The Divine Palette

An old and dear Friend died this week. And it made me think, once iagain, about the Light Within.

My initial thought was that with her passing some of the Divine Light at our meeting had gone with her. But with a little more thought it struck me that her Light still lives on. It is in those who knew her and those for whom her Light led the way.

It also occurred to me as I let my mind run free—that somewhere at the very moment of her death a baby was born. And with that newborn came a piece of God’s Light never before manifested in human consciousness. At the risk of being too melodramatic, this is a newly lighted window into the Divine Mansion.

We hold dear as a tenet that there is that of God in everyone. I learned that early as a Quaker. But even now, four decades into this religion, I continue to struggle with the idea. Clearly the Light does not shine brilliantly through everyone. There are some people in whom that Light is difficult to see.

There are even some people in whom the essence of evil can be seen in their eyes. Where in all of them is the Light of the Divine that I am supposed to see if I am a good Quaker? I constantly struggle with this idea.

I suppose, like most Quakers, I must admit that the Light is in there but that there are too many layers covering it and it cannot shine through. We are each asked to remove those layers—to deconstruct our egos—and to become vulnerable so that that Light can emerge.

It is undoubtedly a difficult task, for we spend a lifetime defining ourselves by that very ego. It tells us, and the world, who we are. But in the end, that ego is also an obstacle to our spiritual journey. God asks us, the ones who manufactured that ego and for whom it affords protection against the world, to be the ones to dismantle it.

Who better to understand the foundation of our own ego? Who better than the one who made it, to be earmarked to remove it?

Still, we often cannot do it. And it takes someone else to help us.

Or, in turn, we need to help others strip away their layers to ultimately expose this "other-worldness," so they can become vulnerable to the world around them.

I believe this with all my heart. And perhaps that is why, when I cannot see that Light in some people, I feel so terribly inadequate and unspiritual.

My wife helped me enormously with this dilemma. She put it into a medical analogy. (I should’ve expected no less from a retired nurse.) She said, "It is like a person with an illness. For most sicknesses we can all help. Each of us can offer aspirin or remove a splinter, administer cough medicine or cover a wound with a Band-Aid. But for some medical problems we need a specialist.

"Perhaps only in the hands of a skilled surgeon can the problem be corrected and that person restored to health. Is it really any different here?" she asked. It takes a spiritual surgeon to remove the obstacles that obscure the Divine Light in some people.

It was an idea that spoke directly to my condition, and one that has remained with me ever since.

Yet another aspect of this dearly held view about the Divine Light within has always disturbed me: it feels terribly egomaniacal. There is that of God in everyone, we say, regardless of race, gender, social status, or religion. It sounds good and all-encompassing—but not to me. I am a biologist, and perhaps that comes into play here.

I cannot help but think that there is that of God in everything: in the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, the plants and animals of the land, and much more. Two examples come quickly to mind as I ruminate on this matter. One involves a dog named Siriusly Black.

He was a miniature poodle whose owners allowed his hair to grow evenly over his body. He was seriously black and soft. You could not help but notice that, because he always insisted on greeting you by rubbing himself against your body.

He was the friendliest dog I ever met. I would like to think he had a special place in his heart for me, but I hear from others that he was like that with them too.

If there was ever a better manifestation of God’s love for everyone, I never saw it. It was as if that part of God in him walked cheerfully over the Earth and greeted that of God in others regardless of race, gender, or religion—but also regardless of species.

That sweet dog had more wag than he had body. It began in his tail, undulated its way through his entire body, and ultimately forced his head to shake back and forth with more uncontrolled joy than I’ve ever seen. But it didn’t end there. It seemed to continue out beyond his nose into the open space and made the very air molecules in front of him vibrate.

If there is a better example of God’s sheer, unadulterated joy, I have not seen it.

And then there were the birds: a red one, a blue one, and a yellow one. I met them one summer afternoon while sitting on my deck. By disposition, bluebirds, cardinals, and goldfinches tend to be very shy—but not this year.

The bluebirds nest in a box we have set up for them on our clothes line pole, rather near the house. They seem comfortable being that close to us as witnessed by the fact that they often bring off two sets of young in a season.

The goldfinches, too, have become accustomed to us. We have a feeder for them in the corner of our deck in full view. The goldfinches and I often eat at the same time of day: they at the feeder and I at the table. We talk to each other throughout the meal—pleasant dinner conversation really. It is as if that of God in them and in me communicate in a language foreign to each of us yet totally understandable to both.

