Stars and the Excess of Clarity

Spent some time stargazing a while back, when I couldn’t sleep.

No telescope, just the naked eye, a dark neighborhood and a willingness to wonder. I was digesting a bit of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, and it had stayed with me through evening’s pass – the sight of the stars, the early, wise writings of a monk.

Does the fact that we can no longer see the stars have anything to do with our loss of wonder? These things, the stars, and all creation – they are more splendid, perfect, beautiful and lasting than anything man can create or even conceive.

It seems like when we were more aware of milky ways and horizons, it was easier to believe. Could Joan of Arc have led her army, could she even have thought to, could she have trusted enough, without having a sense of something greater, bigger than herself?

We have obliterated the stars with our artificial light – but perhaps we’ve blinded ourselves, too. Without the wonder, the greatness of the galaxies in our sight, we’ve lost the ability to believe in, or expect, miracles.

When you cannot see the glory of God’s creation, how can you wish to glorify the Lord? No longer seeing anything greater than ourselves, we turn inward, we worship our own thoughts, our invention, our desire.

Each generation–and perhaps my boomer generation more than any other–thinks of itself as the most enlightened, most informed, most aware, but how can that be?

We see the world through 19 inch computer screens, and 40 inch television screens. We melt the sand to create 36 inch windows, and we think that’s as big as the world gets.

We’ve narrowed our perspective – made it boxed sized and so have boxed ourselves in. And then we blame God for not giving us miracles anymore – and we blame religion for making us expect them.

We are such fools. Merton had it more right than I had realized when he wrote:

The devil is no fool. He can get people feeling about heaven the way they ought to feel about hell. He can make them fear the means of grace the way they do not fear sin. And he does so, not by light but by obscurity, not by realities but by shadows; not by clarity and substance, but by dreams and the creatures of psychosis. And men are so poor in intellect that a few cold chills down their spine will be enough to keep them from ever finding out the truth about everything The devil does rob us of clarity by casting us about in shadows. But he fools us into thinking that the shadows are light. Our illumination is only illusory.

And this is why we need the Eucharist. As Merton writes:

I tell you there is a power that goes forth from that Sacrament, a power of light and truth, even in to the hearts of those who have heard nothing of Him and seem to be incapable of belief.

And called the Eucharist:

…that tremendous, secret and obvious immolation, so secret that it will never be thoroughly understood by a created intellect, and yet so obvious that its very obviousness blinds us by excess of clarity; the unbloody Sacrifice of God under the species of bread and wine.

Blinds us by excess of clarity. Yes.

There is a wonderful story about Dorothy Day,
who progressed within that excess of clarity until she had denuded herself of all of her worldly possessions except for her breviary and her jar of instant coffee. Even if I could let go of everything but my breviary, I don’t know if I could embrace the humility of instant coffee, but here is the story as Deacon Greg tells it:

Back in the 1970s, when there was a lot of liturgical innovation going on, Dorothy Day invited a young priest to celebrate mass at the Catholic Worker. He decided to do something that he thought was relevant and hip. He asked Dorothy if she had a coffee cup he could borrow. She found one in the kitchen and brought it to him. And, he took that cup and used it as the chalice to celebrate mass.

When it was over, Dorothy picked up the cup, found a small gardening tool, and went to the backyard. She knelt down, dug a hole, kissed the coffee cup, and buried it in the earth.

With that simple gesture, Dorothy Day showed that she understood something that so many of us today don’t: she knew that Christ was truly present in something as ordinary as a ceramic cup. And that it could never be just a coffee cup again.

She understood the power and reality of His presence in the blessed sacrament.

Which is really the sum and substance of what we celebrate on this feast, Corpus Christi. The reason for what we will do today – celebrating with the monstrance, the music, the procession – isn’t to glorify an inanimate object, a bit of bread contained in glass.

It is to remind the world that in that bread we have been given Christ.

Not an idea. Not a symbol. Not an abstract bit of arcane theology. No. It is wider and deeper and more mysterious than that.

Look at that host — and you look at Christ. Everything we are, everything we believe, everything we celebrate around this altar comes down to that incredible truth. What began two thousand years ago in an upper room continues here, and now, and at altars around the world. The very source of our salvation is transformed into something you can hold in the palm of your hand.

That’s a homily that deserves a full reading.


“The hidden treasure… is Jesus himself, the Kingdom in person. In the Sacred Host, he is present, the true treasure, always waiting for us. Only by adoring this presence do we learn how to receive him properly-we learn the reality of communion”. (Pope Benedict XVI, address to Religious and seminarians, Altotting, Germany, Sept., 11, 2006)”

Lots to think and pray about. How humbling it all is!

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  • Manny

    Seems to me if you focused on the Eucharist you wouldn’t need to look at the stars. ;) I’m teasing. This was a very nice blog. I enjoyed reading the entire thing.

  • Frank Weathers

    He made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns the dusk to dawn and day to darkest night. He summons the waters of the sea and pours them over the land. ‘The Lord’ is his name. —Amos 5:8

  • Alexandrag

    Psalm 104
    1Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
    2Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
    3Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
    4Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
    5Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.

