Our Place in the Cosmos

Sarah Richards
August 20, 2017

Our Place in the Cosmos

When I was a kid growing up in central Iowa, there were a few rare moments outside under the vast sky when I was aware of something, when I felt something that I could not quite put into words—and still can’t. It was a feeling, a state of being where I felt at the same time that I was a tiny, infinitesimal speck in the grand scheme of things, and that I was part of that unimaginably big scheme. It was strangely comforting. I thought for a time that what I call the “big sky” feeling might be attached to that familiar landscape of home. And then I met an ocean…and I’ve had several moments of awareness at sea as well as the prairie.

I do not have the data to say this with certainty, but I would not be surprised to learn that this is a cultural universal, that every human being has their own moment of existential awareness combining intense humility and connection with everything. The cultural and geographic contexts are surely varied, for example, I’ve met more than a few people who say that big sky/endless horizon creeps them out, makes them feel more exposed and alone than part of an interdependent web of existence. And of course that feeling or state of being is very often framed in an explicitly spiritual context, as a moment of holy insight, and unity with God or the universe.

From everything that I’ve read and heard about it, the total solar eclipse we have the great good fortune to witness tomorrow, will be a “big sky” moment amplified a thousand times. We will directly and uniquely experience transcending mystery and wonder ourselves, at the same time knowing that we share it with the millions who see the same eclipse and also with all people around the world who have experienced them over the millennia. According to a 19th century description, it will be something like this:

“A vast, palpable presence seems to overwhelm the world. The blue sky changes to gray or dull purple, speedily becoming more dusky, and a death-like trance seizes upon everything earthly. Birds with terrified cries, fly bewildered for a moment, and then silently seek their night quarters. Bats emerge stealthily. Sensitive flowers, the scarlet pimpernel, the African mimosa, close their delicate petals, and a sense of hushed expectancy deepens with the darkness. An assembled crowd is awed into silence almost invariably. Trivial chatter and senseless joking cease. Sometimes the shadow engulfs the observer smoothly, sometimes apparently with jerks; but all the world might well be dead and cold and turned to ashes. Often the very air seems to hold its breath for sympathy; at other times a lull suddenly awakens into a strange wind, blowing with unnatural effect.”[i]

Sounds pretty unsettling—“death-like trance,” terrified birds, “strange wind.” No wonder that before the scientific knowledge of what was causing the midday sky to darken, the birds weren’t the only animals feeling terrified at the “unnatural effect” of the eclipse. And along with the sensory experience in the moment, there is reflection, seeking to assign meaning to what we’ve witnessed, and what we’ve felt. In pre-modern times those meanings, and the actions that were taken in response, were often based in fear and dread. How might we Unitarian Universalists experience this eclipse? Well, awe and wonder at science and the natural world is a part of many of our theologies, but it is central to the different variations of naturalism.

In his article “A Naturalist Spirituality,” Hugh Taft-Morales says, “My spirituality harmonizes with the great human endeavor of science. The careful observation, reason, and passionate curiosity inherent in science are deeply rewarding. Science calls us to explore our world-to hypothesize and test over and over again. Beholding the wonder of the universe, confronted with our limited size, time and knowledge, we are humbled. Of course we can’t know everything. Mystery will always remain. But in what we can know through science we can find what pragmatist [John] Dewey called, “the spirituality of the actual.”[ii]

We can hear this pragmatic naturalist spirituality in astrophysicist Fred Espenak (aka “Mr. Eclipse”) describing the feeling at the moment of total solar eclipse :

“You experience the music of the spheres, as Kepler called them, the mechanics of the solar system in action. You get an overwhelming sense of humbleness and how small and petty we really are compared to the mechanics of the solar system, the clockwork of the universe. These events that are taking place, that in no way can we affect or stop. It gives us a sense of how tiny we are and yet how we’re connected to the whole system. All this happens all at once.”[iii]

UU minister and theologian William Murry, uses the first person to explain his experience of religious naturalism:

“I feel wonder and amazement at nature’s majesty, beauty, complexity, and power….I feel reverence when I ponder the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the equally mind-boggling smallness of the submicroscopic world….For many religious naturalists, the experience of nature, both beneficial and destructive, evokes a sense of the unity of all things… .For religious naturalists, living in a natural environment is a spiritual experience.”[iv]

Remember the 19th century description of the total eclipse I read earlier? It was written by author and editor Mabel Loomis Todd, who, with her astronomer husband witnessed several eclipses. I have no idea of her theology, but there is a religious naturalist attitude in this passage:

