A Cathedral Of Light: autism and the sublime

caldeyNow the clocks have gone back an hour for the end of British Summer Time it’s dark when Dylan gets home from his day care centre. Last week I pointed to the early evening moon and commented to him on the changing light. I don’t need to tell Dylan that winter is on its way though; he’s acutely aware of the passing seasons and is probably already anticipating the rhythm and ritual of the solstice season.

Although Dylan isn’t very verbal and has a learning disability he has a system for measuring the passage of time. Dylan’s DVDs are matched to days of the week: Thursday is Lion King, Friday is Polar Express, Saturday morning is Earthsea. Thus Dylan counts the days and predicts what is coming next. The system isn’t without its challenges: how to build new films into an already-packed schedule, for example, and the management of this elaborate arrangement during holidays when routines collapse. Nonetheless, Dylan’s approach is pretty effective. As well as counting days of the week Dylan has an uncanny feel for the hour of day. I could virtually set the clocks by him. If we are at home during the day Dylan always comes to find me at 2.30, when he likes to walk, and in the evenings he asks me to help him get ready for bed at precisely the same time. Some of Dylan’s perfect timing no doubt arises from the routine and structure of his days, but there is more to it than this I think.

Dylan is intensely aware of changes in the light. In a previous post I described how as a toddler he used to sprawl on his back in woods in order to squint at light leaking through the leaf canopy. Dylan still enjoys the play of light through trees and also loves walking by rivers, reservoirs and the sea. The attraction of the latter, I believe, is due to the effect which weather and light have on water. In a poem Praisestones I describe how Dylan likes to throw stones into water.  His ‘sole aim’, I suggest in the poem:  ‘is to glory in shattering/the surface of water’:  Dylan, I write: ‘casts stones/to break the world into splinters of light’. In the poem, I invest a spiritual quality to Dylan’s casting of stones into water. The first stanza ends:

There is a reverence to this; how he hauls
the stones to water, holds them high
above his head, lifts his face to the light.
His ritual is hurl them hard and fast –
then the spread cross of his empty hands.
His face is rapture.  The water shouts Hossannah.

This awareness of the effect of light on landscape is, I believe, a spiritual experience for Dylan.  I sometimes think of his engagement with the natural world as a manifestation of The Sublime,  a phenomenon which Ruskin defined as ‘the effect of greatness upon the feelings’.  The elements which Dylan loves – water, earth, air – combine in the natural world to a sort of  ‘Cathedral of Light’ in which Dylan can feel a greatness. This is not something I see as exclusive to autism particularly; in a poem The Best That I Can Be I describe the way in which landscape can have a similar impact on me. The poem (a sestina) ends:

And this is my vespers, as the sun
sets upon me standing here. Over moor and down
the steepled sky echoes in song; the best
sparkles of stained glass – larkspur, pink
and tangerine – glitter above me
as I kneel under the corona’s display.

On this Sunday hill – bathed, refracted in pink
light – I am stripped down to heart. The sun wants me
and I am best that I can be, here, beneath the sun’s display.

The poem carries the following quote from Emerson as an epigraph:

Nature is loved by what is best in us. It is loved as the city of God, although, or rather because there is no citizen. The sunset is unlike anything that is underneath it. It wants man.

Brittany 13 221Dylan, I think, loves nature as the ‘city of God’. His relationship with the sun, though, is conducted through glass as well as the outdoors. For Dylan, one of the best places to observe light through glass is a cathedral or church, so while we are not church-goers,  we are regular church-visitors. If we pass a church while we are out Dylan always wants to go inside, and when we go on trips and holidays it invariably involves a cathedral visit.

