A Brief Moment of Being Found in the Cosmos.
On Stargazing at a Remote Benedictine Monastery.
Adrift in an Ocean of Stars.
Last night was a new moon1. I woke up, as I usually do, around 2 a.m. In the nocturnal stupor of the wee hours, it took me a few long seconds to decide whether to simply roll back to sleep or go outside to see the night sky. After a few more long somnolent calculations about the energy required for putting on shoes and hoodie, I decided to boldly venture forth across the entire 100 feet of concrete into the night and look upon the stars.2
It has been quite rainy and cloudy the past week or so, which certainly has its own beauty up here at 8,000 feet. So I wasn’t entirely confident that the sky was going to be clear enough to get the view I was hoping for. I am glad my concerns were unfounded. After being temporarily blinded by monastery perimeter lights, the depth of the night sky came into view3. I fell into a fathomless sea of stars. Everything in me grew quiet. The world grew quiet.
There are probably fewer greater illustrations of the alienation from our true human situation than the loss of the night sky. The more our technical civilization grows the brighter its artificial illumination shelters us from knowing where we truly reside. We navigate our brief lives by its lights rather than navigating by the stars.4 We are obscured from the cosmic situation in which we find ourselves and are befuddled and lost. We are increasingly indoor creatures. Protected by, and addicted to, our comforts and distractions. Lost, many of us without even knowing it, in a functional world broken off from the mystery of Being5.
I recall being home one summer from college long ago6. It was a typically hot and humid summer night in the suburban environs of New York City. I had spent the evening (dis)engaged in long hours watching cable TV7. Finally succumbing to his increasingly energetic entreaties, I take my dog, Tom, for a walk up the street. The southern sky is a semi-apocalyptic orange from the glow of the city itself. The neighborhood is unnaturally quiet. Not entirely quiet, the rattle and hum ground bass of air conditioners and maybe the occasional passing car breaks the silence. It is an eerie feeling being surrounded by so many people who also make so little sound8. But from the otherwise dark houses comes a slight flickering blue light.
Last night reminded me that I am a human being and what that means. To be human is to be a creature of the cosmos, not one of manufactured entertainment, smartphones, and screens. We are denizens of a planet found among inexhaustible beauty. Off to the east, mixed with the glow of the small city below us, was Jupiter, yet unobscured—clear and shining nonetheless. Off to the west, and a bit north perhaps was what I took to be the Big Dipper9. Polaris, the North Star, was directly overhead. What I first imagined to be some passing clouds was simply the Milky Way, or what the Chinese call the Heavenly River. The night was instead clear like glass10. It struck me that I haven’t seen the Milky Way in decades.
It was very good—however fleeting the time—to be home again.
N.B., I have been thinking a lot lately about the Anthropocene and what it means for the human near-future. An admittedly big question. I have already gone through three different drafts on the topic, and will probably scrap them all. One of the blessings I have been granted here at the monastery is time to think. More importantly, I have ample time for contemplative prayer—to just sit in silence. I am slowly, I hope, disengaging from my normal ambitious mode and am going to stop trying and rather just let it come or not. In the meantime, I have been admiring the limpid expressions of nature and life found in Classical Chinese Poetry11. It is something towards which I aimlessly, and longingly aspire.
One example from many:
Amid a thousand clouds and streams there's an idle man somewhere roaming the mountains during the day sleeping beneath the cliffs at night watching springs and autumns pass free of cares and earthly burdens happy clinging to nothing silent like a river in fall From The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain. Red Pine translation.
I hope this finds you all well.
Thank you to J.B. for alerting me to this fact.
My guide and I came on that hidden road to make our way back into the bright world; and with no care for any rest, we climbed— he first, I following—until I saw, through a round opening, some of those things of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there that we emerged, to see—once more—the stars. --The Divine Comedy. Inferno Canto 34. Dante Aligheri
After I got my glasses out of my car, that is.
Literally and figuratively.
The philosophy of Gabriel Marcel.
The late Eighties, probably.
Watching TV was something I did habitually. I rarely got much enjoyment out of it, which never seemed to stop me from doing it again.
What I imagine a morgue to be like, truth be told.
I need to know the constellations better. For shame!
At one point what was probably the International space station went streaking across the sky. I hadn’t ever seen that before. Our machines are now even part of the grand nocturnal theater. Take that as you will.
I am a rank amateur in admiring Chinese poetry. I admire it greatly, nonetheless.