I spent my early childhood in Vietnam, and one of the things I remember quite vividly is the frequent blackouts. Imagine a huge chunk of the metropolis going dark, succumbing to the night. The darkness seemed to have power over us. It literally stopped everything in its tracks, from us children playing on the street to the vendors by the roadside; everyone packed up and went home because without light, we were powerless against the dark. Every household had to have a secondary source of light, and during the late 1980s, the most economical form of backup lighting was the oil lamp; a flickering flame with its continuous stream of black smoke hiding behind a glass bubble.
As a child, I had a fear of darkness. Imagine what a power blackout could do to a child who is afraid of the dark. There is always a feeling of something prowling in that dark abyss, and my first instinct is to get away. Perhaps this is the reason why I remember so well all those nights spent fixing my eyes on the burning glass lamps, their soft and dim glow driving away the ever-consuming darkness, closing in from all directions. This tiny warm bloom was able to keep the seemingly infinite darkness at bay, never yielding even an inch.
I am enamored by this theme of light in the darkness. A lot of what I like to paint tends to revolve around the contrast of light and dark. Whether it be the moon slicing through the dark cloudy night or the hopeful radiance in a gloomy forest, the light warding off the darkness always draws my attention.
That same light may not garner much attention on a sunny day, but in the dark or a forest or a nighttime sea or a powerless metropolis, the light shines forth brilliantly. Regardless of how hard the darkness tries, it can never overcome the light. The resilience of the light sends forth sparks of hope within me. No matter how scary the darkness may be, by clinging to the light we can overcome our fear of it. Regardless of how dreary things may appear, there is light somewhere that can guide us through to the end.
We see the same image of the light in the darkness being used at the beginning of the Gospel of John: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Here we are, trapped in the darkness of our own web of ignorance and despair, yet liberated by the light that is Christ. Regardless of how far we may stray from Him, Christ finds a way to bring us back. Sure, the darkness is still there, but it is not the main attraction of the show; the main protagonist will always be Christ. Christ is the light that shines through the dark, and our focus will always be on that light hope.
It may sound trite to hammer home the theme of hope when so much of the news around the world seems to perpetuate the ever-present veil of despair. For precisely this reason we need to never let go of that light of hope. We have to cling to it like our lives depend on it, because we need hope.
As a child, I fixed my eyes on the burning oil lamp for comfort against the scary darkness, and never once did that light yield to the darkness. Growing up both in age and in faith, I try to keep my gaze on Christ because the light of Christ can cast away all the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” Our eyes will always orient toward that bright spot in the dark, the hope in the midst of the gloom.
Paintings courtesy of the author