At the weekend the writer William Dalrymple wrote a fascinating article called “Seeing the Light”. He describes his longstanding passion for photography which only later became superseded by writing. He describes his early inspiration for photography as being the work of Bill Brandt “whose darkly brooding images were marked by a stark chiaroscuro, a strongly geometrical sense of composition, a whiff of the surreal and a taste for the uncanny and the unsettling”.
Wow, in these finely crafted words I even learned a new word: chiaroscuro. The fine art term "chiaroscuro" (from the Italian for "light-dark"; or the French "clair-obscur") apparently describes the prominent contrast of light and shade in a painting, drawing or print, and the skill demonstrated by the artist in the management of shadows to create the illusion of three-dimensional forms. It is based on the principle that form is detectable in the presence of light.
Light is fascinating. Since retiring from my career in general practice I have been able to give more time to both photography and spirituality, both of which are highly dependent on light. In the case of photography everything is dependent on the ability of the sensor (or film!) to perceive light. The quality and sensitivity of sensors nowadays is such that they can almost see in the dark! A dark scene, or indeed an inadvertently underexposed dark image, can reveal significant detail through increasing the perception of light present through exposure.
Within the field of spirituality and also philosophy, light is prominent as a metaphor. Well known of course are the words from the Gospel of John in chapter 1 which bear some reflection: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is quite fascinating to me. It is speaking of Jesus of course, the human one who was filled full with God. The gospel invitation is for all people to be filled full with God, or to be full of light. And the light is equated with – life. The coming into form of the universe, the earth, the species, life and consciousness is an emanation of light?
Perhaps spirituality is not so much a religious thing (but then that depends how you understand religion; reconnecting with the source of all is a meaning I am quite happy with!) but very much to do with learning to live life in a way that is full of light. Not simply for ourselves individually but so that the whole world becomes full of light.
That raises the question – why is the world not already full of light? This has been a question for science as well as philosophy or spirituality. Why is the night sky dark? The universe is filled with billions of galaxies and stars that emit light. Why is the universe not awash with light? Similarly, if light came into the world through Jesus and also through the many other teachers of en-light-enment why do we appear to be witnessing an escalation of crises around the world?
Maybe this is the point (or at least one of them). We are now witnessing them or seeing them as never before. As human culture has evolved we are increasingly seeing what is going on both in front of our eyes and behind the scenes. It is becoming harder for corruption, malpractice and evil of every type to be hidden; the light is being shone upon ‘darkness’ in all its forms as never before.
This brings me back to William Dalrymple and photography. He quotes Bill Brandt: “It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time, or the traveller who enters a strange country. Most photographers would feel a sense of embarrassment in admitting publicly that they carried within them a sense of wonder, yet without it they would not produce the work they do. It is the gift of seeing the light around them clearly and vividly, as something that is exciting in its own right”.
Maybe that says it all. Spirituality is to do with living with a sense of wonder that causes us to look and to see the light and, to borrow some integral words, through this experience of light to “wake up, grow up and show up”.