“I doubt if the effect of witnessing a total eclipse ever quite passes away. The impression is singularly vivid and quieting for days, and can never be wholly lost. A startling nearness to the gigantic forces of nature and their inconceivable operation seems to have been established. Personalities and towns and cities, and hates and jealousies, and even mundane hopes, grow very small and very far away.”[v]

So, some of us will view the eclipse as a spiritual experience of nature. Some of us will see it as holy. According to Rev. Tom Owen-Towle,

“We [UUs] recognize that Life’s deeper mysteries are profoundly ambiguous, double-edged; they both attract and repel. Awake and exposed, humans tremble in the presence of the numinous. The mysteries of birth, love, death, sexuality, and the cosmos are uncanny and elicit a special feeling, best rendered by the English word “awe” and its derivatives “awesome” and “awful.” The astonishment we experience in the presence of the Holy is reinforced by the fact that the “ah” sound is present in the name of most deities: Adonai, Yahweh, Allah, God, Rama, Shiva, and Krishna.” [vi]

Owen Towle continues: “Those who remain content to encounter rather than decipher divine mystery affirm that God is but a symbol or sign pointing to unfathomable realities beyond naming. Universalist Clarence Skinner talked of “God as a majestic symbol for the sublimest reality which the human mind can conceive.”[vii]

From the many descriptions I’ve read from “eclipse chasers”, I think we may be in for a fleeting experience of the sublimest reality our minds can conceive—the ultimate, communal “big sky” moment. However we experience it personally, spiritually, reflection on our experience is of more lasting significance. This is because our reflections shape our actions, because we UUs are after all, about deeds, not creeds. Benedictine artist Brother Thomas Bezanson expresses the critical nature of reflection, or contemplation that we might consider, as we prepare to witness a cosmic spectacle.

“The spiritually conscious remind us that we have a third eye, the eye of contemplation. “Contemplation” …simply means to see, but in another way and with a different object than the physical or intellectual eye. The eye of contemplation is the eye of the mystic to be sure, but it is also the eye of the poet – and it is the eye of the artist. We call it by other names because while the experience is one, the expressions are diverse. It calls the mystic to silence, the poet to words, the artist to creative expression, but it is the same mystic source. We call this way of seeing “intuition”, “the inner eye”, “the heart”, “the third eye”, “the eye of the soul”, to which we ought to add, for the sake of our survival, “the eye of humanity”.”[viii]

Friends, no matter what our particular experience of the eclipse will be, we can see it with “the eye of humanity” which calls us to creativity. As artists, poets, maybe, but collectively, the eye of humanity calls us to create the beloved community. We cannot control or influence the music of the spheres, but with this experience of unity with them, we are empowered to take action here on our small patch. How shall we act out of a sense of wonder and gratitude for having witnessed this sublime reality? I invite each of us, and all of us together, to reflect on our experience of the eclipse, and discern actions in response to the fear, discord, and injustice of our times. In recognizing our place in the cosmos as at once irrelevant and deeply connected, will we work with renewed dedication for the health of our small and irreplaceable planet, starting with our tiny, unique Southern Illinois, Delaware, Maryland, Texas environment? Will the shared experience of wonder compel us to spend our precious short lives enacting our highest values? Will it remind us that we are in this together – this life, this struggle for truth, beauty, justice, and love? May we as individuals, and collectively take this literally awe-some opportunity to grow in humility, connection, spirit and action.



[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2017/08/11/these-powerful-moving-solar-eclipse-reflections-will-compel-you-to-watch-on-aug-21/?utm_term=.c9f3c1cc52ca accessed 8/15/17

[ii] Taft-Morales, Hugh. “A Naturalist Spirituality” in Religious Humanism xlvi(2) Spring 2016. p. 76.

[iii] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/8/10/16114762/total-solar-eclipse-chasers-2017 accessed 8/15/17

[iv] Murry, William. Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, Boston: Skinner House Books, 2017, pp. 66-7.

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2017/08/11/these-powerful-moving-solar-eclipse-reflections-will-compel-you-to-watch-on-aug-21/?utm_term=.c9f3c1cc52ca accessed 8/15/17.

[vi] Owen-Towle, Tom. Theology Ablaze, San Diego: Flaming Chalice Press, 2011, p. 242

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Bezanson, Brother Thomas. “The Beauty of the Seen” exhibit catalogue, Boston: Pucker Gallery, 2001. np.