A theology of glow-worms

Around ten years ago I realised that I have glow-worms in my garden. To be more exact, in most years I have a glow-worm, because from year to year I’ve never seen more than two at a time, coyly spaced at opposite ends of the terrace of railway sleepers that holds up the ground outside our bathroom window. Most years I see just one, and assume a successful mating the night it goes dark.

Apart from in our patch, I’ve only seen these wonderful, though apparently endangered, beacons once, when camping in my friend Stuart’s garden in Minehead as a student. But he had a proper colony, as did the holiday cottage my wife used to frequent as a child. We seem to have the biologically unlikely scenario of one or two glowing females, and presumably a few non-glowing males, holding on to the long grass by the skin of their mandibles year by year. Given our uncommon natural darkness out here in the sticks, I’d have expected them either to increase or for the colony to collapse altogether.

To be fair, there may be more of them, if I troubled to go out and explore the entire smallholding, but up till now, whether I have gazed out from every window or ventured out on the lawn to look more closely, I only ever see one. Or in some years two, though one always wonders if the second may be a reflection of the various LEDs demonstrating that the electronic appliances in the house are still alive.

Now to me, glow-worms are a biological miracle, though I’m sure that some American readers will wonder what impresses me when they have fireflies doing the same trick with choreography. Even before I’d ever seen them, I read about the astonishing efficiency of their bioluminescence – this was back in the days of incandescent tungsten bulbs, of course. But, to appear even more naive than I usually do, what continues to strike me most is how bright the things are. It’s one thing for nature to have worked out the trick of turning food into some dim light like the dial of an old watch, if it were accompanied by especially acute eyesight in the males. But the light of a glow-worm is unmissable, as bright as a star in a moonless sky. Glow-worms have totally nailed the design of the LED, together with light-detecting control systems. I love them.

For some unaccountable reason, spotting my annual glow-worm in June gives me a happy feeling, like hearing the first cuckoo in spring, if cuckoos weren’t now so uncommon that one only turns up here every few years. There seems to be something symbolic about glow-worms. It’s not that when they fire up the deep darkness of the night disappears. And yet, their light is so sharp, pure and bright that you can never be in any doubt about the absolute antipathy between light and darkness. To speak like Solomon of natural history, glow-worms seem to teach us that however deeply the world is mired in darkness, that single atom of brightness proves that the days of darkness are numbered. To quote John’s gospel, writing of the true light Jesus:

The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness has never overcome it.

On the level of Christian witness, for me looking out of the bathroom window towards midnight at my little beetle of hope, the numerous rather twee cultural allusions to believers bearing the light of Christ (“This little light of mine…” “Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light…” etc) acquire the aspect of something real and powerful.

Never has that been clearer to me than since 2020. For when I say that I see my glow worm (presumably not the same one!) from year to year, there were two years in which it was sadly absent, and the terrace remained in unrelieved darkness. And those, as if God deliberately wanted to instruct me, were the two years of the Great Gloom, 2020 and 2021. Concerted powers of evil brought darkness over the whole of humanity, and nature seemed to come out in sympathy, at least as far as my summer light-show was concerned.

Since then, I look out for my glow-worm as an optimistic reminder to myself that my job as a Christian is, in essence, simply to be that glow-worm in my particular world. I don’t expect that I will be able to disperse the darkness – only the return of Christ will achieve that – but knowing that if the light of Christ truly shines in me (and that is all of grace, not effort), the darkness will be shown up for what it is to some, and they themselves will know that the light they are looking for exists, and may be found.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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