'You are the light of the world' - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Lake Victoria near Musoma, Tanzania.

In Judy Cannato’s beautiful book Radical Amazement (Ave Maria Press), she reflects on how Planet Earth was in darkness for billions of years because there was no receptor on earth to receive the light of the sun. The sun was always radiating light toward earth, but until that moment in time when one simple, primitive cell mutated and began to capture the sun’s light—the miracle of photosynthesis—the earth was shrouded in darkness.

Her reflection speaks deeply to me of the mystery of the incarnation: Jesus, the divine receptor of God’s light, enters into a world waiting in darkness.

In the Alleluia verse today, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world.” But it doesn’t end there; in today’s Gospel Jesus says, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).

When we really let these words of Jesus penetrate our hearts, there is something quite shocking about them. I am very comfortable with Jesus saying that he is the light of the world, but to hear him say, “You are the light of the world,” makes me feel uncomfortable; it doesn’t sound right. Maybe it is because I’ve lived long enough to have experienced my own darkness, weakness, faults and failings that I resist those words of Jesus. I feel more comfortable owning my darkness rather than my light.

But these words of Jesus are an invitation and a challenge. Once I get past the resistance and allow these words to move from my mind into my heart, it can be empowering to hear Jesus say, “You are the light of the world.” It expands the space of my inner being, pushes out the boundaries of my comfort zone, and makes life intensely meaningful. But it also carries the responsibility of being a light-bearer, of responding to the challenge of darkness in myself and in the world.

I am blessed to live and work as a spiritual director among the people of Tanzania in East Africa. Together with Maryknoll Father Jim Eble, we offer spiritual support and guidance at the Lake House of Prayer, a retreat house for the Archdiocese of Mwanza that focuses on the contemplative tradition of the Catholic Church. Our ministry is to teach, counsel, and practice contemplative prayer together with all who come to pray here.

In the local Swahili language, the word for contemplative prayer is taamuli, which means to shine the light, or to allow the light within to shine.

Judy Walter preparing the chapel for prayer.

Besides our guests who come for retreat, those who come to practice taamuli with us on a daily basis are our neighbors, the “anawim” (Hebrew for the “poor and lowly ones”). These neighbors live on the margins and often struggle to feed, clothe, and educate their children. Yet they come, often in their desperate situations, in their poverty, knowing their need for God. They come to spend an hour in silence, listening to God, finding an oasis of peace amid their struggles, coming home to themselves.

It is these people, our neighbors, who in their faithfulness to prayer, in their need for God, are the very heart of our House of Prayer. They are our praying community. As we practice taamuli together every day, we are allowing that inner light to shine even amid struggles and difficulties.

Thomas Merton has a powerful image of what it means to allow the inner light to shine: “We are all illuminated beings… and if we could see this… (if we could allow the inner light to shine forth), we would see these billion points of light (from all over the world) coming together in the blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish forever.”

As we sit in taamuli each day, in our small corner of the world, united with all those throughout the universe who are practicing taamuli in their own way, we take to heart the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “You are the light of the world.”

It is our deep belief here in this House of Prayer, that the power of this inner light will eventually overcome all the darkness, violence, and cruelty of the world. This is the apostolic dimension of taamuli: it places us at the very heart of the spiritual balance of the universe.

Watch a video about Judy Walter’s ministry here.

Scripture reflection for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Feb. 9, 2020.

Photos by Jerry Fleury.

Judy Walter
Judy Walter is a spiritual director at the Lake House of Prayer, a retreat ministry in Mwanza, Tanzania.