These two bird species, goldfinch and bluebird, have become part of our summer ritual after all these years. But this year something new was added that sent this combination to a new level. It was a disheveled cardinal.

By normal standards, this bird was not the most beautiful cardinal I’ve ever seen, certainly not on the outside. He looked a bit unkempt and not the brilliant red color we typically think of when we picture a cardinal. Yet, from the first day I met him, I knew there was something different about this bird.

He and his mate nested in a small, cramped space beneath the deck. I suspect that they selected that site to avoid our young cat, who has demonstrated his adeptness at hunting all summer long. Each day he delivers his bounty at our back door.

They stayed on, long after they had finished rearing their young. For the rest of the summer they visited a second feeder that we have on that wonderful deck.

The male cardinal has exhibited some very unusual behaviors. He seems fascinated with proximity to us. He sits on a favorite deck chair, on window ledges, and even on a small table in front of the family room sliding door. All the while he continues talking in that characteristic high tone that is the language of cardinals. He does this even as he lunges at the screen trying to get into the house.

I wish I could understand what he wants—what he is trying to tell me. I struggled with this all summer and it made me regret my ineptness. It makes me wonder again where and how our species had lost its ability to read the signs of nature.

And then it came together on that late summer afternoon. We had all taken up our positions as usual, and were in the process of greeting each other. But this time it was different. On this day they noticed each other. And I suspect it was that cardinal who started it.

It was a beautiful thing to see. It began slowly and with some trepidation. But before long all the birds began to fly large circles around each other against that clear summer sky at sunset. They flew with such speed and grace that their colors almost blended together: the blue one, the yellow one, and the red one.

I remained riveted until their dance played itself out. I had to stay and see it to its finale for I sensed that this was important. I took that dance with me for many weeks. It never left me, regardless of what I was doing. I could easily picture it in my mind’s eye.

But no matter how I tried, I could not find its meaning. And so I let it go. Perhaps, as important as this event felt, I was not the one to unravel its meaning.

But as so often happens, when we put our mind to sleep our soul will soar. And mine did. Somehow, unexpectedly the meaning became clear to me: these are the primary colors, I thought—red, blue, and yellow.

These birds were showing me the Divine Palette. From these primary colors all those wonderful and brilliantly blended colors in nature that our eyes can scarcely behold are created. These birds were manifesting the hand of God at work.

Immediately, my mind turned to 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13, in which we are told what the primary colors for our own individual palettes should be. They are faith, hope, and love. From these, if we blend them properly, all else will come to pass. This is what we need: these three, the greatest of which is love.

So I rested now, having solved my dilemma. I will carry this idea with me for the rest of my life and will remain forever grateful to those birds.

As informative as Sirius and the birds were at manifesting God’s Light, it is clear there is a difference in the Light within them and the Light within a human being. Perhaps I should say there is a difference in the availability of that Light.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her New York Times bestseller, says, "True yogis . . . see all this world as an equal manifestation of God’s creative energy—man, woman, children, turnips, bedbugs, coral; it’s all God in disguise."

She continues, however, to say, "A human life is a very special opportunity, because only in human form and only with the human mind can God-realization occur." The turnips, the bedbugs, the coral—they never get a chance to find out who they really are. But we do have that chance."

When I first read this, I thought: How clearly and simply she puts it, but how difficult it is to do.

For ultimately, that Divine Light cannot be delineated—neither in space nor through time. It is eternal and boundless. It always was and always will be. In the end, it is beyond human understanding. It is certainly beyond the brain that nature has given us. But perhaps not beyond the mind that we developed from life’s experiences.

Still, it is a task, however difficult, that we must undertake. For as St. Augustine once said, "Our whole life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen."

We did not create this Inner Light, but it is our calling to care for it. We need first to discover that piece of God’s Divine Light in ourselves and then, as Augustine suggests, to spend a lifetime nurturing it.

For to sin against the Light that is given to us, both unbidden and undeserved, is unforgivable.

Dean C. T. Bratis

Dean C.T. Bratis, a member of Uwchlan Meeting in Downingtown, Pa., taught biology and genetics at Delaware County Community College in Media, Pa., from 1970 to 1999. After a brief retirement he has resumed teaching, now at Villanova University.