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Within our longest night

The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. – James Irwin, American astronaut

Early this morning, at 3:12 a.m. PST, we went through the winter solstice and our longest night of the year. The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. When this happens, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north (Arctic Polar Circle) are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south (Antarctic Polar Circle) receive 24 hours of daylight.

Ancient humans were much more attuned to the sky – they had not managed to obliterate the stars and moon by artificial light. Growing up in the Texas panhandle, I was similarly blessed by an unobstructed 360 degree view of the horizon and very little light pollution. Sunrises and sunsets were often spectacular and the night sky was a wonder.

Last year I had a wonderful retreat at Christ in the Desert monastery north of Abiquiu, New Mexico. During that week, a group of executives from Sony Classical were there to make a recording of the monks chanting. For these New Yorkers, the night sky was a big surprise. I remember walking out of the refectory after compline and watching one of these urbanites simply gasp in amazement at the sight of the Milky Way. She said she had always thought that you could only see it with a telescope. “Who knew?”, she exclaimed.

As one of the monks began to patiently point out various stars and constellations, I was delighted to be one who “knows” the beauty of the night sky, of the high desert, and of places where our human “progress” has not veiled the beauty of the cosmos.

I have crystallized in my memories long evenings spent lying on my back looking at the night sky. While counting the shooting stars, I would imagine the genius behind all that beauty. As a youngster, I was certain that I was seeing the handiwork of God.

Now I see the work of the Divine all around me when I take the time to simply look beyond all the noise, busyness, and light in the way. This is the journey of this season, to look beyond our normal lives to catch a glimpse of God.

So even if you can’t get away from the blinding lights that obscure your vision of the night sky, see if, for a moment, you can look beyond life as you know it and catch a bit of starlight for yourself. Put it in your pocket and be at peace.

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