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Fiat Lux

Light. The first Light. “Let there be Light,” said the Lord God, and it was so.

Light is both humble and holy, practical and profound. Modern artificial light, electric light, is a wonder that we take for granted. I like to remind myself from time to time what a small miracle it is to get up in the pitch (wonderful word, that) dark, hit a switch, and instantly flood a room with light. Yes, candles and lamps can be romantic, but give me the good old incandescent (or the good new fluorescent) anytime. We must have a half-dozen of those handy little LED flashlights around the house because the old guy who lives here (me) NEVER HAS ENOUGH LIGHT to satisfy himself! (That dimness and people’s not speaking up are probably the two major causes of oldsters’ crotchetiness.) So let’s hear it for light, I say.

Light—natural light—comes from stars, of course, stars like our own sun, and there is really no substitute for it. This is daylight, and neither our bodies nor our souls can do without it for very long. I am told that Norway sends teams of psychiatrists up to its northern reaches to help the people cope with their long winter darkness. Light comes at us at 186,000 miles a second, which is also the implacable speed limit of the universe. And light is both a wave and a particle, one of the neatest tricks in physics, so it may be—might be—both matter and energy at the same time. Better minds than mine are still wrestling with that.

Something else about light is that we have two meanings for it: light as opposed to dark and light as opposed to heavy. They appear to be etymologically connected, but if I read my dictionary aright they are more like cousins than siblings. Together they take up over ten column inches in that desk dictionary, more if you include “lights” as lungs (“lights and vitals”) and “light” as in lighting into someone or “light” as in Huck Finn’s lighting out for the territory. Strange word. To be light on one’s feet is to be graceful, but to make light of something is to trivialize it, to deny it its due. To tread lightly is to be tactful and sensitive, but to punch someone’s lights out is to render him unconscious. To see the light is to finally understand and to change one’s ways. Saul saw the light big time on the road to Damascus.

It is that light, the opposite of darkness, that resonates most with us. My Bartlett’s devotes a page and half in its index to “light” and it is almost exclusively to that visual sense of the word, the light that our eyes take in. Dylan Thomas prayed that his father would “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Gatsby believed in the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s dock. “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” says Othello. “You are the light of my life,” says many a swain. Christ is the light of the world.

This wonk came to me in a flash (pun intended) as I was driving to a friend’s house last Sunday morning. I was listening to a CD of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, a piece that the UNM Chorus and Orchestra performed under his direction five or six years ago. The work is so beautiful that I had to pull over because I was tearing up too much to drive. Lauridsen builds a Gothic cathedral of soaring sound, a sound out of the Middle Ages but somehow of every Age. Right there and then I knew that I had to take a stab at the subject even if I failed miserably.

We arrive, finally then, at Requiem Aeternam, the prayer for the dead:

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis

Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Perpetual light, everlasting light, eternal light. This is the promise and the hope. This is why old Shea was weeping softly in the breakdown lane.

We have come full circle: Fiat lux...lux aeterna. May the peace of the season be with you all.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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