On a number of occasions Dylan has been so affected by the manifestation of light through stained glass that he has appeared to enter a trance-like state. On a visit to Walsingham, Dylan became so absorbed by his experience that we struggled to get him out of the church.  I often think that at the heart of these experiences is light. Perhaps if the world you inhabit is silent the impact of weather and light on the senses is profound. The ‘effect of greatness upon the feelings’ which Ruskin found in nature, and referred to as ‘The Sublime’, may be great indeed if, like Dylan, you do not speak.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, orthodox Christians developed an approach to devotional worship based on the practice of silence which was known as ‘hesychasm’. While mystics had always been attracted by light as a metaphor, Hesychasm emphasised its role in the transfiguration. Gregory Palamas, one of the monks on Athos and an exponent of Hesychasm, believed that through Hesychastic prayer it was possible to reach a vision of ‘divine light’. In this, MacCulloch explains, Gregory was referring to the moment on Mount Tabor when Jesus’ disciples saw that his face ‘shone like the sun’ (MacCulloch, p.111). Who knows what visions Dylan may have had.


Sunday afternoon: A west-facing room.
The sun streams through a pane of glass
above the door, casting a column of held light,
a slide of particles suspended in the air.
My silent son moves trancelike into the room –
walks deliberately as if drawn on thread –
cups his palms together then reaches up
above his head  – tries to hold the shaft of sun
in his hands – tries over and over, lacing
his fingers tight then unclasping them.
Surely he has seen this play of light
a hundred times? Today he is absorbed by it –
tilts back this throat so that his face lifts softly
like a moth to the source – opens his mouth
and walks forward, arms outstretched, the length of it.


Elizabeth Barrett (2005) ‘The Best That I Can Be’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press
Elizabeth Barrett (2007) ‘Praisestones’ in Walking on Tiptoe and Other Poems, Bluechrome Press
Elizabeth Barrett (2009) ‘Lighteater’ in Scintilla, Issue 13
Diarmaid MacCulloch (2013) Silence: A Christian History. Allen Lane


The photographs of light through cathedral windows are from some of our recent visits to churches and cathedrals in Kent, the Isle of Wight, Caldey Island, Wensleydale, St Malo and Carlisle. The photographs of Dylan were taken on the Norfolk Coast and at Walsingham (Easter 2010).

10 thoughts on “A Cathedral Of Light: autism and the sublime

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  3. I shied away from leaving a comment yesterday because this was so beautiful and resonated on many personal levels. And now I have just read the tree one and am even more delighted. Your writing has that wonderful quality of drawing the reader along with you all the way; nodding in recognition and smiling, pausing to reflect, being startled by insights and explorations, going bsck to re-read again. Light has the capacity to silence me, even with my monkey-brain, maybe in that we all reach some common sharing of transcendence. My brother stares at the sky if he is outside and sitting or standing and no one is trying to engage him in activity; he looks for the sun, has done since he was tiny. I don’t know if he has seen stained glass windows, or stood watching a sunset, it makes me a little sad to think I don’t know.


    • Joanna this is a beautiful comment – thank you. I’m so glad you like this particular post. The post started with the poem which is unusual for me. I wrote around the poem really, trying to find ways of thinking about Dylan eating the sun. The poem has always been a bit special to me – it is the essence of Dylan I think. Your description of your brother is lit; I love the idea of ‘looking for the sun’. Also, that continuity you note between your brother as an adult and when he was tiny – I see that in Dylan too. A musician friend who composes music for my work from time to time was working on a new piece recently. He likes to find the essence of my writing rather than compose too literally, so he looks for moods and colour etc. The other day he said to me that he’d realised the work is elemental – that I write Dylan from sea, air, earth and fire. I hadn’t had that thought quite as clearly before (though it was hovering when I wrote this post) but I think he is right. The fascination with light I write about here would link with fire. In this post there is water too and air. Perhaps less earth, though I have written about that in other posts, for example those focused on walking and landscape. I might think more about the elemental nature of autism – I hadn’t thought I would, based just on my conversation with Robin, but your comment about your brother looking for the sun has deepened this for me. Thank you!


  4. A friend has sent me a link to this post, because I am a Light Chaser. She knows me well, though we have only met once and live on opposite sides of the world. Your post, your poem, The Best That I Can Be, and photos are all sublime.


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