Looking Up Like the Ancients Did

As the night sky terrified me, it embraced my husband.

When my husband and I stepped out for a walk one evening during our recent travels in France, we met with a darker night than we are used to. The Normandy countryside, dappled with stone villages and World War II memorials, had grown dark, quiet, and still—save for the occasional car swerving along the hedge-rowed roads, the distant sound of one bird calling to another across the fields, or the soft chuckle of streams winding across the ancient marshlands.

To my surprise, I saw more clearly above me than below, hardly able to discern my feet as we walked along the narrow road and to the stone bridge near our hotel. I felt the thickness of grass, heard the obstinate twig break beneath my shoe, wondered what I might trip on. Our innkeeper had put out the porch light, leaving us in thick blackness and with a new sense of strangeness—a foreign land made more foreign by the dark. So I looked up at the sky, for there was some light.

The stars above us grew numerous as the sky darkened. Looking up, we tried to trace the Milky Way, to imagine its sweeping arc across the upward horizon; we strained our eyes for the small flash of a shooting star.

Though my neck ached under the weight of this upward gaze, I kept on, grateful for an excuse to ignore the darkness that enveloped us below. Veiled by night, the trees, the walls of the old buildings down the road, the contours of the grassy hills were shades to us—unseen and unknown.

“Do you ever picture it?” my husband asked, “Do you ever zoom out? Here we are, on this bridge, in this region of this country, on this planet. Imagine us from that distance. And then look closer: on this planet, in this country, in this village in Normandy, right here.”

Imagining this for a moment, I sensed the difference between his experience of the darkness and my own. The blackness of night grounded him in a sense of wonder and awe, a window into the particulars and universals of human experience. But I found myself frightened, overcome by the deepening sense of our aloneness in a vast abyss of dark, lost in a cosmos of uncontrollable, unknowable force. As the night sky terrified me, it embraced him.

Before the modern era, this embrace was the experience of most astronomers as they looked up at the night sky. In their understanding, the ordered whole of the cosmos in turn looked down upon man as its center, enfolded the earth within a blanket of divine lights, turned about its human center with love. The fear proper to man’s observation was one of reverence and awe at the perfection of the universe he beheld and at his designated role within it. Viewing the earth as the center of the universe, man’s daily work, his toil and leisure and worship, all fit within an order that revealed itself in the perfectly cyclical path of the heavens. To be reminded that his existence bore meaning, he could look up at the stars.

To the modern world, the stars often reaffirm our bewilderment. Astronomers soon discovered that earth was not the center of the cosmos, that planets moved about in their odd elliptical orbits around the sun—later, that this universe was just one of many. The word “cosmos,” meaning “order,” was replaced with “space”—a vague and vacuous region.

Though we gained truth with these discoveries, we lost some as well: coinciding with these revelations was the rejection of any order to which man is accountable. And we were hurled into a dark abyss whose intelligibility we should never hope to grasp. This was just the sort of knowledge in which we lost our wisdom, the information in which we lost our knowledge.

But it took just one night for a change to begin unfolding within me. Just one imaginative exercise of envisioning myself at first on this lonely planet, then on a planet whose place and meaning is fixed and set within an ordered whole. And so I propose a simple thing: Go outside tonight and look up. Look for Orion’s Belt or the Big Dipper. Try to remember what the Ancients likely thought when they gazed upward. We are not drifting through bleak, vacuous space—meaningless and unknowable—but we are embraced by a sky whose ordered grandeur discovers us and makes our meaning known.

1 Comment

  • June 9, 2017

    Rhonda Schmeltzer

    That is a wonderful, thought provoking article. Thank you for sharing your experience.