When I thought of dust at all I used to think of it as a nuisance, something I either ignored or cursed – that is, when there was enough of it to be noticed; most of the time I didn’t give it more than a passing thought.
Nevertheless, in the vastness of the cosmos these tiny particles are hugely significant. They are formed from particles floating between the galaxies that have eventually coalesced to make the motes we see in our homes; they are remnants of the Big Bang, of supernovas; stardust which has contributed to the growth of planets and thus to the primeval soup from which life has evolved.
On our world this unnoticed, unconsidered material draws our attention in two quite contradictory ways. It gathers itself as grey fluff beneath and behind our furniture, where it becomes a cosy home for many of the microscopic life forms which inhabit our carpets; and finding it when we’re Spring Cleaning, we’re not very likely to remember its exalted and far distant origins.
But then, on a sunny day motes of that stardust may come dancing into view in golden beams of sunlight. Sparkling, swirling and revolving in a wondrous dance, they become gloriously visible in the light, and we stand and marvel at their beauty, and their unceasing, hypnotic movement.
Watching them it’s impossible to believe these minute golden dancers continue to exist and dance beyond the confines of the beam. Surely this glory and beauty cannot be there invisibly in the air surrounding us. But it’s true, the dance goes on beyond the beam, the endless, unceasing movement of the motes – but the beauty and glory we see are gifts of the sunlight, not intrinsic to the motes themselves.
Is there something more to this than meets the eye? Two great thinkers and writers tell us about dust motes in a beam of light.
In ‘Planet Narnia’, a book about C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, there is a passage from a ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’ in which Lewis describes his experience of being in a dark shed when a beam of sunlight strikes through a crack above the door. He writes about his contemplation of the beam of light with the motes of dust, dancing like dervishes within it.
All the while he gazed at the beam he was aware of what was around him – he could see the shed, the bench, the tools hanging in rows, the mower in the corner; but he was looking at the beam, not looking at other things by its light.
Contemplation he concludes, consists of standing outside something, paying the fullest attention to it, and what is gained from Contemplation is an abstract, external knowledge. It may move our thoughts and emotions, but it is an impersonal knowledge with which one is not involved.
However when Lewis moved to stand in the light, and looked along the beam towards its source outside, at once the shed and everything in it disappeared into impenetrable darkness. The beam of light – as a distinct entity – also vanished. There was no beam, no motes of dancing dust. There was the light in which he stood, and there was warmth; looking along the beam, framed by the door and its crack he saw blue sky and leaves moving in the breeze; and beyond them, ninety-odd million miles away, the source of the light, the sun.
This was a very different experience, a completely different way of seeing and knowing, Enjoyment; and the knowledge he gained this way was personal, gained through commitment; he inhabited it and participated in it.
Lewis later reclassified knowledge into three categories: Unconscious Knowledge, Contemplated Knowledge, and Enjoyed Knowledge.
Professor J. R. R. Tolkien, surprisingly also wrote of dust motes in a beam of sunlight.
Praying alone in church one day, he first thought of the Light of God and then perceived it in his mind. In the Light were millions of motes, but his attention was drawn to one in particular.
This mote, held and lit by one individual ray of Light, was glittering white, and the ray was a part of the Light, but not the whole Light, it was a connecting line between the mote it held and the source of the Light.
It seemed to Tolkien that the ray which held it was the Guardian Angel of the mote, which did not stand between it and God. It was ‘God’s very attention itself, personalised‘, a real, angelic, divine expression of the eternal and infinite Love between the Father and the Son. The single, shining mote could have been himself, or any other person whom he desired to be held in God’s Light. His experience was immediate, powerful, and accompanied by a great sense of joy.
I rejoice that dust in a sunbeam can lead me to more than a Contemplation of beauty. I’m cheered and comforted by these experiences of being held in the Light. And I’m glad they were shared, so, whether or not my mind fully understands the words, next time I see dust motes dancing in a sunbeam, I can Enjoy them too and my thoughts can travel to the source of the light, and on to the Creator of the sun and of me, and whose love holds every soul which has ever danced in the Light.