    Yes, the moon and the stars convince me God exists and created our universe. I just cannot imagine the moon and the stars crawling out of a primordial slime.

  • Gloria

    When you can see the stars, you can believe that there might well be “a Sacred.” You can suspect that there is “a Holy.” You can turn your sense of wonder into an “I believe.”

    The awesomeness of the universe above us can help us to want to rise above our material, felt selves.

    When you take away the awesomeness of a golden or silver chalice or the awesomeness of fine priestly vestments or the mystery of hearing the mass in an only partly intelligible language (Latin), then for many ordinary people who are stuck in their material bodies, you take away God.

    It is too bad that certain Roman Catholic intellectuals thought they could reach the common people more readily by discarding precisely what the common people needed to sustain their belief in God. The stars (metaphorically) used to be present inside the church building; they were removed when the clergy turned the church into a simulacrum of a plain Protestant church.

  • bt

    How often at night, when the heavens were bright,
    With the light of the twinkling stars
    Have I stood here amazed, and asked as I gazed,
    If their glory exceed that of ours.

    from Home on the Range

  • archangel

    What I think we all forget is that He is God of the universe. Wrap your hands around that for a moment and think what that means. Each of those stars within the balloon we call space-time, have little rocks circling around them that scientists are desperately trying to find “life” on. No doubt they will. Most definitely plant-like, algae, maybe even an animal of sorts. What happens to the cosmology when that happens? Nothing. It just confirms He created it all.

    Now what happens if we find that HUMANITY… us as we are now, are alone within the void? Now that would be something. That within all the universe, though other planets may have the simple compounds of life, perhaps even jungles of animals living on some alien world or even alien oceans teaming with life… what if HUMANITY is only here. Would that not prove our specialness to Him?

    It was a star by which He was announced.

  • Klaire

    Beautiful post Elizabeth, thanks!

    You make the point I unsuccessfully was trying to make re: Yoga vs the Eucharist a few posts ago. As one who had a guru, a mantra, and knew the Yoga postures backwards and forwards, I came to find it was all short lived.

    By God’s grace I eventually found my way back to my faith, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Jesus never comes up short, He only gets brighter as the world gets darker.

    If only all the world knew the power and beauty of the Eucharist. As Mother Theresa used to say upon receiving it, “I now have everything that I need.”

  • zmama

    The beginning of your post immediately brought to mind my experience of being on Mount Kruzevic in Medjugorje on Christmas Eve night in 1989. After midnight Mass I climbed up the mountain and meeting a few fellow pilgrims up there, ended up waiting there until sunrise. With no street lights there and very few lights from the houses in the village below, the sky was remarkably clear. The view was simply awesome. I was able to see a shooting star during the night as well. I ended up coming home with a bout of pneumonia but it was worth it. I have never forgotten that night. Unfortunately, I have never seen a night sky like that since. I have since seen images of Medjugorge with street lights and I am not sure I would want to go back now.

  • Eka

    On May 16, during a particularly painful time for the Church, B16 delivered this message:

    Dear Brothers and Sisters, the Lord opening the way to Heaven, gives us a foretaste of divine life already on this earth. A 19th-century Russian author wrote in his spiritual testament: “Observe the stars more often. When you have a burden in your soul, look at the stars or the azure of the sky. When you feel sad, when they offend you… converse… with Heaven. Then your soul will find rest” (N. Valentini L. Zák [editor], Pavel A. Florenskij.

  • Jeff

    The inability to see the stars in the tri-state area is indeed quite sad. It’s almost shocking when you are somewhere else and you see them at night.

  • Kris, in New England

    One of the last things I do almost every night – whether it’s when I get home from work and it’s dark or whether it’s before I go to bed – I look at the stars. I am fortunate to live in a rural area that remains unspoiled by artificial light. When it’s dark in my neighborhood, it’s dark.

    I do this – gaze at the stars – to remind myself how infinitessimal I really am, how small my worries are in the great scheme of what God has created.

    Looking at the vastness of the stars and the universe itself – I see God. Quite clearly. Just give me Orion’s Belt and I’m taking away by the grandeur of it all.

  • francesca

    Like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa was also a strong woman who cared for the poorest in body and soul and stayed by faithfully to listen to Our Lord in the Eucharist as a matter of daily practice.

  • Frances

    Uh, Anchoress, if D Day had Mystic Monk, she too would have kept it if only to help the Carmelites. I’m sure of it! ;D If it came down to it, I’d waiver: breviary? Mystic Monk? breviary? Mystic Monk? Hang on, Lord, I’m thinking!!!

    That was a beautiful post! You got me out of the work stress for 4 minutes and into the stars, the glory, the inspiring and the ephemeral. Awesome!!! Thank you!

    And noon mass today was the cosmic blast of the Eucharist my soul was dying for!

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  • Sal

    Living in an urban area whose lights you can see from space, our star-gazing is limited to the moon, the visible planets and the very brightest stars.
    The most memorable part of our fall visit to Palo Duro Canyon was the ability to see all the stars, and I watched them come out each night of our stay- refreshing and humbling at the same time.
    A lovely post, Anchoress.

