Glass, with its transparent quality, can serve as a metaphor for clarity and purity, and the interplay of light through glass has long captivated human imagination, and encouraged contemplation of God.
In many spiritual traditions, including Quakerism, light symbolises illumination, knowledge and the presence of God, the Light, or Whatever we wish to call it. The interconnection between glass and light becomes a powerful symbol representing the clarity that spiritual seekers strive for in understanding the mysteries and purpose of existence.
I experienced this for myself just a few days ago during a visit to Buckfast Abbey, a Catholic Benedictine monastery in Buckfastleigh, Devon. I last visited the Abbey well over thirty years ago with a party of schoolchildren, and I will never forget the impact that the floor to ceiling stained-glass window in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament had upon my pupils and myself. Since our visit would conclude a busy day that included the excitement of a journey on the Dart Valley Steam Railway, I was apprehensive as to how a visit to the Abbey would be appreciated by my class of lively eleven-year-olds, but our headteacher had insisted. I need not have worried.
The window was created by an artist and Buckfast monk, Charles Norris, in 1968 and was made in the Abbey’s workshops by the monks. The window was created using chipped, roughly hewn glass, set in a resin base to create a truly inspirational design as light interacts with the glass. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and it is hard not to feel bathed and refreshed in the Light.
Throughout history, stained glass has adorned places of worship, harnessing the transformative beauty of light to convey sacred meanings. The kaleidoscopic of hues that dance through stained glass windows remind worshippers of the diverse understanding of spirituality, and the various paths that are taken in seeking a connection with God.
Quakers often describe God as an all-encompassing light, which can be described as similar to the way that light interacts with glass. The radiant beams filtering through glass become a tangible representation of God’s presence and invoke a sense of awe and reverence. The play of light and shadow on surfaces is a form of dance that mirrors the ebb and flow of spiritual experiences.
The Spirit is often associated with the intangible and the transcendent. Glass allows the passage of light without obstructing its essence, which for me symbolises the veil-like nature of boundaries between the physical and the spiritual. It helps to serve as a reminder that, like light through glass, the divine presence can be felt and experienced throughout our lives.
Sitting in silence, as I did with my pupils thirty years earlier, bathed in the Light from this window, prompted me to reflect upon my own spiritual journey. The transparency of glass encourages us to embrace openness and honesty in our understanding, and to seek the wisdom to guide us towards a deeper understanding of our own lives and the purpose that we seek.
Glass, light and The Spirit converge to transcend the material world, and invite us to explore our beliefs more deeply. Through the lens of spirituality, glass becomes a metaphorical portal, allowing us to connect with the essence that unites all of creation.
Excited chatter from my pupils immediately ceased when we entered the Chapel. We sat in awed silence looking at the window, and I believe that we all experienced something very special during those few minutes together, bathed in the Light. We left the chapel and Abbey in silence, and there was very little conversation as we left the Abbey grounds.
During follow up lessons of the visit, the steam railway had certainly made a big impression, but it did not overshadow the enthusiasm with which the children talked and wrote about the Abbey, and particularly the stained-glass window.
© Barrie Mahoney 2023
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