Monday, December 10, 2007

December 10, 2007 - Not By Our Light

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, the most renowned teachers are those who, by adroit use of paradox and surprise, can teach lessons words alone could never bear.

A Zen master named Tokusan recalled how, when he was a student, he was visiting his teacher, Ryutan, in his hut. The two of them sat on the floor, drinking tea and discussing Zen deep into the night. After many hours of this, Ryutan said, "Perhaps it's time you went home."

Tokusan bowed obediently to his teacher and walked to the door. Standing in the doorway, he turned and remarked, "It's very dark outside."

Ryutan lit a lantern and suggested, "Why not take this?"

Just as Tokusan was reaching for the lantern, Ryutan blew out the flame.

Tokusan, it is said, suddenly understood the truth he was seeking.

Make of this baffling story what you will, at least it expresses the importance of light in our lives.

Light is a subject that was on my mind the other day, as I stood on a stepladder, hanging icicle Christmas lights from the eaves of our house. It was a nice day for it: unseasonably mild. If it weren't for those pesky little lights that always seem to get burnt out, causing whole sections of the string to go dead, I'd say I actually enjoyed the chore this year. (You'd think the light manufacturers would have solved this design problem by now – but no.) Anyway, when the task was finally completed, it felt good to go stand on the sidewalk and see how much the place has been transformed.

There's something deep in the human soul that looks for light, as the solstice approaches and the days grow ever shorter. We hang our feeble strings of lights, hoping to push back the night, but the task is futile. Our lights are as feeble as the Zen novice's lantern would have been, had his master allowed him to take it in hand.

When it comes time to venture out into the darkness of chronic illness, no human contrivance will be of much use. The light we really need comes from elsewhere.

I'm learning there's nothing I can do to light my own way through the darkness of this cancer journey. I can only look to the light that comes from above.

These lines of a hymn were written by William C. Dix on the day of Epiphany in 1860, as he himself was dealing with illness:

"As with gladness, men of old
Did the guiding star behold
As with joy they hailed its light
Leading onward, beaming bright
So, most glorious Lord, may we
Evermore be led to Thee....

Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide."

("As With Gladness, Men of Old")

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