By Zachary Guiliano
Among the oft-limited delights of a rural upbringing, surveying the night sky surely tops the list. The wonders of heaven were but a brief glance away on most nights, and stargazing was a regular activity. I was a science buff as a youngster, memorizing all sorts of arcana now sadly forgotten, and had a special affection for learning constellations and planets. The forgetting of such names in my adulthood seems a poignant tragedy — a loss of likeness to Love himself, the Lord who made the sun, moon, and stars, “the Pleiades and Orion” (Amos 5:8), and “calls them all by name” (Ps. 147:4). These created names, as lost memories, feel like tangible gaps in my mind, wounds of the soul.
This fearful forgetting is dwarfed only by the sorrow of being unable to see the stars each night. It is no wonder that I have forgotten our celestial acquaintances. My scholarly and ecclesial peregrinations have given much to me, but none took me to settle in areas of great natural beauty, absent the obscuring light of modern cities.
How we all can stand to lose the sight of the starry firmament, indeed, to wipe these luminaries out from our collective sight and memory, is something I hardly fathom. Past generations stood in abject wonder at the apparently eternal yet ever errant heavens; they wrote great myths to explain them, and were even moved to worship. The pregnant phrase of St. John the Divine, I saw a great portent in heaven, expressed no unusual sentiment.
Two things have recently brought home to me the human tendency to adore the heavens, and find meaning in their shadow of their greatness, awakening something of my lost love for the astronomical.
The “Great American Eclipse” of the past week revealed once more the widespread human fascination with stellar phenomena, especially in the path of “totality.” For a brief moment, many Americans stopped mad chattering about the lunatic capers of the White House’s earthbound occupants. We gathered together, we paused, we stared, marveling at the greatness of the created order, shivering as at midday the sun ceased to shine. We participated in the mystery of the Passion, even if we knew it not.
The great irony is that this is about the only celestial occurrence we can now celebrate. We have so driven away from our sight the enduring witnesses of the sky (cf. Ps. 89:37) — making the night as bright as the day, our earthy lights filling the heavens with the pollution of a bloody smear — that we miss the more quotidian twinklings of distant suns, the showering of meteors, the slow, steady migration of Orion, Draco, and Capricorn. We celebrate together only when we encounter an eclipse greater than that of our making. We may blot out the night sky, but we still tremble at the darkening of the sun.
Picking up the recent collaborative album of Sufjan Stevens, Planetarium, forced greater reflections. At times, its anxious, synth-ridden sound marks it as an exceedingly modern work, with a gravity too hard to bear. I have woken in the middle of the night with the lyrics of “Jupiter” still ringing in my mind. No wonder. That gaseous, failed star is like Lucifer, “the loneliest planet.”
Yet the album’s orchestration can soar classically as well, and its overall shape hearkens back to older molds: yes, works like Gustav Holst’s Planets (especially in its brassier moments), but also to the great myths of yore. Our contemporary Muses, at least in this album, cede their lives to the coloring influence of the classical heavens, as they narrate personal pasts and forecast human futures under the guise of Jupiter and Saturn, Mars, Mercury, and other wanderers of our solar system.
Oh forgive me, oh gods,
Or forgive me in fortune,
Forgive me in feeling it out for myself,
As I ought to have feelings for something
As great as thou art. (“Neptune”)
This latter feature is what makes Planetarium such a strange undertaking for any artist of our time. Who sings about the glory of Neptune in these latter days? It is perhaps this fact that makes the album unthinkably tragic. We live, not only in an age of diminished faith, but of dead, eclipsed gods.
In church, we remembered St. Bartholomew this past Thursday, one of many early martyrs who, from Mediterranean to Indic coasts, gave their lives in the vicious war against ancient deities. We battle no such demons these days, or so it seems.
If we’re lucky, some Millennials we encounter structure their lives around abstract concepts of justice or kindness. This is something for which I express gratitude. But, more often, my generation’s excuse for not going to church, not unlike its excuse for many things (like effectual political engagement beyond social media mudslinging), seems to boil down to a desire to eat brunch unhindered on Sunday mornings, and not be bothered by the difficulties of real community. How banal. Surely there was some demigod of tedium among the many lares of classical Rome. If so, s/he now reigns supreme.
I’d like to imagine this week’s eclipse, and Planetarium, suggest possibilities for hope. I am, after all, as Lesslie Newbigin once said, neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a Christian.
Wonder at the fallible, corrupted heavens may be an early rung on Jacob’s ladder, the Son of Man, on whom the angels of God ascend and descend (Gen. 28:10-17; John 1:51). May celestial bodies once more fulfill their created function of ruling the divisions of day and night, marking out times and seasons, and pointing in their good majesty to their Maker (Gen. 1:14-19). The life-giving Spirit can make it so.
The heavens are telling the glory of God.