Holding in the Light

I want to talk more about the Light today.  We Quakers talk often of “the Light.”  It’s one of our ways of talking about Jesus or God or divinity. 

There is a particular phrase that’s especially on my mind this morning: “hold in the light.”  Pretty much every week here, during joys and concerns, someone speaks of a friend or a relative who is ill and asks that we “hold this person in the light.”  Or someone going through a difficult patch asks the rest of us to “hold him in the light.”  We do that often.  Quite often we hear someone in Meeting thank us for holding them in the Light, telling us it helped them get through a difficult time. 

George Fox says, “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”  When we “hold someone in the Light,” we’re hoping, aren’t we, to lift them up out of the ocean of darkness into the yet more powerful and abundant ocean of light – into God’s radiant goodness. 

I think this “holding in the Light” is a peculiarly Quaker phrase.  Others might speak of praying for someone.  Others might pray to God to give particular attention to this particular person who is going through a tough time:  ill health or troubles of some kind. 

There’s a powerful metaphor here.  Talking of God’s love can seem a little abstract.  But talking of holding someone the Light makes it more tangible.  We can feel the Light and feel the warmth around us.  When we say we’re holding someone in the Light I have an imagine of bathing that person in Light, and I imagine that we expect or hope the Light will have a healing effect.   And we’re doing something.  We’re not just waiting for God to do something.  We’re holding someone, lifting someone into the Light. 

One reason this phrase is on my mind is because I recently had a heart attack, and a number of people – Quaker friends – said they were “holding me in the light.”  I was on the receiving end of the Light. 

I appreciated all these good sentiments. I love the image of being bathed in the Light.  But I’m not sure I really understand what it means – or rather how it might work. 

This is a stumbling block that goes back to my teens — so it’s been with me a long while.  If God knows everything, and if God shines love on everyone, what is the point of prayer?  God already knows who is in need, and God is already making a maximum effort on behalf of those in need – and on behalf of everyone else for that matter. So what is the point?  Are we really doing anything when we are holding someone in the Light?

I do see in the Bible that spiritually gifted people pray all the time: they pray for healing, they pray for guidance.  They pray for forgiveness.  Moses does it.  David does it.  I’ve grown very fond of the Psalms, many of which are prayers of David.  Even, or maybe especially Jesus does it.  Jesus teaches a simple, profound prayer to his disciples that we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus prays for guidance and for acceptance just before his arrest. And he prays again on the cross for the forgiveness of those who have crucified him.  Jesus is asking that these people, too, be held in the Light. 

The most helpful thing I ever reads about prayer, about this holding in the light business, was a book by C.S. Lewis called Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly On Prayer.  Lewis tells us the point of prayer isn’t to change God’s mind.  God’s mind is something we will never understand, let alone change, but rather we should pray to align ourselves with God’s will and God’s love.  The point is not to change God’s mind; the point is to change our minds.  “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray.  We are submitting ourselves and we are reminding ourselves of God’s steady and eternal love for all of us. 

I recently had occasion to read again about a very unusual episode in the history of Friends.  It’s a story told in Elizabeth Gray Vining’s biography of Rufus Jones. 

November 9 & 10, 1938:  that was Kristalnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.  All over Germany people broke into Jewish homes, stores and synagogues wreaking destruction and terror, and carrying many Jews off towards Concentration camps.  It seemed spontaneous but we now know it was a well-planned attack that helped the Nazis take yet greater control. 

In the wake of that horrible night, three Quakers resolved to make a visit to Germany.  Rufus Jones, Robert Yarnall and George Walton hatched a plan to travel to Germany, to speak to the highest ranking official in Germany to whom they could gain access, and to ask to be allowed to intercede.  The statement they eventually delivered in person to German officials stated they wanted “to inquire in the most friendly manner whether there is anything we can do to promote life and human welfare and to relieve suffering.”

They hoped to meet with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and someone we now remember as a chief architect of the Holocaust.  They didn’t succeed in seeing Himmler, but they did meet with two very high-ranking members of the SS.  They made their presentation, the two men they met with left the room and went to speak with someone in higher authority, perhaps Himmler himself.  Jones and Yarnall and Walton sat in silent worship — holding the German authorities in the Light. 

In the end, they did receive permission for some Quaker relief work to go forward in the days before the Second World War broke out, and for some additional Jews to be allowed to leave Germany to safety.  But of course, they didn’t stop the Holocaust. 

In his journal, Rufus Jones described to officials with whom they met as “Hard-faced, iron-natured men.”   He didn’t think they were ‘good guys.’  They didn’t have any illusions about the character of the men they would meet.  Still, it’s hard to say what Jones and Yarnall and Walton expected.  But in her biography, Elizabeth Gray Vining said that “Rufus Jones to the end of his days believed there had been a softening and a moment of vision.”

A good deal of history looks back on this episode as an instance of profound naiveté.  A foolish gesture, one perhaps even bordering on treason. 

But weren’t they holding the SS officers in the Light? Weren’t they trying to lift up the way of love and peace, trying to lift it above the way of violence and death?  Whatever they expected, wasn’t it worth the effort?  I guess I think so. 

Reading about this desperate mission to the SS leave me wondering why we mostly “hold in the Light” those we most care about, our friends and family.  Certainly, we should hold our dear ones in the Light.  But shouldn’t we also “hold in the Light” those who trouble us most: those who seem most wrong-headed or dangerous?  Do we believe they are beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s love?  I guess I don’t think so. 

As we settle into waiting worship, I invite each of us to call to mind people we think are as bad as people can be, and hold them in the light, believing that the Light, the love, can reach them too. 

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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1 Response to Holding in the Light

  1. Pingback: “Holding in the Light,” by Doug Bennett | Durham Friends Meeting (Quaker)

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