Benedict and the Speed of Light: How the pope called us toward the quickened life of God
Light moves very slowly at Harvard. That’s because Prof. Lene Vestergaard Hau did what what Einstein himself would have had difficulty imagining: she harnessed light. The key to doing so was figuring out how to super-cool atoms so that they acted as if they were just one, dense, nebulous atom. With the help of some nifty lasers used to cross-manipulate sodium atoms (like the ones found in table salt), Hau was able to cool these atoms to just a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero, creating a cloud of the coldest matter in the universe. This cloud is capable of taming and even containing light. So when Hau sent a pulse of light moving at 186,000 miles/second into this cloud, she was able to slow the light down to first 38 miles/hour, then 15 miles/hour and now even 1 mile/hour. This means that a person could crawl faster than the speed of light. Hau has refined her technique so well that she can even trap light indefinitely in her atom cloud. The virtually unfathomable speed of light is, in her laboratory, reduced to commonplace human terms.
Pope Benedict XVI may not know about Prof. Hau and he certainly has never been to her laboratory. Nevertheless, he long ago grasped what she has now managed to achieve. In a way, his entire career as a theologian and even his last eight years as pope are characterized by the persistent critique of the modern urge to draw in and enclose, calling the world instead to open up and head outwards.
Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is about what is most fundamental to life: love, and in particular, the love of God in which we come to have life. In Benedict’s biblically informed imagination, this love is not characterized solely as a taking in, but springs forth as outward motion. In what is perhaps the clearest and most vivid description of love that the encyclical offers, Benedict writes that, for us, “Love… [is] a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed discovery of God” (DCE§6). Love does not take in and hold on, but rather accepts and gives. Love moves.
The “closed inward-looking self” is the distinguishing mark of a fallen creation that slows and even traps the light of life. One of the distinctive phenomena of modernity is that this mark is impressed upon individuals and institutions, persons and peoples, cultures and religions alike. In attending to the multiple manifestations of this dangerous inwardness, Benedict has really been the first pope of modernity, the one whose vision and ministry from beginning to end was about pointing out this incurving and proclaiming the liberating call of the Gospel in modern life.
The consistency of his thought on this point is evident even from a brief survey of the topics covered in his corpus. In his economic thought, he espouses a basic vision of the economy that requires gratuitousness in order to function healthily and in accord with the flourishing of individuals and of society as a whole. An economy that closes in on the maximization of capital and the accrual of wealth becomes an instrument of dehumanization. Economies that do not allow for the multiplicity of public interests in the marketplace quickly detach from their fundamental connection to the public good and the value of allowing persons and peoples to beneficially relate to one another through commercial interactions. All justice, and especially economic justice, requires charity (see Caritas in Veritate).
Benedict considers cultures in similar terms. For him, cultures arise in accord with the basic definition of the human person—who is a true person to the extent that she is open to others, and ultimately open to God. Likewise, a culture is a true culture—a healthy culture, a human culture—in large part to the extent that it is open to what is different than itself. Cultures as a whole are oriented toward interaction and communication, not to isolation and self-preservation. As Benedict writes, “Whatever elements in any culture exclude such opening up and such cultural exchange represent what is inadequate in a culture, because the exclusion of what is different is contrary to human nature” (Truth and Tolerance60). Thus, cultures do not curve inward and lock otherness out, but rather seek to express themselves outwards and authentically encounter that which is different.
The same dichotomy between enclosing and opening shapes the way in which Benedict views reason itself. Systems of thought—philosophies—that setup their own limits and standards for verification become closed to the very truth they purport to seek. The history of philosophy is the story of one self-asserting certainty after another attempting to provide the definitive meaning of everything else. The only thing that breaks this prideful habit of the human mind is the openness to that which comes from outside of itself: namely, revelation. Only that which can be taken on faith—as first given before thought up or understood—can release humanity from its addiction to explaining life in its own terms. Faith is the openness, in trust, to that which—or the One who—comes from outside and unlocks the closed meaninglessness of humanity left to its own devices. Reason, for Benedict, must open to faith, and faith must serve reason by guiding and correcting it (Introduction to Christianityand Faith and the Future, among others).
