In Your light, we see light:

a walk with St. Augustine


When we begin our journey of meditation (and we are, in a sense, always beginning), it’s a little like setting off to slowly walk up a mountain.

At the foot of the mountain, we cannot see very far. The horizon is obscured by the bushes and trees that surround us.

Holding our thoughts and the content of our moment-to-moment experience close, it’s difficult to see beyond them. Grasping the illusory sense of self that is derived from the constant activity of the body-mind, we are convinced there is someone here who can’t see very far.

After a little deliberation (and double-checking that we packed our sandwiches), we set off on the path up the mountain. And after walking for a couple of hours, we decide it’s time to sit down and have a short rest.

Lifting our water bottle to our lips, we notice how far we’ve come already. The bushes and trees that clustered close around us at the foot of the mountain, now look small and distant, almost like toys. Looking out over the opening countryside, something within us starts to relax. We begin to sense how small we are, and don’t mind at all.

Slowly, steadily, we push on, keeping our eyes on the path before us. Concentrating a little more now on putting one foot in front of other, our breaths and steps fall into a quiet harmony.  

An hour or so later (much to our happy relief), we finally reach the top. And looking out towards the distant horizon something wonderful happens.

Suddenly, beholding the vastness and beauty before us, we forget ourselves, disappearing in this moment of quiet awe.

All that is left is wholeness, connectedness, as if all the moving pieces of our life have silently fallen into place.

We disappear and discover ourselves extraordinarily here.

Sometime later (we’re not sure how much time has slipped past, but the air is noticeably cooler), we start to make our way back down, and after an hour or so pause for a half-way rest.

Being good contemplative types, we’ve brought a volume of St. Augustine’s homilies on the Gospel of John. Taking it out of our rucksack it falls open and our eyes come upon the words, “He must increase, I must decrease.”[1]

The words echo and resonate deeply in us. The sense of what we encountered at the top of the mountain flows quietly through us again.

From our perspective, everything seems to have changed. Yet everything is just as it was, just as it is. From God’s perspective, nothing has changed. We have touched “the open country whose name is prayer.”[2]

“He must increase, I must decrease.”

In a teaching on these words,[3] St. Augustine says that the more we know God, the more we understand, it seems as if God grows in us – but that God does not grow or change in any way.

What grows is our understanding. What appears as the growth of God within us, is actually our growth within God, the opening of awareness, as we become increasingly present to God’s ever-present presence.

As our spiritual sight is restored, as all that obstructs the eye of awareness is gently washed away, we begin to see light; a little at first, then a little more, and then yet more. It seems at first that the light is growing within us. But the light is complete and doesn’t grow or change in any way. We are full of light – light from light – whether we can see it or not.

“It is like that too with your inner self,” says Augustine, “you make progress in God, and God seems to grow in you; yet in fact you are diminishing.”[4] Augustine is not saying that who we really are diminishes, but that our idea of who we are diminishes in the light of awareness. As the Psalmist sang, “In your light, we see light.”[5] In your light, we see who we are, that we are light from light.

Our simple practice is to say our prayer word (or short phrase) in union with the flow of our breath. We let go of our thoughts, our feelings, the content of our moment-to-moment experience.  We let go of the illusory sense of a solid, separate self that is derived from the constant, changing activity of the body-mind. We let go of all that obscures who we are and veils the light within.

“When that which is complete appears,” says St. Paul, “what is partial will fall away.”[6]  “At present we see by way of a mirror, obscurely, but then face to face. As yet I know partially; but then I shall know fully, just as I am fully known.”[7]

Whatever happens in our life, whatever suffering befalls us, whatever suffering we might have caused others, as St. Teresa of Avila reminds and encourages us, “The fountainhead that shines like the sun from the centre of the soul never loses its radiance. It is ever-present within the soul and nothing can diminish its beauty.”[8] 

[1] John 3:30.

[2] Evagrius, Chapters on Prayer, chapter 61.

[3] Homily 14, The Works of St. Augustine, A Translation for the 21st Century, Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40, trans Edmund Hill O.P. (New City Press, 2009), 264-265.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Psalm 36:9.

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:10.

[7] Ibid. 13:12.

[8] St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, trans. Miribai Starr, (New York: Riverhead Books) 2003, p.42.

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