Film and Book Reviews

Faith a form of 'living light' in a complex world

BookPhosphorescence: on Awe, Wonder and Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark, by Julia Baird (Fourth Estate/Harper Collins, 2020)

By Clare Boyd-Macrae

June 4 2020It was the subtitle of Phosphorescence that really appealed: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark. Dr Julia Baird, acclaimed author, journalist and host of the ABC current affairs program The Drum, has written a part memoir, part collection of scientific research on what helps us to develop resilience, find and nurture the “light within”,  and live with courage, authenticity and kindness in this beautiful, complex and too-often brutal world.

I wasn’t disappointed. The four sections of the book – which are broadly about awe, wonder and silence; the need to tell our imperfect stories; friendship; and looking and savouring; captured the practices that many of us know are good for us. But then Baird fleshes these could-be-clichés out with meticulous research and compelling writing. The fact that someone of her calibre and stature has done this work, weaving the science seamlessly with her own experience, may well inspire us to be more intentional about how we live what the poet Mary Oliver called this “one wild and precious life”.

Baird would be the first to admit she is privileged, with a strong family of origin, education, professional success, a home by the sea (she is a passionate ocean swimmer) and enough beauty, fresh air and deep friendships for several lifetimes. She is also a survivor of a rare and vicious type of cancer. The illness itself and the treatment were brutal, and it has returned twice; Baird knows about the world going dark. Her wisdom is hard won, wrought in the crucible of what she calls “the diabolical pairing of pain and impotence” that besets the gravely ill.

In the prelude, she lists the things that have enabled her to discover a light within:

“First, pay attention. Second, do not underestimate the soothing power of the ordinary. Third, seek awe, and nature, daily. Fourth …well, so many things: Show kindness; practice grace, eschew vanity; be bold; embrace friends, family, faith and doubt, imperfection and mess; and live deliberately. To my delight, I have found a burgeoning body of science that provides a substantial evidentiary basis for all these principles.”

As a person of faith, I had a particularly keen interest in the chapters about living with an awareness of the Divine.

Appropriately, in a book about discovering the light within, a book called Phosphorescence, she lists the quotes in both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that describe God as light, introducing them with this: “According to the Bible, God is light, the ultimate source of phosphorescence, the light we can absorb to later emit.” She has a sense of God as “large, expansive, forgiving, infinite, and both incomprehensible and intimate”. Her groundedness and commitment to social justice emerge when she writes, “Faith may be a form of living light, but it is not neat and ordered. It exists in mess and chaos and doubt and brokenness.”

I wrote down so many delicious quotes from this book. My favourite might be this, in a section on savouring the ordinary:  “Enjoying a freshly brewed pot of tea on my porch, after a swim or a run, is the best thing on Earth …We all have these moments, where we are sated by simple pleasures. Luxuriate in them.”

The timing of the release of Phosphorescence just as COVID-19 was hitting the world must have been coincidental, but what timing! Maybe with the western world’s fresh awareness that we are not in control, and our enforced cessation of the frenetic activity we are addicted to, this book will appeal to a great many people. I hope so. Reading it is one of the things that has sustained me, and it is one I will return to when, as it surely will, once again my world goes dark.

Clare Boyd-Macrae is a Melbourne writer and a member of the Uniting Church with a deep commitment to contemplative prayer. She is a regular TMA contributor. Her blog is www.clareboyd-macrae.com.