On a late autumn morning, while I was preparing my toast for breakfast, I noticed something. Usually I can look out the kitchen window into the backyard and see whatever is going on there: squirrels jumping tree branches, our neighbor’s cat sitting on the back fence, sparrows on the birdfeeder. But on this morning, all of this was unseen by me. Concealed. Invisible. Why?
The answer, as you may also have experienced, has to do with the lighting. When it is light both outside and inside, then I can see through the window. But when it is dark outside, and I have the kitchen light on, then the glass in the window pane changes character. It changes from a window into a mirror. And so that this morning, instead of seeing my yard, my squirrels, and my neighbor’s cat, I saw myself standing at the toaster.
Had I paid more attention to the theory of optics in a high school physics class, I might understand why this is so, but right now I am less interested in how it happened than in the analogy it awoke in my imagination. (I am always looking for analogies; it is an occupational hazard.) And I propose to you that the physical lighting can serve as a metaphor for spiritual lighting. When the lighting changes, what I can see changes. When my spiritual lighting changes, what I can see spiritually also changes.
Spirituality as light — a metaphor
Suppose that window glass is the eye through which I look out upon the world. Normally, I should be able to see the real world around me, and the neighbor with whom I should be concerned. But if the lighting is wrong, I will see myself instead. My attention will be thrown back on myself. There is such a thing as a healthy ego, but we’re talking here about egocentricity, an unhealthy sort of self-love that flatters us with the idea that everything in the world revolves around us.
How are we to repair the lighting? How can we put the right balance to the lighting? This is exactly the purpose of the spiritual life. Spiritual life is not a private and secret place in our hearts; it is not some “religious duty” to be dispatched on a Sunday morning; it does not concern some place disconnected from our daily life. Spirituality concerns the real world, and how we see it, how we do it, how we approach it. Spiritual life alters the cockeyed lighting that makes us the center of the universe.
How? By three supernatural gifts, each of which will improve our vision as they dawn (grow brighter).
The first is faith.
Faith is a kind of vision that comes from conversion. Faith is a transformed mind, a mind being filled with the light of God. God discloses himself, faith responds, and then we can see with new eyes. Things are in their right place, at last. Things serve their purpose, finally, and become windows on heaven. Faith sees God’s face peeking through every creature, like some divine game of peek-a-boo between our heavenly Father and ourselves. We don’t have to look elsewhere for God; we only need to look around. He’s there, and the dawning faith sees him everywhere.
The second is hope.
Hope anchors the soul. Hope directs our desire toward its true end, which is the kingdom of heaven. (Who would have guessed that the kingdom of heaven was intended as man and woman’s ultimate happiness?!) Hope is the confidence that we are moving toward light, not darkness; joy, not sorrow; life, not death. And yet even tribulations can advance us toward the Kingdom of God. Hope is confident because it rests upon God’s power, not our own. We are trained, like an arrow, for a higher happiness, and therefore we do not just settle for “getting the most out of this life.” The dawning hope enables us to see the world in a new way.
The third is love.
To love is to will the good of another. Because God loves us, He wills our good. The first effect of the gift of love is the forgiveness of sins. God, in turn, commands us to love our neighbor, whose good we can only will if we see him instead of focusing on ourselves. The unexpected flashes of love in our lives illuminate reality, like a thunderbolt of lightning can illuminate the dark yard. For an instant, we can see through the window to the real world: the birth of a child, choosing honesty over deceit, a self-gift without expecting repayment. When we experience these moments — either by giving love or receiving it — then we realize what is fundamental. We have been swimming in waters that feel bottomless, but on such occasions our toes just touch the bedrock. And as love dawns, so does our sight.
The person who lives in the dawning of faith, hope, and love is someone whom C. S. Lewis calls one of the “new people.” He says you can spot them. “But you must know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading.” Every now and then Lewis thinks one meets them. “Their very voices and faces are different from ours; stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. They begin where most of us leave off.…They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less.…They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from.” (Mere Christianity)
Faith invites us to live in the light.
The spiritual person can see the glory of God in the world — even the one outside their kitchen window. Everything is sacrament, everything speaks of God, nothing is ordinary, no one is ordinary, God can come through every experience, every neighbor is the face of God, every joy and sorrow can become a prayer. Faith, hope, and love adjust the lighting of our life so that we look beyond ourselves to see God.