The Modern Impulse
A hallmark of modernity is the unwillingness to allow light to pass through on its own terms. Modernity is averse to transparency. Modernity is partly characterized by the urge to claim something for oneself, whether for profit, self-promotion or prestige. The lightis not the thing that matters in modernity; rather, the one who counts is the one who can see the light, judge it, seize it and wield it. This is the foundation of “the dictatorship of relativism,” where individual truths trump any claim to universal truth. The modern person, institution and philosophy do not try to speed up or stretch towards the racing light. It slows the light down to its manner of reckoning.
Holiness, for Benedict, is allowing oneself to be taken up into the quickened life of God. Saints show the light as it is, not as they wish it to be. In their intense particularity, saints allow God’s light to shine through them, becoming a “spectacle” for the world to see. As Benedict testifies, “the Spirit of God has given life with admirable imagination to a multitude of men and women saints, of every age and social condition, of every language, people and culture” (Holiness is Always in Season). These holy ones do not claim the light for themselves, nor do they seek to slow it down. Instead, they forget themselves in allowing it to pour forth through their very lives.
This description of holiness is reminiscent of a story we have told at Notre Dame Vision for years. It is a story that I believe is true, though the frequency of its retelling makes the origin less certain. As the story goes, a young girl is sitting in a church with her father during Sunday morning Mass. The light of the mid-morning sun is streaming through the stained-glass windows on the east side of the church, painting the pews in an array of colors. The girl looks up at the stained-glass, taps her father on the arm, and asks, “Daddy, who are those people in the windows?” Her father answers, “Well, honey, those are the saints.” He waits several moments for her to ask her inevitable follow-up question, but the question never comes. But later that day after Mass, a question does arise when the little girl is sitting in CCD. Her teacher asks her class if anyone knows who the saints are. The girl’s hand shoots up into the air. With an air of simple certainty she says, “the saints are the ones the light shines through.”
Portals of Grace
This is what Benedict has been trying to teach us for the last eight years, and for decades before that. We are not who we are created to be unless we open ourselves up, risk becoming a portal of grace and imagination and head out of ourselves to others. This is why he cautioned us against liturgies that create circles of self-reflection and self-admiration, challenging us instead to look together towards the Oriensand the coming of God (Spirit of the Liturgy). It is why he has repeatedly called us into communion with one another on the basis of the Lord’s Prayer itself, which breaks down our barriers of isolation and consumption for the sake of quickened self-giving. As he wrote in one of his later books, “the word our[in the Our Father] is really rather demanding: it requires that we step out of the closed circle of our ‘I’. It requires that we surrender ourselves to communion with the children of God” (Jesus of Nazareth 141). These words speak to a trust in an identity we are given, not one which we can claim for ourselves, as our own private possession. Progress and innovation are not the measures of this identity; love alone is.
As Tim O’Malley already observed, this might also be the best way to understand Benedict’s surprising decision to resign his office. The Pontiff is handing over what was never his to claim: he is letting the light pass through him even if it means that he will disappear from the public eye. The pope’s words at the Sunday Angelus of February 17 indicate as much: “In the decisive moments of life, or, on closer inspection, at every moment in life, we are at a crossroads: do we want to follow the ‘I’ or God? The individual interest or the real good, that which is really good?” In his career as teacher of the faith, he has tried to persuade others of the answer. In his last act as pope, he is yet again enacting that answer.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that, “[t]he Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone: like light and mirrors. But the light’s the thing” (Great Divorce). The flowing of the light has been the single preoccupation of Pope Benedict’s ministry. He continues to challenge the world to avoid becoming clouded in its own complacency, cooled in its own callousness and self-confidence. Economies are meant for the sharing of goods, cultures for the exchange of gifts and reason for the reception and appreciation of what faith gives. The liturgy refers us to the God who comes to us, while prayer draws us out of ourselves.
What happens in laboratories is meant to serve man who serves God, not serve man as if he were God. If a professor at Harvard can slow or even trap light with the use of lasers and table salt, then this too can be used for “that which is really good.” But the true light of life can never be slowed or trapped, and to seek to do so is to become a contradiction to oneself. To put oneself, or even the whole world, above the power of this light will only ever prevent the light from being seen. This light must shine through us, for this light is what Benedict believes saves our world.
“Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the invitation I would like to extend” (Deus Caritas Est).