Malcolm Muggeridge attacks the Hell and praises the Heaven that lie around us. He was speaking in St. Giles' Cathedral on the opening of the Edinburgh Festival.
NVHEN I was thinking about this occasion and wondering what should be my theme, I suddenly realised. Of course, LIGHT. That's what I must talk about. Art and literature, all the works of the imagination. are concerned with light.
A Festival, like your Edinburgh one. if it is to be a true Festival must be a Festival of Light. Throughout the ages, as I looked back. I saw men always returning to this image of light. Holding up torches, setting candles in their shrines, lighting their way and one another's faces. "The lamp of the being of God," to quote a great poet of Christian mysticism, St. John of the Cross.
It was the beginning of the Creation. Let there be light! Fiat Lux! It is the favourite image in the New Testament of Jesus's mission among us— to bring light to them that live in darkness. It is the highest duty of those who follow Him —to let their light shine before men.
How wonderful it is LIGHT! How wonderful the dawn breaking; that very first promise of the light that will surely come! Wonderful especially to the sleepless who have kept watch through the night hours. wonderful however many times seen and rejoiced in.
In thy light shall we see light. So the Psalmist said, and Bunyan's Pilgrim was told, not just to look for the light and for the shining city set on a hill that was his destination, but to keep the light in his eye, so that when he lost his way and stumbled—as we all do and must—the light stayed with him.
The faces of the good and the uplifted do veritably shine, as Jesus's did so sublimely at the Transfiguration, and the saints in dying have spoken of luminous vistas opening up before them. Blake saw the sunrise as hosts of angels climbing up to Heaven, and St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians of how God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hash shined in our hearts. to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Always LIGHT.
This notion of a light which shines down upon us, bringing life and illumination, is, I suppose, very ancient. Sun-worshippers have felt something of the kind, seeing in the light of the sun the image of a beneficent deity who nourishes and animates all creation. Again, wise men in all ages and civilisations have sought the light —in terms of truth, in •terms of an ecstatic detachment from the insistent exigencies of the ego and the flesh, in terms of virtue. Light has always been on the side of the angels.
Then again, those who constructed this ancient building— which, for some reason that I do not fully comprehend, gives me a quite unique sense of exaltation—had yet another notion of light. They saw it in the shape of a man who was also God.
In the enchanting brightness of a human face divinely irradiated. In the exquisite aptness of words spoken and afterwards written down; in sublimely devised images and parables. In an obscure. lowly and brief life lived two thous
and years ago in a remote outpost of the then mighty Roman Empire; a life which in earthly terms ended in defeat and death by public execution on a Cross.
This man said he was the light of the world, and, indeed, it is indubitably true that His light has gone on shining through the centuries. I see it brighter than ever.
Sneaking just as a profess] communicator, or venof words—as St. Augustine put it-1 find the utmost difficulty in conveying this unique glory of Christian light. How it shone down on homely, simple men, transforming them into prodigies of valour, eloquence and zeal. How it filled all Christendom with splendid buildings, paintings, music, literature, which will be for ever the admiration of mankind.
How it inspired mystics of unexampled vision and saints of unexampled dedication and audacity. How it penetrated into innumerable hearts, simple and sophisticated, timid and courageous. crazed and sedate, glorifying their days on earth and revealing to them glimpses of the eternity that lay ahead.
Yet having said this I have to recognise its inadequacy. The light in question cannot be embodied in words; still less expounded in ideas—as Pascal, the greatest intellect ever to address itself to the task of so doing was forced in the end to admit. It was not an exhortation or a treatise, but a bright light beating down onto the Damascus Road, which transformed St. Paul from a hater into an ardent lover and preacher of the Christian faith.
As it was a kiss planted lovingly on a leper's rotting flesh which transformed a hotblooded pursuer of happiness into the most joyous and most penurious of all the saints— St. Francis of Assisi.
Let me then turn to a recent experience which made me see, as no written or spoken words ever could, what is this light and whence it comes. Earlier this year I was in Calcutta for the purpose of filming there the work of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity.
