What I learned from the Solar Eclipse

Here I am, ready to gaze into the eclipse...
Here I am, ready to gaze into the eclipse. Still a nerd.

I don’t remember much about the spring of 1970, when I was in the third grade. I remember the girl with whom I was rivals for smartest kid in the class (she now is a successful artist in California). I don’t think I had any rivals for nerdiest kid, but I escaped being bullied because somehow I managed to be friends with the biggest boy in the class (I have no idea whatever happened to him). I always got picked last for kickball (I meant it about being the nerdiest). I remember the very first Earth Day — our class helped to clean up the litter out of a creek that meandered along one edge of the school grounds. And I remember — vividly — March 7 of that year, 1970, for it was the day of a Solar Eclipse, which entered totality for those of us who lived on or near the Atlantic coast.

My entire family gathered in our backyard. I made a pinhole camera and watched the progress of the eclipse on a sheet of paper. When it went total, my older brothers looked at it, through an unexposed role of 35mm film (hey, that’s what we were told we needed to do to protect our eyes), but I was too timid to do even that. Nevertheless, I marveled as twilight seemed to show up in the middle of day, with a few stars visible in the sky and the crickets singing with confusion.

So this past Monday I braved the traffic as practically the entire city of Atlanta drove north to get into the “totality zone” for the 2017 so-called “Great American Eclipse.” I joined my sister-in-law and brother-in-law in their home in the north Georgia mountains, where the total eclipse would last for a scant 80 seconds — but that was still long enough to get a good look. As the moon slowly crept across the face of the sun (this time I could watch it directly, armed with my ISO 12312-2 shades), we bounced back and forth between the deck where we could monitor the progress, and inside where ABC news basically treated us to a nationwide pep rally for this unusual astronomical event.

Then came those 80 brief seconds when I could pull off the shades, look at the eclipse and marvel at how spooky it must have been to ancient humans who lacked both the scientific understanding and the ability to predict such events in advance. Surely it must have been an omen, a sign of warning from the gods!

(I will resist the temptation here to make a comment about what kind of warning we might need to receive today.)

But it was over quickly — so quickly that my sister-in-law said out loud, “Is that it?” (I’m sure she wasn’t the only one), and, well, life went on. Traffic back to Atlanta was, predictably, a bear. By Tuesday, stories where showing up on the Internet about the occasional fool who gazed at the event with the naked eye and now was complaining because their vision was blurry; although my favorite story looked at how Megyn Kelly and Shepherd Smith were mocking the hype that surrounded this celestial event.

Many people called it “once-in-a-lifetime,” but I suppose that depends on where you live. This was my second total Eclipse, and I won’t have to travel too far to take in a third one in 2024, God willing that I’m still here.

So why am I writing about it now, two days after the fact, when the headlines are back to politics as usual?

First of all, I’m an introvert, and introverts tend to think slowly and write even slower (one of the reasons why I don’t like to write about politics — by the time I’ve figured out my opinion on something, it’s old news). But part of walking the path of contemplation is learning, as Ignatian spirituality puts it, to “find God in all things.” So here are my thoughts on how we can find God — or, at least, a few contemplative lessons — in something as mundane, if unusual, as an eclipse.

What Can a Solar Eclipse Teach Us About Contemplation?

I’ve thought of three things. Perhaps you can come up with another idea or three…

  1. The sun hidden by the moon is a metaphor for God’s “hidden presence” in all things. At the brief moment in time when a solar eclipse is total, you cannot see the sun. The moon has blocked it out. But you can still see the sun’s corona, which is what makes it such a spectacular event. And as the total eclipse ends, a single burst of light causes an effect called “the diamond ring” which is also spectacular. Isn’t this how God works? God hides from us, and if we tried to see God directly, it would burn the retina of our souls. But even when God is hidden, God’s corona — the light of love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, mercy — remains visible to the naked eye. We just need to know where to look.
  2. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll miss it. In the north Georgia mountains, the entire eclipse lasted less than three hours, with the total eclipse clocking in at under two minutes. Most of that time, as the moon appeared to slowly crawl across the face of the sun, the changes in daylight and temperature were so subtle that anyone not paying attention would simply miss it. This is why contemplative practice is all about learning to cultivate stability in awareness and a relaxed attentiveness. To be present to God — which also means, to be present to love, to compassion, to mercy, to awareness, to silence — we need to open our eyes and pay attention. Otherwise, we miss what is there to see.
  3. Don’t believe the hype (but still look for miracles). Because of all the hype surrounding this so-called “Great American Eclipse,” I can’t blame some folks for wondering “Was that all?” We human beings have a tendency to hype things up — including so-called “mystical experiences.” If you engage in contemplative practice expecting a have a wowie mystical experience that would make George Lucas’s special effects department proud, you are almost assuredly going to be disappointed. But if you ignore the hype and simply enter into that place of mindful presence, I promise you’ll find a miracle. It will be a subtle, gentle miracle: but a real miracle nevertheless.

So did you gain any spiritual insights from the Solar Eclipse? Or any other recent moment during your ordinary life? If so, please let me know, either through social media or as a comment on this blog!


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