  • Bill

    Last March my wife and I went to Death Valley National Park. We went to Scotty’s Castle, a fancy mansion in the northern part of the park that was built in the 1920s. The last tour of the basement and tunnels (you have to see it to believe it) was at 5 PM. When we got out at about 6 PM, I think it was dusk. We drove back to Las Vegas, a good one hour and forty-five minute drive. We stopped before we left the national park to just admire the night sky. God’s creation is breathtaking.

  • zmama

    Anchoress-your thoughts re. experiencing the wonders of creation by pondering the night sky inspired me to do a google search to find places in my state and in the US that are conducive to stargazing. Little did I know there is an international dark sky association studying the impact of light pollution. In addition I discovered on their website that Congresswoman Giffords has been involved in the issuein her state of AZ. Coincidence you thought of this today? I think not.

  • Sue

    I have often thought that not being able to see the stars has been keeping many from wonder and the awe of God and His creation. When I was young, I could see the Milky Way every night and I distinctly remember laying outside on summer nights and being overwhelmed by the immensity of what I could see. I KNEW that God existed and I was fearful of His power because of what I saw. It was very good for me!

    “Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.” Psalm 19:2

  • newton

    My husband gave me a nice reflector telescope for Christmas. I’ve been fiddling with it just about every cloudless night. I was able to see Jupiter and its four main moons, Sirius, the Pleiades and the Orion Nebula. Even better – I invited the Little Fig I to take a look.

    Her reaction was unforgettable! She was so excited to see her first planet, and when she saw Sirius, she just beamed, “That’s a STAR!!!”

    As a kid, astronomy was my passion. More mundane matters took me far away from it, but returning to it (first through the Sky setting on Google Earth, then the telescope) has helped me understand the words of the Apostle Paul:

    “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse ”

    No one can’t just look at the night sky, at the billions upon billions of stars, galaxies, nebulas, quasars, etc, and say that this was done just by mere “random acts”. There is no excuse. None.

  • Jim Hicks

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post.

  • @kindlebeard

    Very powerful, very simple, very beautiful, very true.

  • Mike

    I enjoyed your writing about the stars. Indeed they bring to mind God and his creation. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the blind who have never seen what you have described. “We have obliterated the stars with our artificial light – but perhaps we’ve blinded ourselves, too. Without the wonder, the greatness of the galaxies in our sight, we’ve lost the ability to believe in, or expect, miracles.” Certainly something else has been given to them to substitute for seeing the stars and other wonders for they too have an ability to believe in and expect miracles. Perhaps God has given them the vision in their “minds eye”.

  • Randy

    Merton and Dorothy Day! What a combination! They both led me to the moment of change. That special time when one thinks that the world has to have some kind of meaning and that meaning must center somewhere and finally it does in the great Mystery.

    If you guys think something like this, you may enjoy my website: A tale of my search and the humor of my quondam spiritual advisor, Thomas Merton.

  • MelanieB

    Beautiful reflections. When I was a teenager I was in the habit of looking out my window every night before going to sleep to look at the stars. I need to get back into that habit.

    Thank you for the Dorothy Day story. I remember being very moved by it the first time you linked to it. As I finished reading it just now my 17 month old son brought me the figure of one of the magi from our nativity scene and then he brought the figure of the baby Jesus and placed it in my hand. Sometimes one doesn’t have to look far for confirmation of the miracle of incarnation. God give us grace to see the stars and follow them.

  • Stefanie

    Elizabeth — loved this!
    I, too, this week, found myself standing outside at night, staring at the stars, gawking at them, really. I stay at my dad’s house three nights a week (since May, my siblings and I split up the week so that my dad is not so much alone as he tries to adjust to a very weak heart). There is nothing quite so ‘serene’ as standing in the front yard of your childhood home and allowing yourself the time to look up at the stars again, as Sue referred to. It’s free and freeing at the same time.

  • Herkybird

    Is it that we can no longer see the stars or is it we never think to look up? I’m reminded of Raphael’s painting, “The School of Athens,” with Plato pointing skyward toward the eternal Forms, while Aristotle walks beside him, arm extended before him, palm down indicating we should stay focused on practical things.

    Are most of us not reflexively Aristotelian?

  • TeaPot562

    On clear mornings about 5:45 a.m., I go pick up our paper and pause to notice which of the Lord’s created objects is shining in the early morning sky.
    He has set stars that appear to gradually move through our sky over 365 days; and planets (currently Venus in the morning, Jupiter in the evening) that follow regular changes as viewed from Earth. All are beautiful, and follow His laws w/o variation.

  • TeaPot562

    “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars which you have set in place, what is man that you should be mindful of him . . ” __Psalm 8:4-5

  • weSwinger

    For devout souls stuck in large bright cities, behold, the generous American taxpayer gives you the beauty of the cosmos through astronomical photography!

    NASA’s astronomy picture of the day also makes a worthy RSS feed, once you get there.

    God bless all y’all!