Another Australian evening is coming on. Soon the setting sun will burnish the contrasting orange and silver patterns of a gum tree’s bark and deepen the glowing pink of the galahs’ feathers as the birds find their roost for the night.
It is time to be enveloped once again by a vast silence interrupted only occasionally by the irreverent laughter of a kookaburra or the raucous screech of a homing sulphur-crested cockatoo.
When the sun sets in the northern tablelands of New South Wales, the near-vertical ecliptic can create a sudden plunge from daylight into darkness. And on clear winter nights the swath of the Milky Way extends from the Swan in the north to the luminous star clouds and dark dust lanes extending from the Archer to the Southern Cross. Viewed in one piece, the effect is breathtaking.
The Southern Cross is lovely and deserves its iconic position on the flags of five nations. But it is the Scorpion that commands center stage within the Milky Way – tail coiled for the painful strike, pincers outstretched ready to capture the unsuspecting wanderer.
Lately a mythic drama played out overhead as the planet Mars was inexorably drawn into the claws of the constellation. It passed within three degrees of Antares, a reddish star imbedded in the Scorpion, whose name means “the rival of Mars,” having about the same brightness and color as the planet. The ancients who named this red giant did not know that Antares far exceeds the size of our sun; in fact, were it to sit in the center of our solar system, its outer rim would extend beyond the orbit of Mars.
Silence, solitude, sunset, and stars have a softening effect on the human spirit. Under their influence, our mundane concerns – what poet Philip Britts called the “day-long tap of thoughts” and the “trivial tinkle of the day” – are gradually replaced by wonder. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, this sense of wonder is not simply of passing worth; rather, it forms the very root of faith itself and nurtures a wisdom that no amount of knowledge can replicate:
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.
We would do well, then, not to miss such opportunities as come our way – and they will do so no matter the setting, if our hearts are attuned to them.