Wrought by light

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It’s said that the farther north you travel, the greater the quality of the light.  Yorkshire may not be as far north as the regions to which that might normally be thought to apply but there are days when the slopes of Malhamdale seem washed in transparency, a cool light picking out every detail of the terrain and making a personality out of every hillside.

Catch a sunrise at Malham Cove and you’ll see the epitome of nature’s dance between sunlight and landscape, fire and earth.  One morning, approaching the Cove just as the sun appeared I was treated to the spectacle of its great limestone face lit up like gold foil by near horizontal beams of light that also seemed to burnish the pastures on either side to a reddish yellow ochre.

‘Early sunlight on the Cove’, Simon Watkins 2018

The transformative power of light is a cultural constant, understood by people of every age and place both as something to be mimicked whilst at the same intangible, impossible to pin down.  Faced with charges of blasphemy and sedition, early Quakers modified their talk of God being present in everyone, turning instead to light as a metaphor for the good they strove to identify in each other and in anyone with whom they interacted.  More recently, it may be the generality of this concept of light as opposed to the adherence to specific religious terms that makes Quaker meetings comfortable places for people of any religion and none – in its liberal European manifestation at least.

But can the light concept be more than merely a cosy and convenient metaphor for good?  For anyone attending a Quaker meeting for the first time (or even the hundredth!) the idea might seem a little abstract and ungrounded.  Every now and then, however, I’m reminded of the power of an idea to transform the lived reality of people and the societies in which they live.

A few years ago, some work by Quaker Peace and Social Witness’ (QPSW) East Africa programme brought together the life stories of individuals who after undergoing unimaginably difficult experiences in conflict zones chose reconciliation over violence and reached out to their erstwhile enemies.  Publishing the stories in exhibition and book form, QPSW titled the project after a description by one of the participants of what motivated her.  ‘This light that pushes me’ is more than moving – reading the words of real people who have engaged in peace building under the most extreme of circumstances is itself transformative.  The contributors’ portraits look straight out at the reader, ordinary people every one of them, willing us to identify the same capacity for courage and hope in ourselves as they were led to find in themselves.

In my own travels I’ve come across similar extremes of human reactions to conflict – most clearly for me in the West Bank, where from amongst people being systematically disempowered and dispossessed of their land I’ve met individuals who out of faith in the humanity they share with their enemies continually reach out across the gulf of competing interests and misunderstandings, making friendships and challenging the order imposed by the occupying authorities.  We don’t hear these stories in the media, because by and large the media isn’t interested in light; but it’s not only in the factual sense that lack of positive narrative keeps us in the dark – it also tends to underscore natural pessimistic tendencies and lead us into a sense of hopelessness.

This is where I believe Quaker worship can help.  I was reminded of this recently on a visit to the Woodbrooke Study Centre in Birmingham.  In the large meeting room a stunning triptych hangs – an abstract by Adam Boulter, Anglican priest, titled ‘Dawn of Creation’.  Not knowing that title I might have guessed the general theme but also might have kept guessing: the canvas is alive and fluid with almost tangible forms to which any number of meanings could be attributed.  On that visit, during a period of silent worship I became so engrossed in the piece that it seemed to pulse with life.  On the left is a darkish column – the sea perhaps – in which the dim image of a red circle floats under a pale sky.  In the central, main panel, streaks of red and gold swirl across the ‘sky’ and mingle with the ‘sea’, churning it into a boiling mass of colour.  The right-hand panel contains another circle, this time of white and from which strands of light trail across the view against a background of yellow and orange.  Not knowing the title my musings on this extraordinary imagery were free to roam.  What I saw was a kind of restitution: from stillness to movement; from entrapment to liberty; from despair to joy.  And in every such interpretation the central panel was essential – far from moving straight from one state to its opposite, the transformation, wrought by light itself, was the location in which the viewer is poised, just as throughout life every person is in a state of continual transformation.  The question of what kind of transformation we aspire to is the one we ask ourselves in the silence of a Quaker meeting; and what we’re seeking in that same space is a transformation of ourselves and society wrought by light.

‘Dawn of Creation’, Adam Boulter 2001, hanging in the Cadbury Room, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Bournville (photograph Simon Watkins)

Read more about ‘This Light that Pushes me’ here.

A better image of Adam Boulter’s original painting as well as more of his work can be seen at www.adamboulter.co.uk.

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