I have always loved going to art galleries and museums since I was very young. Part escape, part inspiration, whatever the reason they have been places that have spoken to me. Some paintings leave a particular mark, and I can still through the fragments of memory remember the first time I saw a special work and the feelings or sense they left me with. One of those is ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ which was displayed in Pollok House in Glasgow and which I saw first on a school trip. I can still remember the sense of my breath being stolen by the enigmatic wistful beauty of the piece and in particular the quality of light and shadow that the artist had managed to convey.
The painting was attributed at the time to El Greco though recent research has established that it is not actually one of his pieces. Be that as it may, at the time it started for me a fascination with the work of El Greco or more accurately a fascination with the way different painters portrayed light in their work. El Greco is a master with light and is well recognised for his use of intense light and deep shadow. Through the interplay of both he creates mystery and magic on canvas.
Light for anyone who has lived as I have in places in the north, in my case Orkney and Skye, is a hugely significant reality especially at this time of the year when days are so short, and the night seems to cloak its darkness around us for so long.
As we approach Christmas and especially after our shortest day on Friday I am reminded of the ancient Celtic and Gaelic emphasis upon light. There was a particular special place in community memory and reflection on the Celtic past in many Hebridean areas, initially sitting sympathetically alongside Catholic Christianity but later marginalised by Calvinist Presbyterianism. Such folklore and attention at this time of the year which I can well remember in the stories of my grandmother and her generation centred around Lugh who is the Celtic god of light and giftedness and is often designated as ‘The Shining One.’
Light is seen as the birther of all life. Without light there can be no life.
I have always thought of the care and compassion which is at the heart of social care as being about a different way of seeing life, of it being a light which chases the darkness of negativity and limitation and lets the positivity of possibility reign. If it is anything at all social care at its best is about the enabling of ourselves and others to achieve to our fullest potential. It is a bringing of light to the shadows of living, the enabling of illumination in the depths of hurt. It is a light which takes people beyond diagnosis and label to venture into living with conditions and finding wholeness where it can be found.
The ancient Gaels were fascinated by light and it was inextricably linked to how they saw community, how they perceived our inter-connectedness and how they envisioned the rhythm of our dance with the natural world and cosmos.
No one captures the Celtic sense of light and what it means for modern living better than the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue. In his final work ‘To Bless the Space Between US: A Book of Blessings’, O’Donohue argues that one of the asks of modern living is the need to re-discover our ability to bring blessing or light to another. He suggests there is a unique power in the relationship which is that of care and compassion to and through another.
‘There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life. Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken our longing. Our passion for life is quietly sustained from somewhere in us that is wedded to the energy and excitement of life. This shy inner light is what enables us to recognize and receive our very presence here as blessing.’
Despite all the challenges facing those who work and provide care support there is one thing that remains true, I believe, and that is the power of the care relationship to change life, in darkness to bring light.
This Christmas, as tens of thousands of women and men, in all weathers and in many circumstances will leave their own home and hearth to be with others, if there is any truer image of incarnating light and love in community, I do not know what it is.