Transparency, Translucency, Opalescence

A preparative message for our community discussion on the meaning of membership.

Galatians 6:10. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

We’ve been led to believe that Eskimos have at least 52 words for ice, over 180 words for snow and as many as a thousand words for reindeer. Those who have studied the languages of the Inuit culture tell us that’s quite an exaggeration. But never the less, like the Inuit who live in a world of ice, snow and reindeer we too need expressions to make distinctions between things and experiences in our lives that are quite similar.

There is the great old story of the little girl from a plain Quaker background who after visiting a cathedral in a great city was heard to say that she now knew what was a saint.  It is one, she pronounced, through whom the light shown.  Since the middle ages the world has been blessed with the artistic beauty of art glass windows and it’s easy to forget that along with their beauty they taught stories from the Bible of the Church to a mostly illiterate population.

Though we often speak of such pieces of art as “stained glass” they are more correctly ‘art glass’.   Stained glass is the result of an artist’s hand painting faces, hands and even text on glass and baking it in a kiln to set the stain.  Art glass is the medium used to create patterned window panels.  It is an art form in itself.  Out of sheets of glass selected for their color, texture and opacity pieces of a design are cut, their edges ground and smoothly fit together with copper, lead or silver, cleaned and polished to form a panel to last for lifetimes.

What the little girl saw in that cathedral was light streaming through patterned art glass panels that bore the likeness of biblical characters and saints of the Church.

Most of the glass we use today is transparent. It is, in fact, a modern miracle. It transmits light so that objects or images on one side can be seen on the other as if there were no intervening material.  If television commercials have it right, this is a nightmare for birds and cats.  It allows us to watch fish in their bowls or watch raging winter storms and stay warm and dry.   We use it in our homes, cars, computers and every hand held device that has a screen.

To make the earliest commercial glass strong men stood on a raised platform and after dipping long poles into vats of melted sand they spun them until a large circle of the melted material congealed and set.  They broke the circle of transparent glass from the pole and cut it into a shippable form.  .

Last week I noticed that windows in the Glover Mansion are made of the center cores which remained from the glass making process. Because of their form they’re not transparent, they’re translucent.  They diffuse the light that they transmits in a way that objects beyond cannot be clearly seen.  In modern ways we intentionally make glass to do that, let light through but not to be able to clearly make out what’s on the other side.  Shower Doors for shower stalls are one obvious example.  Doors for kitchen cabinets are also typical.  Only in rare occasions would translucent glass be used in a patterned art glass panel.   

It is the quality of opalescence that is essential to beautiful “stained glass” windows, a milky, iridescent appearance of a dense glass medium when it is illuminated by sunlight.  Opalescent glass is a different product entirely than commercial window glass.  Instead of being manufactured to stringent standards of clarity and uniformity this glass is still made today  one sheet at a time. It is the product of experimentation with a wide variety of minerals that when added to the glass mixture results in glass that the light, as it passes through it, transmits all kinds of color.  Cut to the shape of parts of a larger design, ground, wrapped and joined with other pieces of the design it becomes a masterpiece of beauty and presentation.

As the little girl described, light passing through the art glass panels in a great cathedral teaches and inspires. Of course Quakers are the first to want to talk about the meaning of Light.  We speak of the Light of Christ, the Light within.  Even the revered old liturgical hymn Holy, Holy, Holy  has us singing of the light eternal which fills us with power, love and purity. 

My thought is that as much as we value transparency in commerce and communication in human interchange it is an questionable if not impossible goal. I rather like the idea that it is all the extraneous materials, the impurities if you like, which when added to melted sand turn crystal clarity to milky opalescence and which add colors to the glass.   And then, of course, it requires pieces from many colors and textures of hand thrown and rolled sheets of opalescent glass, cut, ground, wrapped and held together by a bonding of metals to create the extraordinary image that when light passes through draws us to reverence.       


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