One summer morning, I looked out the kitchen window and saw the sun starting to burn through the fog that often rolls in from the nearby Connecticut River. The sun was at the level of the treetops in my neighbor’s front yard, and shafts of golden light cut through the tall trees onto the broad expanse of lawn below. This other-worldly tableau lacked only a heavenly choir to complete the picture. My young granddaughter, who was visiting at the time, called it “God beams.” I rushed out with the digital camera I use for landscape work and began taking pictures. Only when I was nearly done did I discover there was no disc in the camera. By the time I loaded the disc and got back outside, the sun had burned through the fog, and the moment was lost. I am usually pretty careful about checking to make sure the disc Is in the camera, and the battery is charged. A rookie mistake, and I didn’t have the excuse of being a rookie.
Beyond the ethereal atmospherics, there was nothing that morning to suggest that God was actually about to attempt a landing on my neighbor’s lawn. And yet my granddaughter, who is not being raised in a religious household, did not hesitate to attach his name to the phenomenon. Heavenly beams are a bit of a cliché, of course. Light has long been associated with divinity -- but why? Theologian Paul H. Andrews traces it back to the universal experience of being born, when bright lights suddenly pierce the darkness of our nine-month gestation in the womb. He writes:
This frightening postpartum experience, universal among human beings, has helped shape the structure of the evolving human psyche. Though the ability to see develops from the time the fertilized ovum is attached to the wall of the uterus, the human being does not fully use its sight until it after it leaves the body of its mother and emerges into the world of daylight. Never again will a baby have the fresh experience of the sudden, powerful light of birth. It is a painful yet exhilarating experience.
Thereafter, the sudden appearance of a bright light may trigger powerful emotions associated with entering an entirely new realm of human experience.
An archetypal event of this type occurs in the Gospel of Luke, when a radiant figure appears to shepherds in Bethlehem to announce the birth of the Christ child, while a multitude of the heavenly host sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" The narrative notes that “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and [the shepherds] were filled with fear.”
Fear seems to be the dominant emotion when biblical figures encounter light from another world. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah has a vision of God on his throne as angels call, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." Isaiah reacts with dismay. “Oh woe is me,” he cries. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…” Similarly, when told that he cannot look upon God’s face and live, Moses hides himself in the cleft of a rock on Mt. Sinai as the Lord passes by. Even God’s reflected glory on his face is enough to send the Hebrew people fleeing in terror when Moses comes down from the mountain. Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul, encounters the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, where he is temporarily blinded by a light from heaven. He falls to the ground as a voice demands that he give an account of himself.
The German theologian Rudolph Otto coined the term “numinous” to characterize such events, from the Latin numen, signifying a divine power. These highly charged psychic experiences are often accompanied by heightened sensory stimulation. Paul H. Andrews argues that such phenomena are internally generated, which might account for Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai or Isaiah’s vision of God on his throne but not the shepherds’ collective encounter with a heavenly host at Bethlehem. Or consider the gospel account of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus and some disciples ascend a tall mountain where "he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light." Jesus communes with Moses and Elijah, both long departed frm the earthly ream by this time. The disciples propose that they erect three shrines, one each for the three of them, to commemorate this momentous event. But Jesus orders his disciples to say nothing about it.
I am only mildly regretful that I missed my moment with the God beams on my neighbor’s lawn. It’s not like I failed to get a shot of a flying-saucer landing or Sasquatch strolling down the street. All I have to do is keep my eye peeled the next time the sun breaks through the fog outside my kitchen window. The missed shot might have been lovely. But as my granddaughter’s characterization suggests, clichéd interpretations are hard to avoid when you picture golden shafts of light streaming from heaven. I note that Jesus was unenthusiastic about his disciples’ proposal to erect shrines to the Transfiguration. I find it a far greater artistic challenge to find God’s presence in scenes shot by the ordinary light of day.
Paul H. Andews, Essays on Numinosity
Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy