Afterimages of God

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There is a visual phenomenon called afterimage where when looking away from an object (typically a bright object such as a light bulb), there is an image that appears to float in front of the eyes. This image “burn in” is typically caused by an over-depletion of chemicals in the rods and cones of the eye (rhodopsin and color pigments, respectively). Normally, we compensate for this chemical depletion by rapidly and subtly moving the eyes around, changing where the fovea is focusing. Doing this gives the time for the pigments to replenish, allowing the rods and cones of the eye (warning: there is a video that auto-plays so turn down your speakers if needed) to work efficiently again.

To get an afterimage, stare at a lightbulb for a couple seconds (not the sun – that will damage your eyes) or  stare at some of the images here (note: that Wikipedia post about afterimages is lacking but the images are useful). Afterimages work essentially because when you consciously stare at an object with high contrast (luminosity or color), the rhodopsin and color pigments do not replenish quickly enough to allow all your retinal photoreceptors to fire effectively. This usually results in a negative afterimage (red becomes cyan, white becomes black, and so forth) but lightbulbs, for example, can create positive afterimages where the brightness of the filaments is still bright when you look away. In other words, when staring at such brightness, we continue to have that light before our eyes even when looking away.

Before we were born we all lived with our Father in Heaven. We basked in His radiance, we felt His glory and presence, and were filled with His light. We knew His Spirit and saw His burning glory. Joseph Smith said that this brightness and God’s glory were above that of the sun: “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description” (JS-H 1:16-17). In another account of his First Vision, Joseph Smith stated that it appeared as if the trees surrounding the Father and the Son were on fire. This is why Isaiah stated that the Lord lives in “everlasting burnings” (Isa. 33:14). [As an aside, this is why the typical conceptualization of Hell as a hot place of “fire and brimstone” is misleading; yes, in the Book of Mormon we read of fire and brimstone (“And according to the power of justice, for justice cannot be denied, ye must go away into that lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever, which lake of fire and brimstone is endless torment.” {Jacob 6:10}) but that is because the punishment being meted for willful sin against God is God’s eternal punishment and His way to cleanse impurities is through fire (“For the day cometh that the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them who dwelleth thereon, by whom it is dressed, who now receiveth blessings from God, shall be cleansed with fire” {JST Hebrews 6:7}); those who are clean through the atoning blood of Christ and are sanctified therein can stand the fire of God’s glory, those who are not, will have to bear the cleansing of a scourge by fire but miss out on the sanctification that comes through the Atonement. Hell is really the separation from God, which means Hell is cold and dark and lonely.]

So, after that detour, we return to the track of this post. We all lived with God before our mortal births and partook of His glory and radiance. We are born through a veil of forgetfulness but the “afterimage” of God’s glory remains with us. I think the poet Wordsworth expressed it well when he wrote:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

We are not left “utter[ly] naked.” We have the afterimage of our life before in the light of Christ given to all humankind and in the promptings of the Holy Ghost, which all people feel at some point but many do not recognize or are not willing to accept. As with visual afterimages, if we do not look to the Light, if we turn away from God in our sins and do not turn to face Him again in repentance, the light of Christ fades from our lives and we lose the spiritual afterimage that is our intimation of our immortality. It is imperative that we seek out this light and replenish Christ’s image in our lives.

Nearer My God To Thee

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One of my favorite hymns is Nearer, My God, to Thee. It has a simple but beautiful melody and powerful lyrics. It conveys the longing of being with Heavenly Father again; it conveys the longing of home. There is the desire to be close to God, regardless the cost – even if it takes our own cross to get us there (which it often does in our own way).

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

There let the way appear steps unto heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Much of the hymn refers to an experience the patriarch of old – Jacob – had on a journey toward Haran. I’ll quote at length from the Bible (Genesis 28:10-22) and insert italicized commentary as appropriate.

10 And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran [a major city that was possibly located in modern day Turkey].

