St. Justin Martyr

Old Light

I have always been fascinated by old things. Even as a boy I found it easy to relate to the elderly. And when in college I befriended a lady in her 80s and a man well into his 90s, they became possibly my best friends before I left the States for good in ‘74. The future has always seemed small and cramped to me, but the past huge and bulging with being. To begin with, old things usually have character, that special charm in the surface crack in an antique bowl, or in the well-earned wrinkles of an old and travelled face (what the Japanese call wabi-sabi). And it is their very wornness that marks them, and makes them mysteriously precious.

I have wondered, however, about an antiquity not linked in any way to wear and tear, or even to the charms they bring. God himself is obviously the Ancient of Days, ever new and never imprisoned by retirement, never up-to-date because never out-of-date—always the same but always fresh. But here in this material universe there seems to be something that is also ever new, however old. It is starlight.

The light of the sun is only minutes old, and its shine and warmth condition our daily lives mainly by being useful. The light of the stars, however—if you prescind from maritime navigators, astronomers and astrologers—is largely useless. Still, it tells a bigger story and reveals a deeper meaning. It is old light.

Plato called the stars “the loveliest and most perfect of material things,” but their light is old, most of it hundreds and some of it even thousands of years old. Even travelling at their famous “velocity of light,” it takes eons for their rays to reach us. Telescopes can see further and register antiquarian phenomena with ages of millions of years. Thus, the past is not only massively behind us in terms of time, but also completely encircles us in the expanse of space. Could this mean that wisdom should be sought preferably in the permanently pregnant womb of the past? My sense is that old light — modestly shining in the firmament above us — is whispering to us, urging us to be distrustful of the con-man promises of the future.

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