meant to be, us, as we are destined to be, astounding as that thought is. Not in virtue of some automatic process of evolution, not in virtue of our unaided efforts at transcendence: the message of the Transfiguration is not "glory to man in the highest", as though we can achieve such glory in our own strength or on account of our innate potential. But, rather, in virtue of what St Luke tells us Jesus discusses on the mountain top with Moses and Elijah who come to join the conversation on which Peter, James and John eavesdrop with such puzzlement, in virtue of his "departure, his exodus" which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. In virtue, in other words, of his Passion and death. The glory of Mount Tabor will be ours if we allow ourselves to be picked up and carried by the Lord in his passover through suffering and death, carried across the Red Sea of our sin and fear, across the darkness of our false images of God and of each other, into the light of Easter.
And in that light, in the moment of resurrection when, in the words of the Church's great hymn of praise to the paschal candle that we shall hear on Easter morning, the night is as clear as the day, the shadows will be chased away and we shall see not only ourselves but each other as God sees us, beloved and beautiful, remade in his image. The Lord will be our light, and, in that light we shall each be ablaze with the contagious glory of Christ, of which we have had such a wonderful foretaste tonight.