Among other places, we went to what they call the House of the Dying; a large. cavernous building where the dying and derelict are brought in from the streets so that, as Mother Teresa puts it, they may at least find themselves, when they finally close their eyes, in the presence of a loving face and in an atmosphere of Christian love.
The Sisters, I should add, take quite literally the admonition to tend these derelicts as though each and every one of them was their Saviour.
Such windows as the House of the Dying has are small and high up. The place is decidedly murky—so much so that our cameraman was quite emphatic that no filming was possible. There was, he said, rather less than half the amount of light normally considered the minimum requisite for filming.
Even so, we decided to have a go. and were all astounded subsequently to find that the
film, instead of, at best, shoWing a few dim shapes, was bathed in a soft, exquisite light in which the old battered heads of the inmates stood out like marvellous El Greco portraits.
A miracle? Maybe—I don't know. I daresay there are all sorts of plausible explanations. though I have in honesty to say that our cameraman — Ken Macmillan, one of the best and nicest in the business — can't offer any. He just rests on being astounded; the more so because, when he tried to repeat the result with similar stock and in similar circumstances elsewhere, it was a total failure.
Viewers will be able to judge for themselves. For me, in any case, it was a miracle; not because it seemingly contravened the techniques of filming, but rather because it fulfilled them. The supernatural, as I see it, is just a projection of the natural into eternity, as the miraculous is just the ultimate revelation of the ordinary.
Thus, when Jesus made the blind to see, it was not so much by repairing their eyes as by heightening the visibility of the reality around them. This may be why, in one particular case, he symbolically mixed mud and pasted it over the unseeing eyes—a procedure that I have always found peculiarly beautiful and touching.
Sex & cupidity
So, in the same sort of way, our cameras revealed the presence of a light that was there, even though our eyes failed to detect it. The light is always there—there and everywhere. It floods the whole universe. It is the light of God's universal love shining from on high, on us and all creation. At the same time, it is the light that, through the Incarnation, was brought down to us here on earth and planted in our hearts. So we are like glowworms in a moonbeam—both shone upon and shining.
People laugh at Heaven today, but that is Heaven—to walk as children of light. They laugh at Hell too, but that similarly lies around us. To be shut off from the light; to be confined in the ego's tiny dark dungeon, and afflicted there with the bad dreams, the false hopes and desires, the devouring appetites, which belong to the darkness.
On such an occasion as this, it is appropriate to consider how the light is shining in what are called—a word I abominate —"cultural" activities, which also have validity only to the degree that they partake of it.
Certainly, at no previous time have they received so much material help and encouragement, a good deal of it from public bodies and funds. I daresay the Lord Provost has had something to say about this from time to time! Equally, they have benefited from the prodigious extension which has taken place in the means of transmitting the written and the spoken word, as well as visual images.
Nowadays ideas can travel round the world faster than sound. Plays and spectacles can be seen and enjoyed by millions, and the ever increasing amount of money and effort devoted to education in all its aspects is supposed to foster an ever more literate and
discriminating public. All calculated, one would suppose, to promote culture. One way and another, it ought to be a golden age for the arts.
But is it? Scarcely. Far and away the greater part of these facilities are harnessed solely to the profit motive, which means that in practice they make their impact the easiest way—through sex, violence and cupidity.
Is it not, for instance, a melancholy experience, travelling about the world, to notice on airports and railway stations the identical rows of paperbacks everywhere, all luridly and blatantly appealing to our basest and most degraded impulses. I say nothing of the magazines. It seems a miserable outcome of the spread of language of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible thus to provide a vehicle for the dissemination of illiterate filth.
In the theatre things are very much the same. Let a collection of yahoos but take off their clothes, cavort about the stage and yell obscenities, and a great breakthrough in dramatic art is announced and applauded. I doubt seriously whether what pass for being art forms have ever before been so drenched and impregnated with erotic obsessions, so insanely preoccupied with our animal nature and its appetites, so remote from any other consideration, intellectual, moral or spiritual, as are ours today.
am well aware. of course, that to talk in this strain is to invite ridicule and lofty reproaches as a faint-hearted prude; an enemy of youth and progress who is vainly striving to impede the liberation of the human spirit which the birth pill, affluence and hashish have made possible, Let it be so.
