When Eileen and I moved to Pittsburgh, the darkness of winter took us by surprise. We had lived in Boulder, CO, home to 300 days of sunshine per year. Now we live a place that has 300 overcast days per year. For most of our winters here, that’s meant not seeing the sun for the entire month of February. And that sort of darkness is depressing.
The sun has a tremendous impact on our health. Exposure to light affects our immune system, our energy levels, our emotional health. Living without such benefits of sunlight, as we’ve discovered first hand, can easily lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (with its ironic acronym SAD). So this winter we actually invested in a blue light designed to mimic the sun’s life-giving rays. It works. If I sit next to it for just fifteen minutes in the morning (as I did today), I’m noticeably more energetic and amicable throughout the day.
Symeon the New Theologian was a monk and abbot in Constantinople in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. Early in his monastic life Symeon experienced the light of the Lord perceptibly within his own body. After this experience, Symeon longed to experience the light in such a way again. His Hymns of Divine Eros express his heartfelt longing to live only in the Light of Christ alongside a confident defense of his experience against his critics. Several times in his hymns Symeon uses the sun as an image analogous to the divine Light. This particular quote from Hymn 34 spoke to me this morning as I remembered why we have our blue light:
But if the created light does these things for you by its energy, / and enlightens your eyes and gladdens your soul, / and it grants you to see what you did not see before, / then when the creator of light shines in your soul, what will He not do, / He who said, ‘Let there be light,’ and immediately there was light?
The sun obviously bestows benefits on us with its light. How much more will the the spiritual light of Christ bless us when we seek Him, expose ourselves to His light, and sit still basking in His presence? Symeon asks, “if He will shine rationally in the heart / or in the mind like lightning or like a big sun, what will He be able to produce within an enlightened soul?” The answer Symeon gives, based on his own experience, is that the Light of Christ shining our souls produces true and clear knowledge of God. The Light produces true theology, based not on speculative philosophies, but on genuine experience of and relationship with God.
But how does Symeon say we should seek to expose ourselves to Christ’s light? In the next hymn, Symeon emphasizes contemplation of the mystery of Christ’s glory in heaven and His humility in the Incarnation. Contemplation comes alongside other ascetic practices for Symeon, but seems even more essential. Just as I have to sit still to soak in the rays of the sun (or my artificial blue light), our minds must learn to sit still to contemplate the mystery and glory of Christ. We have to ruminate on, brood on these truths in order for our minds to bask in the light of Christ. This is difficult, but the rewards are exponential, according to Symeon. May God grant us the grace of such stillness.