“Daddy, I want to see the stars.” Feet firmly planted beside the bed, my four-year-old daughter repeated the request more loudly, waking me sufficiently to reach for the clock. It was past midnight. Stumbling out of the front door with an oversized jacket wrapped around us both, I wondered why I had ever introduced her to the heavens.
We looked up and then we knew. And I remembered a similar early hour when Dad woke me and took me to a high place: just a comet, the stars, and us two. Ikeya-Seki’s tail was long, the stars brilliant. They filled our sky.
This timeless experience is not available to many who live in and around our cities today. But what about the millions who could take the chance to stand beneath a clear night sky, but have not? Rachel Carson describes a particularly memorable encounter with the stars:
I have never seen [them] more beautiful: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. Once or twice a meteor burned its way into the earth’s atmosphere.
It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could only be seen once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.
A sky full of stars? Not exactly breaking news! And consequently many people who could do otherwise, sit in front of the TV at night – missing the greater show outdoors and unwittingly barricading themselves against the bigness and mystery of it all.
By their very presence, the stars invite us to ask the big questions. In one of my favorite Peanuts series, Linus and Lucy are standing beneath a star-spangled sky. “Do you know what holds up the stars, Linus?” “Well, I’m not sure…. Thumb tacks?”
If only we allow them, the stars will connect us to what is best described as awe – something that comes naturally to children and is the root of all that is good. Abraham Heschel writes:
Awe precedes faith, it is at the root of faith…. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you…. Wisdom comes from awe rather than from shrewdness. It is evoked not in moments of calculation but in moments of being in rapport with the mystery of reality. The greatest insights happen to us in moments of awe.
When the sun rose the next day, it was difficult to shake off the effects of lost sleep. But stronger than weariness was the exhilaration of having shared one of those moments – just us two. One day she may remember that night. Or the sense of being awestruck by the mysterious – something that Einstein describes as fundamental to the human experience:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.
For John Polkinghorne, acclaimed particle physicist and Anglican priest, both science and religion are rooted in “encounters with reality.”
I think of God as ordaining the grain of natural law and, therefore, working within the grain of natural law. But we don’t know fully the laws of nature, and I believe that miracles are actually, as John’s gospel calls them, signs. They are windows into a deeper understanding of divine reality, where we see something more profoundly personal, more profoundly particular about the way God relates to the world than we might know otherwise. In other words, they are not conjuring tricks, not sorts of divine tours de force to astonish people and simply coerce belief. They reveal that God has deeper ways, a deeper consistency than the consistency of everyday life.
Those with a passion for the outdoors often find themselves immersed in these deeper realities that sometimes play out on the large screen of the morning sky as our nearest star brings on a new day. Birdwatcher Pete Dunne has seen more sunrises than he can count:
Most people come onto a day full blown – to a sun already high in the sky, a world already in motion, and the impossible task of catching up. They rarely see the tentative side of morning or appreciate the great struggle between light and darkness played out on a world stage. Some mornings come raging over the horizon, angry and red. Some are so subtle that the transformation of night and day seems like an afterthought. All are different and all are priceless.
What is a couple hours’ lost sleep compared to the gift of the night sky or the brilliance of a brand new day? Each encounter with awe has the power to draw us closer to that something that is out there, beyond the beyonds, and yet is also in the heart of every child.