Thursday, April 26, 2007

Dr. Thursday's Thursday Post

"It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side."
-- G. K. Chesterton

Perhaps due to my excitement about a certain idea, I misquoted Tolkien, having Gandalf tell the Balrog he was "a guardian of the Secret Fire"; the word should be "Servant". This was a natural enough error, given - er - my background, and interests. In particular, partly due to the proximity of some cloistered Carmelite nuns, I have found a thrilling association between their work and the Vestals of ancient Rome, who really were "guardians of the fire". Someday perhaps I will tell you more about the Vestals, and the Carmelites, and maybe even what I mean by "proximity" (since in reality they are about 40 miles away!) But since we are in the Paschal time, counting through the Week of Weeks, and I am trying to concentrate on the symbols of that season, today I shall address the symbol of fire.Continue reading.

The very first scene of the grand drama of the Easter Vigil is the kindling of fire, usually done just outside the church. Children find this fascinating. The objective, of course, is to have enough of a flame to light up the Paschal candle, and from it, all the other candles of the clergy, the faithful, and the church itself. Most churches nowadays use electrical lighting, so someone usually presses the switches at the proper time - but even there the symbolism is not lost, as we shall see.

Fire is so important - the singular "element" in the ancient sense, by which Man demonstrates His authority over creation. Terribly, horribly dangerous. Critically, frighteningly necessary. Fire is not just a tool for cooking and lighting and keeping wild animals at bay; it is (in at least a certain sense) the means to a very large portion of civilization.

St. Francis called fire his strong "brother" - Chesterton's comments have a nearly Praeconium-like (the Easter-vigil-canticle) feel:
Gradually against this grey background beauty begins to appear, as something really fresh and delicate and above all surprising. Love returning is no longer what was once called platonic but what is stiff called chivalric love. The flowers and stars have recovered their first innocence.Fire and water are felt to be worthy to be the brother and sister of a saint. The purge of paganism is complete at last. For water itself has been washed. Fire itself has been purified as by fire. Water is no longer that water into which slaves were flung to feed the fishes. Fire is no longer that fire through which children were passed to Moloch. Flowers smell no more of the forgotten garlands gathered in the garden of Priapus; stars stand no more as signs of the far frigidity of gods as cold as those cold fires. They are all like things newly made and awaiting new names, from one who shall come to name them. Neither the universe nor the earth have now any longer the old sinister significance of the world. They await a new reconciliation with man, but they are already capable of being reconciled. Man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature-worship, and can return to nature. ... For us the elements are like heralds who tell us with trumpet and tabard that we are drawing near the city of a great king; but [St. Francis] hails them with an old familiarity that is almost an old frivolity. He calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water.
[GKC, St. Francis of Assisi CW2:44-5, 74]
And it is not really all that strange to see a four-fold structure in nature: earth, water, air, fire - we no longer call these the four "elements" yet we do speak of the four "states" of matter: solid, liquid, gas, plasma. (No, I am not going to get all scientific just here, as much as I want to; where GKC would quote Shakespeare or Milton or somebody, I would rather use tech words or give an equation. It's merely a matter of what one has in one's head, after all, and yet still we are talking about the same God and the same universe!)

But the fire kindled at the Vigil is used as a specific for a more general thing, far harder to hold and if anything far more important: Light.

After all, the priest does not chant "Christ our Fire". Though Jesus did say "I have come to kindle a fire" [Lk 12:49] He did not tell us He was "the Fire of the World" [cf. Jn 8:12]. No, for in the Word was life, and the life was the light of men. [Jn 1:4] That light, now shining on the single Paschal candle in the hushed, crowded darkened church, is just an echo of the Light which shines in the Darkness, the Light that the Darkness cannot comprehend, overcome, or defeat.

It would be delightful (pun intended) to digress here on the "dual nature" of the photon, and make some poetic speculations on how that duality relates to the Hypostatic Union - or to the energy/matter relation made famous by Einstein's E = m c 2 - but I will resist. And if you think this discussion of fire is surprising, just wait until we get to water! Ahem.

