At the Right Angle:
A Photo Essay on Light and Refraction
“Dad, go out the front door and look to your left.” Evelyn and Lisa had not been in the car for two minutes, heading to school, when they called on the phone. At first I thought Evelyn had forgotten her shoes again.
“What is it?” I asked her.
“Go look! It is an enormous rainbow!”
I walked out the front door of our house, turned left, and immediately saw the largest and thickest rainbow I have ever seen. Two of them in fact. It looked like someone had taken paint and honestly wiped it across the sky with their fingers. The rainbow was so bold that I could see the violet side of the Roy G. Biv spectrum, which I don’t usually see.
It was beautiful, and I couldn’t turn away. I ran back inside, grabbed my phone, and returned to try my best to capture it in a photo.
I noticed immediately that it had shifted a bit. While it was still bold, I couldn’t remember exactly where I had stood before. Or maybe the earth had rotated in that minute’s time. It was clear that the angle was different, and it wasn’t quite as bold as it had been.
In physics class we learned the scientific basis of rainbows, how light is refracted through the particles of water and splits into its component wavelengths. This is how we get this seven-fold gift painted across the sky, what we learned in school as Roy G. Biv: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. As an aside, Indigo remains the most intriguing to me.
Needless today, it was a wonderful way to begin a day: standing on the driveway in pajamas, holding an umbrella, and trying to take a photo while neighbors and school busses drove by seemingly oblivious to the miracle painted above their heads.
I got dressed and drove to the office to begin my day, feeling light with that interesting tickle in my gut that tells me to keep my eyes open. I have learned to pay attention to that feeling over the years, that anticipatory angel that whispers in our ears if we can quieten just enough to listen.
After spending a while in my office, I needed to walk to the other side of the campus to check on things. As I turned the corner in the connecting corridor, I was stopped in my tracks by sheer beauty and color. It is the only way to describe the light and the display of grace that filled the hallway around me.
The children had recently begun painting a new window in the corridor, partly to obscure the enormous air conditioner unit but mainly to cultivate a practice of prayer, art, and creativity. They had chosen to paint an image of a candle in one of the windows, and they had reached a point where they had painted the color but had not yet filled in the black lines between the segments. The margins were left open, giving space for another miracle to flow through.
The richness of the colors caught my eye and held my attention until I realized that the floor was covered with the outline from the light flowing through the image itself. It was a double dose of grace squeezed into a hallway that normally feels more like an office waiting room than a chapel. Luckily I had my phone and camera, so I tried to capture the moment to help me remember the experience.
Later, when I went back to see it, I realized how fortunate I was to have gone at that earlier moment when the break in the clouds and the particular angle of the sun and the window had enabled the light to do what light often does: give us a glimpse of a miracle.
These two moments transfixed me for the next several days, inspiring me to actually write that Sunday’s sermon as a photo essay rather than whatever my scattered form normally is. These experiences of light and refraction (that would have made my physics teachers so very proud) helped illuminate a part of Sunday’s Gospel reading that I had overlooked for fifteen years.
The lectionary reading from the end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel brings us to this moment when John the Baptizer is speaking with his followers, sharing with them his own experience of baptizing Jesus and seeing signs in the sky with a message of Jesus’s belovedness as the water poured over him. I sat down later that day to read the text again and make notes, and two particular lines made me catch my breath.
When John is describing all this, he tells them:
“This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Were you caught at the same point I was? I myself did not know him. But, here’s the thing: didn’t he? My heart immediately went to the story of the Visitation when Mary goes to see Elizabeth, with that beautiful encounter of these two pregnant cousins blessing each other. They were family, and they each speak to the way that God has fulfilled promises in their lives. Their mutual blessing spills out onto us with their prayers, including the Ave Maria or Hail Mary, and the Magnificat (both come from that encounter), with Elizabeth proclaiming “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary responds with “My soul magnifies the Lord…” (Luke 1).
John and Jesus were cousins, yet John tells his followers “I myself did not know him.” Not once, but twice he tells them that. I shut my books and sat for a while, wondering.
Here’s what I think the Spirit was stirring up in me: I remembered my experiences that day standing in those two locations at those moments and witnessing the beauty of light flowing in and refracting at just the right angle so that miracles were painted in front of my eyes. And I remembered what it felt like to come back even a bit later and realize that the angle had shifted, the earth had rotated, I couldn’t remember exactly where I was standing before, and things looked differently. It was now just a cloudy sky and the typical carpet and walls I see every day.
I myself did not know him. I wonder if the deeper heart-teaching here is that John had been standing in a certain place with the light coming like it always had in his life until, at that moment, by grace he found himself at just the right angle so that he could see the miracle with his own eyes.
At that moment of Jesus’ baptism, St. Luke describes it this way: the heaven was opened. St. Matthew describes it this way: And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. St. Mark is a bit bolder: And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
If what I’m feeling is even a bit true, then I can absolutely imagine John the Baptizer trying to describe this moment to those around him, thinking to himself: I really didn’t see it before. I thought I understood. I thought I knew. I myself did not know him.
But boy I do now.
Here is what I am learning from this reflection today, and it goes back to what we have been discussing for these past few years in terms of a contemplative posture, that stance we take within our hearts and within a spiritual community that nurtures our openness to receiving the inflow of grace. I think the image of an angle helps us understand this. It is not that we cause the light to flow; the light is always flowing. We cannot force it or control it or contain it. It is there, and the reality is that this Light is the essence of our lives. But we are mostly blind to it.
Perhaps we can see our common life as being grounded in a desire to put ourselves at the right angle so that we can behold it. Notice what Jesus asks those who say they want to follow him in this same text: “What are you looking for?” Are your eyes open? Are you cultivating a posture that will help you to see? Is your vision obscured? These become essential questions for us as a spiritual community.
For me that day when I encountered these two glimpses, I remembered that story of Jacob wrestling the angel. When he woke from sleep, we remember that he realized he had not known, had not seen, the reality that was before him that entire time: surely the presence of the Lord was in this place, and I didn’t know it (Genesis 28).
The challenge–and it helps to name this out loud–is that we always want these peak experiences, these manifestations and moments of enlightenment. We want them to stay, and we want to control them. In a few weeks we will explore that profound moment at the Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John find themselves on the mountaintop with their impulse to “build three dwellings” to contain what they have beheld.
When it comes to these manifestations, the contemplative tradition’s wisdom teaches us that we don’t depend on them nor do we count on them. We give thanks when they happen–if they happen–and we move on and continue to put our trust in the presence of the Light that we cannot see but know in our hearts is there. This is pure faith, as Fr. Thomas Keating described it.
Our practice, both personally and communally, becomes grounded in the development of this posture that enables us to receive, out of gratitude. We focus on how we are standing, the condition of our spiritual hearts, our eyes and ears, our openness to the Light that is always flowing in and around us.
And suddenly, one day, our eyes see something that reminds us of the beauty of God’s grace that surrounds us and breathes life into us. We stand on our driveway holding an umbrella as the sky opens up above our head and we catch a glimpse.
And then we go back inside and live our lives a bit more consciously, with hearts full of gratitude.
I read this as I sit by Ken’s bed in Emory Hospice as he is close to passing from this life. Thankful for your words as I sit with him in this holy time.