Almost every morning, I sit down and perform the Quaker ritual of holding people in the light. Although I am not a Quaker, I have made this practice my own. In my version, I acknowledge the light of the Divine that surrounds and imbues us, hold my hands apart, and picture one person at a time bathed in this light. I do this for people I love and for people I like, and, in particular for people who are struggling with illness or other challenges. I do it for people I don't know personally and, on good days, I do it for people I struggle to like or accept. I conclude with a general holding of all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit. This, of course, covers pretty much everyone.
Lately, though, I have struggled to find the light. The short, grey, and drippy days of February affect me physically, psychologically, and spiritually. So, today, I’m going to share an edited and much-truncated version of a talk I gave at my Unitarian Universalist Church a few years ago. I share it because I need it now. Maybe it will help to pull you out of your February doldrums. I hope so.
I am sure that many of you have sung these lines:
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, shine, shine
Let it shine!
As a child, I sang this song with gusto. I knew I had a light. As an adult, I often find this hard to remember.
There is, I believe, a light within each of us. We know this light when we see it in others. I can see it, for instance, in the Dalai Lama. His light shines brightly, despite the hardships he and his people have suffered. I can see it in someone who is fully engaged with a person or animal or activity that is dear to her. It is often visible in the faces of parents upon greeting their newborn for the first time. And I sometimes see it in the dying people I visit as a hospice volunteer. Everything else is falling away, burned off by the light within.
I like to think of the light within each of us as a pilot light—a small flame that is used to light a larger flame, such as the pilot light on a gas stove. The important thing about a pilot light is that it is always burning, always available.
Because a pilot light burns low, it is possible for us to go through our days without noticing this light within. We may entirely forget that it is there. It is lost in busy-ness, worry, and distraction. We may forget that we are part of, and carry a piece of, something much larger than ourselves. We may forget that there is much more to the mystery surrounding our lives than our separate egos and the stories they tell us.
The poet William Wordsworth addressed this forgetfulness in his Ode on Intimations of Immortality. There, he wrote that at birth we come “not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home.”
He went on to describe how we keep sight of the light during our childhoods:
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
Following this hopeful image of youth resisting the prison-house of adult cares and the concerns of the world, Wordsworth sadly observes:
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
And yet, even as he laments the prison house, the loss of the Divine light, Wordsworth sees cause for celebration:
Oh Joy! That in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
So how do we recognize and remember that “something in our embers” that always burns within us? I think that for most of us, this requires quiet and stillness. If we sit in meditation for a few moments and imagine the light, maybe we will be able to find it. And if we can find the light in stillness, maybe we will be better able to remember and find it in the middle of the noise and busy-ness of our lives.
After we have recognized our pilot light, the next step is to figure out how to use it to ignite a larger flame within us. I have a friend who ignites her flame by climbing mountains. For me, it is immersing myself in my garden. Writing. Spending time alone. I don’t know what it is for you. Maybe it is hang-gliding. Or prayer. Or meditation. Whatever calls to you, I believe that when we fully engage in activities where we feel most ourselves, we are both feeding the light within and feeding from it.
And not only does our pilot light keep our flame alive, it also acts as a pilot in another way, guiding us forward on our path, if only we will follow where it leads. And I am pretty sure, that it will often lead us in the direction of others, asking us to share our flames.
But maybe you think you have no light to share. You have been wounded, physically or spiritually. You think your pilot light is out or is too dim to ignite a flame worth sharing. It is true that there may be times when our energy is so low that it is all we can do to wrap ourselves around our pilot light and wait. But I don’t think it is ever true that our pilot light goes out. And I don’t believe that our woundedness prevents us from owning and sharing our light.
The late Leonard Cohen famously sang:
Ring the bell that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
What if the light goes both ways? What if the crack is also how the light gets out? If you think about it, isn’t it often our woundedness that opens our hearts and gives rise to the compassion that will lead us to shine our lights for others? None of us gets out of this life without being tested and pounded by our experiences. But it is this very pounding that softens us and allows our light to shine through our thinned and cracked exteriors and outward to others.
Wounds or no, our little lights can and will shine.
In seeking the courage to find and follow our little lights, we might remember that, in the middle of the last century, This Little Light of Mine was an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. When we sing the words of this song, we would do well to hear it for what it was for those who made up this movement: A song of radical defiance and courage. The people in this movement refused to hide their lights. Indeed, they shone their lights in life-threatening situations.
If they could do this, so can we.
Spring is coming, friends.
We can find and shine our lights.