To resume. Omitting for the moment the necessary realities of breathing and (like "R.E.M."'s "Stand") of having our feet on the ground, light is the primary means by which we experience our surroundings. Yes, light is energy, but unlike plants, we use light primarily for learning about things beyond our own selves (or, at the very least, beyond our reach.) In our "information age" it should be increasingly more clear that light is the vehicle by which information is transported - at this very moment it is light which is bringing my words to you, unless you happen to have a voice-synthesizer, or are having this read to you. Light is a frontier - there is nothing faster. Careful experiments have demonstrated its absolute character, defeating the whining relativist philosophers with cold truths of science. How dramatic is this? Light enables you to read, whether from a self-luminous computer screen, or by differential reflection from a printed page. Light gives you information about where you are about to put your hands - or even your feet (again I hear R.E.M. singing "your head is there to move you around"!) Light is sent through lenses and tells us about things too small - or too large? - for our eyes to see. And even when light itself is too cumbersome, as when we wish to explore at the atomic level, we still "reduce" the information to a visual form in order to deal with it.

Earlier I used the word "drama" about the Vigil and this service of Light. Indeed, each autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, there is a drama of the service of light, when we can go outside in the evening when it is dark enough, and look at a dim little smear of light, at 4h right ascension, 41 degrees north declination. That smear, the great Andromeda galaxy, is (according to one estimate) about 2 million light years away, and contains some 3 billion stars. The little smear of light, easily covered by the tip of your little finger, is so incredibly far (yet one of the "local cluster" of galaxies!) and vast almost beyond imagining.

And yet we have a far greater drama of light to consider.

I quoted St. John's curious coupling of terms: "the life was the light of men". This coupling would be more dramatic if we could read it in Greek: "light" is FWS and "life" is ZWH. An ancient artist (or crossword-maker wannabe) made a plus-sign-shaped symbol from these two words, using the W as the centerpoint. Having played with DNA and even read a book or two about biology (which uses the other Greek word for life) I have pondered what John means by this relation. It would be glib to say (with reference to Einstein) that the light is energy, and living things are in motion, which requires energy. But there is a much more profound and much more Chestertonian way of looking at this question of light:
...all these [questions about life, death, and martyrdom] come back not to an economic calculation about livelihood but to an elemental outlook upon life. They all come back to what a man fundamentally feels, when he looks forth from those strange windows which we call the eyes, upon that strange vision that we call the world. [GKC The Everlasting Man , CW2:271]

A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye. This piece of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope? If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving? [GKC St. Thomas Aquinas, CW2:528-529]

"Seeing is believing" was no longer the platitude of a mere idiot, or common individual, as in Plato's world; it was mixed up with real conditions of real belief. Those revolving mirrors that send messages to the brain of man, that light that breaks upon the brain, these had truly revealed to God himself the path to Bethany or the light on the high rock of Jerusalem. [GKC St. Thomas Aquinas, CW2:493]
Yes, there is far more to say, and far more needs to be said, and I have only begun the discussion today. But perhaps someday I will go further. But let us delight in the light, then our choice will be clear.

Lumen Christi! --- "The Light of Christ!"
Deo Gratias! --- "To God, thanks!"


  1. I am told that some MacUsers cannot see the Greek. (Too bad Babel has long infected computing, hee hee) But the Greek words are:

    light = Phi-Omega-Sigma, pronounced roughly "fose" which rhymes with "dose" (of medicine) long o, then s, not z). This is the root for the element called "phosphorus" (the light-carrier) and "photography" (light-writing).

    life = Zeta-Omega-Eta, pronounced roughly Zoe-Ay, (zoe to rhyme with toe, folloed by the long Greek e, which is like the letter A). This is the root for zoo, zoology and such things; I'll get back to you about the exact way it differs from the Greek "BIOS" which also means "life".

    (N.B.: Any REAL students of Greek please assist here; I am the merest dabbler.)

    Also, I neglected to point out that you can see the Andromeda galaxy with the "naked eye" - meaning you do not need binoculars. And the link I skipped (a la Darwin, hee hee) is that Andromeda's light brings us knowledge of billions of stars from millions of light-years - but Christ our Light brings us knowledge of God from infinitely further away... (for He is Emmanuel = God-with-us!!! a link to Christmas as you might expect.)

    Yes, there's material for a month or two of postings about stars and Christ and Easter and Christmas... Don't forget the "eclipse" (?) on Good Friday, during the full moon. Hee hee.

    One more thing, for "Chestertonian": since we've got our fire going now, you can expect the Paschal candle discussion next week.

  2. Sorry I forgot to say that addendum was from me.
    --Dr. Thursday

  3. Birzer, who wrote JRR Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth, suggests that the Secret Fire, which is with Illuvatar, is the Holy Ghost. I can't remember the arguments or even if they were good or not, but it would certainly explain Gandalf's remark.


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