Reflection for Sky Sunday in the Season of Creation
Listening to today's Hebrew scriptures is like the passage from night to day, from dark to light, from the depths of midnight and the despair of 3.00 a.m. to radiant midday sun.
Jeremiah despairs: I looked at the heavens, and their light was gone... The Lord said, “The earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.”
While the Psalmist observes: “In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun... It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.”
What very different experiences of life these writers are reflecting. It's as though Jeremiah is writing from a place of darkness, despair, depression, while clever, precocious, handsome King David has set aside time from ruling and from his wives and harem and his children, to jam on his harp, perhaps sitting in the sunshine, full of joy and victory and sheer delight.
At the recent Common Dreams conference in Australia  guest speaker John Dominic Crossan said, "When metaphors get large enough we call them reality. When they get really big, we call them God."
In our contemporary reading, poet Mark Laurent uses this metaphor when he feels he knows “the God of earth and sky and sun and sea and wind and rain...”
And Sky is a really big metaphor. Sky—the heavens—inspire some very big ideas and creative work, most typically in Haydn's majestic and sensuous oratorio, The Creation, whose unknown librettist drew on Psalm 19:1 for the thrilling chorus, “The Heavens are Telling”.
Reviewing a 2009 performance at Royal Festival Hall, London, Edward Seckerson writes: "Haydn’s The Creation begins with a big bang – the big bang, presumably – and if you’re looking to top Handel’s Messiah, as Haydn was, then it was the only place and the only way to start."
Reflecting on our wisdom texts and this heavenly music, we do well to remember that the great classical musicians, like the prophets and psalmists, were as human, as fallible, as competitive and as driven by the need to make a living, as we are. That these great artists, rather than waiting for inspiration were actually employed on contract to emperors, archbishops and influential noblemen, and often produced their most spirited works to order for the power-brokers of the day.
That, like us sometimes, they were dogged with the blackness of despair, the difficult temperament, the wasteland of writer's block, the tantrums; they suffered at times through joblessness and ill health, loss of family and supporters and friends.
We can imagine David humming Joseph Haydn's tune while jotting ideas for his psalm—much as I listened to it while gathering up ideas for this reflection. Jeremiah, we might fantasise, hasn't made it to the chorus and is embroiled in the lesser-known “Representation of Chaos” with which the oratorio begins.
In this Season of Creation, we hear and sense, as well as see, the shades of light and dark, of star rise and moon set, of blown cloud and hail storm, in what we've come to refer to as “the kingdom”—or as the late Judith Dale put it— ‘the eco-system’ of God”.
And we realise, in the words of the Buddha, that "The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart."
Canadian astronomer and comet hunter David H Levy reflects on his religious heritage and its interconnectedness with his work and his love of the night sky.
In Sky and Telescope magazine, Levy wrote:
Equations can explain the physics of what we see in the night sky, but the wonder goes beyond the numbers. Each of us has a personal reason for enjoying [its] precious beauty. For some, the background of a religious liturgy helps.
The Jewish framework is its ancient tradition of a nomadic people that depended on the Moon for their calendar.
Although the Jewish tradition of sighting stars is no longer generally practiced, it dates back to the dawn of sky watching. On cloudy nights, the observer would look at two strings, one white, one blue, and would judge the Sabbath over when he could no longer tell their colours apart.
The eve of Judaism's holiest day, Kol Nidre evening, is known for some of the most soaring music of the Jewish liturgy, but for me its meaning extends literally to the sky... While walking home after one of these services, I noticed the bright 10 day old gibbous moon dominating the evening sky, its impact craters Copernicus and Tycho having just seen sunrise after their frigid two-week night. I realized that the Moon displays the same phase every Kol Nidre night, and has through the ages. That moonlit walk home joined my senses of science and spirituality.
In our lives, are there times when our sense of spirituality is ignited; when we see our occupation as sacred, when we acknowledge the showers of blessings that invigorate our days, and in the evenings, look up at the stars?
