I left the church early last Monday so that I could be home for the eclipse. I wasn’t initially as excited about it as some. We have friends and family who had been preparing weeks ahead, purchasing special equipment for their telescopes and cameras, stocking up on eclipse glasses, planning vacations to the path of the totality (a word I had never heard before this month!). I hadn’t really prepared, but as I drove home, I could feel the excitement in the air. The car radio played constant coverage of eclipse-watchers gathered by the thousands across the country. I stopped at the small local grocery to grab some milk, and the teenage girls working there were running in and out of the store with a welding mask a neighbor had loaned them, taking turns looking up at the sky and laughing. As I drove through the center of town, at least 100 people were gathered on the green space in front of our local library with boxes made into pinhole cameras propped on their heads or against their faces. I arrived home and the neighborhood kids were all gathered together with those same makeshift cereal-box cameras, and passing around pairs of eclipse glasses, pointing to the sky.
The eclipse in New England was, of course, less dramatic than it was in other areas, and yet as the sky and sun darkened, and I looked through those glasses to see the moon traveling across the path of the sun — I felt it. I felt that transcendence and awe; and the sense of humility and perspective that comes with glimpsing our tiny place in the wide cosmos. I felt that great connection with the thousands – millions – of others in our town, state, and country that were looking up at the sky and feeling something similar. A country that days before had felt so divided, seemed united in awe.
In their book, A God-Bearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry, Kendra Creasy Dean and Ron Foster posit the following (they speak specifically to the challenges facing young people, but I have taken the liberty of broadening the language in this quote, as I believe many of us, whatever age, may be able to relate), “Believing in God is not the issue; believing God matters is the issue. Information is not in short supply, discernment is. Overwhelmed by options and the stress that comes from having to choose among them, (we) lack a compass to the stars, a way that points through the muddle of human possibility to the transcendence of God. The signature quality of postmodern (life) is not lawlessness, but awelessness. With so much vying for (our) finite attention, the path to transcendence disappears beneath a bramble of competing claims for the soul.”
What I saw in the response to the eclipse was the power of and our collective yearning for awe and transcendence — little children and elders alike looking to the heavens to be reminded that there is something so much greater than we are. On Monday, children were released from schools or camps, the routines and muddle of our lives stopped for a while, so that we could collectively look toward the heavens, and become one in awe.
We couldn’t look directly at the eclipse, and yet the very light and air around us changed because of it. It is an apt metaphor, I think: though we can’t directly see God, in God’s presence, the very quality of the light by which we see and know the world changes; our very breath is transformed.
How do we hold onto and access that awe and wonder, and the sense of unity that comes from experiencing the transcendent together? The collective response to the eclipse this week gives me such hope for our beautiful, but broken world. Perhaps this is our greatest call as individuals and a community of faith – particularly as summer comes to an end and the academic year ramps up again — to quiet the din, clear the brambles, and find those moments of awe in the everyday that point us to God and bind us together on a path to healing, wholeness, humility and hope.