Looking to Heaven

By Kit Carlson

On August 12, the Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak. For those who can find a dark enough spot, who are willing to sit up throughout the long night, the reward is awesome. Up to 60 shooting stars an hour fly through the sky, blazing with a sudden and glorious streak of light.

But most Americans, even if they are willing to stay up to see the show, will not be able to see it in its glory. Creeping light pollution is taking the night sky away from us. Where in a purely dark sky, almost 2,500 stars are visible to the naked eye, in most inhabited areas that number shrinks quickly, to 200 in outlying suburbs, 75 or so on the edges of a city and in downtown Manhattan, one might be lucky to count 15 stars in total. And a couple of those are likely to be the brighter planets, not stars at all.

Humanity is shutting out the stars. More and more people, more and more badly shielded and energy-wasteful lights, more and more lumens, and slowly but surely, the stars are fading away. Astronomers in some of the world’s most noted observatories are having difficulty seeing stars, even with their high-powered telescopes, because of light pollution. Amateur star-gazers are learning not even to bother.

This is not simply an ecological or even a scientific issue. It is also a theological issue. Without the immensity of heaven overhead, we lose some of the greatest images of God’s creativity and glory. We lose some of the most wonderful images in the Bible.

For instance, the prophet Amos writes: Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth: The Lord is his name. But who can see the Pleiades anymore (much less count all seven of the stars in that cluster)? And Orion has been erased until only the three stars of his belt remain.

And when God promises Abraham that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, what does that mean to those of us who live in semi-darkness, who can count the stars overhead and find them few in number? Maybe the promise to Abraham isn’t as bountiful as one might think, when one can only see a dozen stars.

Most of all we lose the sense of our place in the universe, camped out as we are on a tiny blue rock here on the outer fringes of one middling galaxy in all the infinity of space. How can we sing along with the psalmist, When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

We forget ourselves. We forget our place. We forget the immensity of the creation we inhabit and the commensurate immensity of the One who created it all. Yet that is how, for millennia, human beings became aware of the transcendence of the world, the vastness of the universe, and the presence of God. By looking at the stars.

Madeline L’Engle liked to tell the story of her first awareness of God. She was only two, and her family was staying at a beach cottage in what was then a remote corner of Florida. And someone said, “Let’s wake the baby up and show her the stars.” Wrapped in a blanket, held in her mother’s arms, young Madeline looked up into the black and star-spangled sky and recognized her Maker.

Will any of us ever be able to share that experience?

(For more information on how to protect the night sky, visit the International Dark Sky Association website at www.darksky.org)

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., where she blogs at Saints Alive!

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