In September 1870, after his two year novitiate in the Society of Jesus in London, Gerard Manley Hopkins took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience—and next day moved to Lancashire, according to his brief diary entry, “to Stonyhurst to the seminary” for his philosophical studies.
Hopkins chose the austere life of a Jesuit and was at times gloomy. The brilliant student who had left Oxford with a first class honours degree failed his final theology exam. This almost certainly meant that, though ordained, Hopkins would not progress in the order.
Most of his poetry remained unpublished until after his death. Hopkins felt his interest in poetry prevented him from wholly devoting himself to his religion; however, he later saw that the two did not necessarily conflict Meantime he kept a detailed prose journal.
Here's Hopkins on the spring sky: "But such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet. High up again, breathing through woolly coats of cloud or on the quains and branches of the flying pieces it was the true exchange of crimson, nearer the earth/ against the sun/ it was turquoise, and in the opposite south-western bay below the sun it was like clear oil but just as full of colour, shaken over with slanted flashing 'travellers', all in flight, stepping one behind the other, their edges tossed with bright ravelling, as if white napkins were thrown up in the sun but not quite at the same moment so that they were all in a scale down the air falling one after the other to the ground..."
The gloomy, conflicted Hopkins might have been reading the gloomy but hopeful Jeremiah. And yet, Hopkins is able to write:
"Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! the bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there... "
And amongst Jeremiah's threats and anguish, he manages a vision of hope, in chapter 24:7 “They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.”
As I wrote these words, I looked out the window of our new home in Kapiti. Because there's a big dip down from the house to an orchard and lawn, I could see—past the not-quite-flowering cherry and the clothesline—clear to the sky with just the tops of the trees, ours and our neighbours, obscuring the view.
Yesterday we walked around admiring the green leafiness that's already replacing blossom on the fruit trees and watched the tui who visits from the reserve around the corner, as well as the flights of ducks overhead, the ubiquitous seagulls, and the starlings and sparrows who wait in a semi-circle for crusts, and smirk at our ancient cat who's too dignified or too arthritic to chase them.
Thinking of Sky—this Sunday's theme—was more difficult than other Season of Creation subjects have been. Mountains, Oceans, Rivers—with these it's been simple to find and make connections; individually, they offer scope for contemplation.
But the sky, I found, is always experienced in relation to something else: to the air, to the trees, to the birds and the clouds and the stars.
And then I found a quotation from A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman, and realised that reflecting on SKY in relationship with all of creation makes better sense than to think of it in isolation.
Here's what excited me and made the theme come together: “Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth. We walk through it, yell into it, rake leaves, wash the dog, and drive cars in it. We breathe it deep within us. With every breath, we inhale millions of molecules of sky, heat them briefly, and then exhale them back into the world.”
Isn't that a wonderful image?
Like Gerard Manley Hopkins' “Holy Ghost [who] over the bent World broods with warm breast and ah! Bright wings”; and David's heavens which day after day and night after night, although they “have no speech, they use no words... yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”; with every breath we “inhale... molecules of sky... then exhale them back into the world.”
Diane Ackerman, like David and Jeremiah and David Levy and Gerard Manly Hopkins and Mark Laurent and Joseph Haydn, reflects on the heavens:
“That evening,” she writes, “as I watched the sunset’s pinwheels of apricot and mauve slowly explode into red ribbons, I thought: The sensory misers will inherit the earth, but first they will make it not worth living on.
When you consider something like death, after which... we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly.
It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are.”
How high is the sky? How expansive are our metaphors? When our earth mourns and our heavens go dark, what Christ may come for us, from the sun, the air, cloud and mist, the tempest winds of change?
What spirit blows through our “eco-system of God”?
This week, this season—or next time the dark clouds start to gather and you feel the stars are unreachable and heaven is far off, remember: “Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky.”