Luke 11:33-36 “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light. The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, the whole body will be full of light, as when the bright shining of a lamp gives you light.”
Jesus warns us to take heed that the light in us not be darkness. St. Luke sets this saying in the context of a discussion of light and darkness and the role of the eyes in seeing. It seems that how we see (as with how we hear) can determine what we perceive. In the case of seeing, how we see determines whether or not we see the light. Or to put it another way, seeing, or how we see, plays a role in whether what we see as light really is light. That is, it is possible to think we are full of light, full of understanding, full of seeing what is real and true, but in reality, we are full of darkness.
That Jesus warns us of this must mean that it is possible. It is possible to call the darkness light and the light darkness. Just as it is possible to despise one of the little ones or possible to be deceived by teaching about the end of the world or possible to be leavened with the yeast of the pharisees; so it is possible to call the darkness in oneself light. In fact, I would posit that it is not until people accept that they do not know anything as they out to know it and are willing to question everything, that they begin to become aware that their inner world is a mixed bag. It is not as though one sees that they are full of utter darkness, for in utter darkness there is no seeing. There is always a spark. Where there is life at all, there is light, some light. However, the light is mixed with shadows–deep and unknown valleys; large gaps of assumption; whole continents of shame and embarrassment; and dark oceans full of the ignored sea monsters of pain, confusion and anger. Such is our inner world.
In my own inner darkness, I cannot begin to speculate how others learn to call their own inner spade, a spade, their own inner darkness, darkness rather than light; but I can tell you a little of what has helped me. In my own journey and struggle, I have often discovered that through embracing ideologies, I have been led or tricked into calling the darkness in me light.
Ideologies are useful. God has created us with rational minds that conceptualize ideas and systematize them into ideologies; however, ideologies so easily become idols (in fact, etymologically, the words ‘idol’ and ‘ideal’ are both related to the Greek word ‘to see’). An idea, or an ideal, can can help me see what is there, but it also can (and often does) keep me from seeing what is there. A materialist ideology, for example, may help one see the biology of mental illness–rather than merely seeing a demon behind every disturbing personal quirk. However, the same materialist ideology blinds one to the obviously spiritual nature of human experience and existence–regulating the spiritual to a side-show of paranormal stage acts and optional religious preferences.
In the Church also, we have our ideologies. We speak of an ideal Christian and an ideal monk, of an ideal mother, husband, child or family. And in as much as we can systematize these ideas and present them as, for example, “the characteristics of the ideal priest,” or “the seven habits of an ideal family,” in as much as we do this, we are creating an ideology. Now, as I have said, ideologies are not useless. They can help us see what we have not seen before. However, ideologies can also be harmful, especially when they become idols, when the vision of the ideal keeps us from seeing what is actually in front of us or actually within us.
This reality of being blinded by a useful Christian ideology came home to me in a particularly strong way in the context of marriage counselling. In the early years of our marriage, Bonnie and I were exposed to a lot of religious ideology regarding the Christian family–the role of the wife, the role of the husband, the ‘correct’ way to discipline children, etc. It was not that this teaching was totally useless, it was not. Neither Bonnie or I came from healthy family backgrounds, so having an ideal before us helped us imagine what a healthy marriage and family could be. However, I have never been a good disciple of anything. While at one level I was embracing and learning from the ideology, I was always criticizing it. I was always seeing how it didn’t make sense or apply in certain contexts. I (thank God!) was often able to see when the limits were reached, when it no longer applied in our family, in my relationship with Bonnie, and in my relationship with each of my daughters as they grew each manifesting her unique personhood. In the absence of good mentors and role models, I would have to say that such teaching on Christian ideals did (on the whole) more good than harm in our early family life. The ideals helped us see light.
However, where I failed miserably was when it came to my teaching others. The ideology had blinded me. I couldn’t see the person sitting in front of me. I couldn’t hear any wisdom the Holy Spirit might have been whispering to me. I could only see the ideology. The ideology was the light–but in many (probably most) specific cases, that light was really sprinkled with darkness. Each person is different. Each marriage and family is its own reality. Ideals, even helpful ones, are not real. People are real, and paying attention to people–not generally, but to the person right in front of you—this is the only way real light can shine on any thing or any one in particular.
Similarly, in regard to my inner life, it is so easy for me to lay an ideal blueprint on top of my inner reality and say to myself: “Oh, that’s light and that’s darkness.” It is so easy because I do not want to see what’s really there. I don’t want to see the sea monsters, the gaping abysses within myself. I’d rather have a neat system, a prepackaged explanation. Unlike St. George, I am unwilling to confront the dragons.
An ideology is not unlike a flash light. In my early experiences camping in the wilderness, I experienced a lot of blindness caused by my flashlight. Flashlights are useful in the dark, but they create problems. They allow us to see only what the flashlight is pointing at–and even then, what we see with the light of the flash light is skewed and distorted by the accentuation of shadow caused by the overly bright light. And then, when you turn your head or turn off the light, you are almost completely blind. It takes several minutes without the flash light to see with whatever ambient light is available. With experience, I learned to hike and set up camp by the light of the stars (especially in the desert) or by the light of a quarter moon–it was plenty of light. I actually saw much more. The only time I needed a flashlight (and then at its lowest possible setting) was when I had to focus on some small area to light a stove or read, or find some small thing I had dropped. The flashlight was useful, even essential, but its over use was actually harmful, creating the the perception of seeing, while actually causing blindness.
I think the reason why Jesus put so much of His teaching into parables (rather than explicit instructions) is so that we could not easily create ideologies of His teaching. Instead of many commandments, we are left with metaphors and analogies, stories that we must struggle through, stories that continue to have new meaning as we grow and change. I think this is also the reason why the Orthodox Church has put so much emphasis on apophatic theology. You can’t idealize what you cannot first conceive. All too often, conceptions get in the way of seeing, of seeing with what the Greek Fathers call the nous and what we might call the heart.
Take heed, Jesus said, lest the light in you be darkness. Too easily, ideologies and conceptual patterns become the light within us resulting in a kind of blindness. Learning to see with the nous, with the heart, begins with the exercise of accepting that we don’t see. Once we are convinced of our blindness, we can begin to learn anew to see the light. Or as Jesus says to the pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.
Let us not be like the Pharisees, but rather confess our blindness wholeheartedly. Like the blind man beside the road, let us cry out to Jesus, “O Lord, grant that I might see.”