In this field the mandarins are even more derisory than the practitioners. There is no need to he mesmerised by the motley procession of writers, critics, crazed clerics and other miscellaneous intelligentsia prepared at the drop of a hat to pronounce the latest outpourings of sub-standard smut an essential contribution to contemporary letters.
The simple fact is that in all this unsavoury output there is practically nothing of any lasting value or true artistic significance. Posterity, I am convinced, assuming they interest themselves in the matter at all, will be astonished to the point of incredulity that writers like Henry Miller and William Burroughs should ever have been taken seriously. and will split their sides over the thought of an Anglican Bishop's finding in poor D. H. Lawrence's sick perverse sexual ravings an edifying exposition of the Christian sacrament of marriage.
His observations on the subject deserve, and will doubtless get, a place in a social. if not a literary history of our time. In a way the whole thing is hilariously funny. All this vast expensive edifice of public culture.
The Arts Council, Miss Jennie Lee, the National Theatre, Lord Goodman. the
B.B.C., Kenneth Tynan and Kenneth Clark. The ever-multiplying and ever-growing universities where the half-baked receive contemptuously the ministrations and instruction of the half-hearted. Education broadening down from A-level to A-level, The Third Programme, the University of the Air, the Living Theatre, 0 Calcutta and the Rolling Stones.
And out of it all coming what?—the most crime-ridden, sex-ridden, fear-ridden, lawless and neurotic and unstable way of life ever to be known on earth; a "feigned folly formed in fantasy," to quote a wonderful phrase I came upon in The Cloud of Unknowing.
I often reflect on how other civilisations in their decrepitude have been destroyed by outside barbarians who stormed in to destroy their monuments and seats of learning, to deface their temples, defame their sanctities and dissolve the moral order which had held them together.
We do the job ourselves. Our artists may safely he left to destroy art, our writers to destroy literature, our scholars to destroy scholarship, our moralists to destroy morality and our clergy to destroy religion.
We breed our own barbarians in our groves of academe at the public expense. In their proletarian fancy-dress they shout the slogans of revolutions which long ago took place; mount barricades already taken and storm citadels already fallen.
What, then, has gone wrong? I come back to where I began. What is lacking is the light. That light which has continued to shine through the centuries, illumining the works and hopes of men, lightening their darkness, providing them with such brotherliness and orderliness, and enlightenment as can be extracted from the dark jungle of the human will where our earthly lives are necessarily spent.
Without the light we are lost indeed, falling either into the arrogance of supposing ourselves to be gods or into the abasement of becoming animals. Succumbing either to our pride or to our lust—the two impulses which separate us infallibly from God. If, there
fore, the light that is in them be darkness, how great is that darkness!
I sense today a deep, deep longing for the light. It is the kind of thing that we shadows who flit across your television screens may be expected to become aware of; being part of this weird exercise in collective narcissism we become absorbed in the collective consciousness. The light, in any case, is always there. Nothing can ever put it out. It is even seen more brightly when the surrounding darkness seems blackest.
The way to it, likewise, is clearly marked, and leads in the exactly opposite direction to the one so ostentatiously signposted in coloured neon lights. Away from this mean, squalid little earthly paradise of satisfied desire which hucksters and politicians and bestselling novelists and gilded songsters and bewildered clergymen constantly and ardently recommend.
Up a steep hill from whose summit an unimaginably delectable vista presents itself, so vast, so luminous, so enchanting, that the small ecstasies of human love, and the small satisfactions of human achievement, by comparison, pale into insignificance.
Out of tactical despair comes an overwhelming strategic happiness, enfolded in which one is made aware that every aspect of the universe, from a tiny grain of sand to the light years which measure its immeasurable dimensions, from the minutest single living cell to the most complex human organism, are intimately related, all deserving of reverence and respect, all shining.
So, this Light of the World which lights the way to a kingdom not of this world, shines still. Ah, how I wish some voice more authoritative, lucid and persuasive than mine would proclaim it again, not with backward, fearful looks and threats of prohibitions and restrictions, but joyously, gloriously summoning us forward, forward into the Light.