11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it [this is a metaphorical representation of the connection and pathway between heaven and earth. In Acts 1:9-11 we read of Christ’s ascension in to heaven after His 40 day ministry to His apostles; there are several other similar instances in the scriptures: 3 Nephi 11:5-8; Joseph Smith-History 1:16-17].

13 And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed [this is the Abrahamic covenant, a topic for a different time];

14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not [Jacob saw God in his dream vision and when he awoke, felt the sanctity of the place].

17 And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven [Jacob feared because he realized he had been in the presence of God – a wonderful but sometimes fearful thought as well, particularly because of our sins. The place where Jacob slept because the house of God – a temple. Temples literally are the houses of God and the gates of heaven. Through temples can we pass into the presence of God].

18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it [This is a particularly interesting verse. Jacob took his stony pillow and made it into a pillar – an altar. He poured oil, probably consecrated olive oil upon the top of it to consecrate it and sanctify it unto God].

19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first [Beth-el literally means God’s house or house of God. Beth is house and el is God {Elohim would be the title and the plural}].

20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on [this can be viewed as earthly bread and raiment but can also be viewed as the bread and raiment {temple clothes} given in our Father’s kingdom],

21 So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God:

22 And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house [he dedicated the site as a temple]: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee [this is a reference to Jacob’s paying tithing].

That is the primary scriptural source for the lyrics to Nearer, My God, to Thee.

Here is a recent recording of the most known tune (called Bethany) used with the lyrics. This is Steven Sharp Nelson playing the cello (9 parts). The video was filmed and produced by The Piano Guys.

The White Light of Exaltation

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A little child who is painting often likes to combine the colors together to make new colors. Sometimes this conglomeration of colors ends up a messy brown because so many colors were mixed together. This is a particular type of color mixing seemingly paradoxically called subtractive mixing. With these types of colors (e.g., paints or dyes) the more colors you add together, the darker the result (technically you only need cyan, yellow, and magenta to make black). In this case black is all the colors whereas white is none of the colors.

However, that is not how our eyes perceive visible light. The perception of visible light is based on the principle of additive mixing. With additive mixing, white is a combination of all the colors (the primary additive colors are red, green, and blue) and black is the absence of all colors. Or, in other words, black is the absence of light.

When studying the visual system, one is likely to come across optical illusions. One such such illusion is based on the principle of lateral inhibition, which is when surrounding ganglion retinal cells interfere with the actions of the most active cells (i.e., the cells that are in the fovea of the eye). Look at the image below (it’s called a Hermann grid) to get an idea of what I’m writing about. What do you notice?

Do you see the phantom black dots that appear in the white intersections in your visual periphery? They disappear when you try to look directly at them but return when you focus on a different intersection. The block dots do not exist; they are created by your visual system (one idea is that the surrounding black encroaches on {inhibits} the receptive fields that are responding to the white bars).

Now for the gospel application. When we focus intently on any one thing, it becomes hard to see things around us. This is good when our focus is God but not so good when our focus is not on Heavenly Father. Even more, sometimes if we are focusing on something too intently we start to see things in our spiritual periphery that are not there. These might be the proverbial motes in our neighbors’ eyes that appear when we focus only on ourselves. If we took the time to really look at our neighbors we might see that the motes we thought were there really are not present. Focusing on any one thing too much limits our ability to see “things as they really are.”

The prophet Jacob used those words in one of his sermons:

“Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old. But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.” (Jacob 4:13-14; emphasis added).

Looking beyond the mark, looking in the wrong place and with too much focus, results in spiritual blindness. This spiritual blindness leads to spiritual stumbles. What sort of things are we allowing to cloud our vision? Do you stand in the light or sit in the darkness?

As we draw nearer to God, we are filled with His light. This light adds color upon color of blessings and purification. The color of God’s Spirit is intensified through His grace and through our righteousness until we are filled with a perfect brightness. This perfect brightness does not come until we have received the Trinity of Colors – the Holy Ghost, Jesus our Savior, and our Eternal Father in Heaven. Through these Three Colors we can receive a fulness of glory and the white light of exaltation.