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Paul Vallely: The light of spring symbolises hope

01 April 2009

Despite technology, people are instinctively cheered by light, says

They were all very up­beat at the gym this week. It was because, the clocks having gone forward, it was light outside all through our six-o’clock session. Many remarked on the fact that it was “nice to be going home in the light”. One chap went further, waxing lyrical about the glum industrial estate in Salford which he sees from his office window, and telling how the grim warehouse and railway vista had been transformed when four trees burst into blossom.

There is something that lifts the soul about the brilliance of that white blossom. It seems to mark a turning point in the progression of the days. First, the pink of the camellia pierces the glowering winter gloom. Next, the snowdrops and crocuses thrust through the iron soil like little sentinels of the vanguard of spring. But the cherry blossom is the real harbinger. Now the pear tree is in bud, and it will not be long before the neighbours’ magnol­ias, in their closed creamy-pink tightness, pop into their blowsy fullness. The world brightens.

Light has been vital to religious thought since history began, and no doubt long before. Plato rationalised it, saying that the sun provides heat, through which people and things can exist, but also the light that allows us to see, enabling the perception through which our beliefs proceed.

Yet humankind knew that intuitively before Plato, and most religions treat light as a symbol of life and immortality, just as darkness is the realm of chaos and death. Blind people have been complaining recently about such imagery, and that of sight and blindness as metaphors for wisdom and the lack of it. Political correctness has brought us new sensitivities in such matters; so people are rewriting “Amazing Grace”. But such exceptional­ism will always struggle against the norms of the majority’s shared experience.

It is the festivals of light which are perhaps most prominent in religious life — Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, and the rest — where light is seen as a symbol of hope in the darkness of winter, a reminder that resurrection is to come. But it is the spring of Easter that delivers on this promise, and it is the sunlight streaming through the morning windows, infusing itself through our beings, that expresses this more fully than can the symbol of the vigil fire.

Interviewing unemployed people recently, two things struck me. The first is the implicit con­tempt in the modern practice of not even replying to unsuccessful applicants for a job, which so de­mora­lises many of those who have been made redundant. But the second is the shift towards a nocturnal pattern of living into which many unemployed people slip. There is nothing to get out of bed for; so they sleep till midday, and then stay up into the small hours watching mind-numbing television or aimlessly surfing the internet. They have been alienated from the work rhythm that is our social norm, and have dev­eloped a lifestyle that mirrors that estrange­ment.

We tend to think technology has de-seasonalised us. We turn on the lights after dark, and the heating in winter and air-conditioning in summer. But we inhabit a universe of powerful light and deep shadows. Scientists some while ago diagnosed seasonal affective disorder to explain why some people, women more than men, grow depressed in the waning light of winter. About one in ten people are said to suffer to some degree, more in the Nordic countries and fewer in sunnier places.

It is a truth that the builders of medieval cathed­rals understood. A theology of light was embodied in their architectural practice: shafts of light from unseen windows illumine the darkest areas in which we hide. “God is light,” says John the Evangelist more simply. When the clocks go for­ward, something atavistic within us seems instinc­tively to acknowledge that.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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