“We make idols of our concepts, but Wisdom is born of wonder.”
— Pope Gregory I
As I left my Finnish forest cabin in the earliest hours of the day last summer, I was struck by a sight so overwhelming and yet a sight so ordinary. Above me lay the vast expanse of the Milky Way. Every named cluster and constellation was visible, whether the Hyades or the same Pleiades and Orion which the prophet Amos noted in wonder in 750 B.C.
Since the dawn of man’s life on earth, wondering at the night sky above him has not only served the functions of inspiring the greatest artistic and poetic works and paths of navigation but has also assisted in his very understanding of himself, his universe, and his God.
Yet, according to a 2016 study, a third of the world's population now lives in areas in which the Milky Way is concealed, a devastating number which reaches 80% in the United States and 60% among the average European. Light pollution—an anthropogenic phenomenon whereby the purity of the dark is obscured by the hubris of industrial modernity—has now afflicted humankind for more than a century and a half.
The affliction is famously summarised by an anecdote about Los Angeles residents in 1994 who, experiencing a large blackout, called emergency services in alarm at the sight of the imposing Milky Way hovering above their homes, which many were witnessing for the first time. Beyond such signs of our loss of harmony with the natural, I propose we have also lost a crucial means of attaining harmony with the supernatural. To put it more positively, we stand to gain humility and wisdom, both with their ends in God, from a clearer (in every sense of the word) relationship with the night sky. It is excessive to propose that the inverse relationship between atheistic materialism and the visibility of the night sky is a fact of direct causality, but there is more to be said for it than we acknowledge.
As the great Macarian Homilies exhort us, the created Sun and Moon cry out to be seen, “given for man to gaze upon and be filled with awe.” Similarly, wrote the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, do each one of the stars evoke for man the grandeur of God that is impressed into the world around him. Were the stars to appear only one night in a thousand years, Emerson imagined, how would men “believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!” For Emerson, the stars were envoys of the transcendental divine beauty, and still they presented themselves night after night in his 19th century Massachusetts, just as the infant industrial revolution began molding the world we know today.
By contemplating the stars, some of which are a thousand times the diameter of our familiar friend the Sun, man should be reduced to the sighs of Job who, when faced with terrible tribulation and reduced to a wormlike stature, could only respond in awe at the grandeur of God. Indeed, Job, gazing at a starry sky, described his Creator not in vague or inattentive terms but as the One who made “Arcturus, and Orion, and Hyades . . . Who doth things so great and incomprehensible, and wonderful, of which there is no number. If He come to me, I shall not see Him.” (Job 9:9-11)
Job’s inability to comprehend the vastness of the universe he saw above granted him a perspective that, perhaps paradoxically, understood the very fullness of reality: his own smallness and the grandeur of God alone.
How this translates to our situation today is no different. An English study has shown that participants who spent more time stargazing described an increase in both transcendent and spiritual emotions and social belonging.
Embracing our finitude—our boundaries and limits as individual humans—frees us to attain humility and therefore higher knowledge. In the shadowy pride that caused our fall, we continually need reminding of that reality beyond human control and comprehension. We need perspective about what is not, and cannot be, born of man and his own efforts. Today we see this lesson taught most painfully in the coronavirus pandemic overwhelming every nation, in a world forced to its knees, wondering day by day why it is incapable of deflecting the pandemic’s destructive course. In a world of scientific, economic and political progress that are all, we are told, the fruits of man and his genius, suddenly he and his progress are left subject to the whims of nature. Just as stars older than our comprehension die before us, so too does man die at a time unbeknown to him, his small place in the unpredictable and vast universe coming to an end.
Forgetting our place in and dependence on our natural surroundings, and ultimately on God, disconnects us from the Great Chain of Being and so from reality itself. As street lights mimic daylight and economies become ever more insomniac, we cannot feign surprise that mental health crises would simultaneously be soaring in urbanscapes which have long proclaimed not only God as dead but also the earth as unchained from the Sun, just as Nietzsche described the madman bearing a lamp at the height of morning daylight.
While Pope Gregory I cited Socrates in reminding us that Wisdom is born of wonder, a later Pope Gregory, this time Gregory XVI, foresaw the calamities that would come to be associated with detaching man from the natural light of the working day and the darkness of a magnificent night sky. Forbidding “evil” street lighting in the Papal States in 1831 was no negative reaction against progress but a positive declaration in favor of man’s relationship to nature. From an obscured view of day and night would follow not only blows to ecosystems and human health but also an obscured view of man, of the universe, and of God. We have exchanged a wealth of Wisdom available to the humble man in his natural and higher surroundings for goods mundane and temporal, just as we pursue economic growth at the expense of environmental degradation and momentary pleasures at the expense of divine joy.
We have to ask ourselves what progress means. The astronomer Tyler Nordgren said “Four hundred years ago, everyone in Florence could see the stars, but only Galileo had a telescope. Now everyone has a telescope but no one can see the stars.” What adjustments must we make to see them once again and to accept their spiritual nourishment?
A series of successive surveys conducted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England found that 10% fewer people suffered severe light pollution after a year of coronavirus-induced lockdowns, able to see more than ten stars as a result of paring back our economic system. If our pre-pandemic lifestyles were sustained only at the expense of the natural world around and above us, it is worth considering which of our material scalings-down could be worth retaining.
To be a humble subject of a dark night and a bright morning is, as a wise monastic once told me, “the only way to make sense of our existence.” In surrendering our limited tools of control, we are forced to rely not only on nature but on the One who created and still chooses to sustain it. As the Roman Breviary, paraphrasing an ancient hymn, enjoins, “as fades the glowing orb of day, to Thee, great source of light, we pray”.
Creation was handed to man to nurture and protect and not merely to pillage for temporal gain. Our time here is short and right at its dawn God set the boundaries of day and night for man’s good: his rediscovery and return to prelapsarian reality.
E quindi uscimmo [dall'inferno] a riveder le stelle // Thence we came forth [from the Inferno] to rebehold the stars.
— Dante Alighieri
Elena Attfield holds a Master’s degree in the Political Economy of Europe from the London School of Economics and is an alumna of the University of Leeds. She works in regulatory consulting. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.