The play of light and ‘the invisible Sun’  

25 November 2016

Mark Oakley considers a literary declaration with a long pedigree

 

Six Facets of Light
Ann Wroe
Jonathan Cape £25
(978-1-91070-232-1)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

 

 

WHEN Thomas Traherne was given an unused notebook by his friend Susannah Hopton, it made him reflect. “An Empty Book is like an Infants Soul. . . It is Capable of all Things, but containeth Nothing. I have a Mind”, he wrote, “to fill this with Profitable Wonders.” He achieved his intention by writing
his Centuries of Meditations in its clean pages.

Ann Wroe, the obituary writer of The Economist, is a skilled admirer of Traherne, and her latest book of meditations, Six Facets of Light, stands very much in his tradition of seeing immense glory in minute particulars. It is also a book similarly filled with profitable wonders, a beautiful chorus to the world we
call “natural”.

Wroe is known as a biographer — from Pontius Pilate to Shelley — but here she turns her attention to light. Having bought a flat in Brighton, she began to walk on the Downs and the coastline of East Sussex. Her observations and tumbling associations are joyful and poignant, creating what she calls “a love song to light, sung by myself and the various poets and painters, of many eras, who have walked along with me”.

She keeps good company: Blake, Turner, Hopkins, Clare, Whitman, Einstein, Messaien, Coleridge . . . — the list is endless and intoxicating. If one of them is holding the com­pass on this collaborative journey, it is Eric Ravilious, a local artist of the early decades of the 20th century, who captured the plays of light on chalk paths, fireworks, vapour trails, and the Asham cement works.

People of faith talk a great deal about light, and we would do well to learn more about it from Wroe’s quick-eyed love of it. The incarna­tional heartland of Christian faith is described in the creed as being Lumen de Lumine.

This book explores both the source and the myriad manifesta­tions of light, though as mysterious to understand and express as all other essential elements of our being alive. It is also a book unafraid to reflect on the God who, according to Meister Eckhart, was “a light shining in itself in silent darkness . . . elf-poised in absolute stillness” before speaking his Word into being.

It is hard to finish reading Wroe’s “profitable wonders” without con­cluding, with Thomas Browne, that “Life is a pure flame and we live by an invisible Sun within us.”

 

Canon Mark Oakley is Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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