In praise of the starry heavens
By Brian McGreevy
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
While I was preparing a class recently on C. S. Lewis’s brilliant dystopian fantasy That Hideous Strength, I ran across this quotation from Emerson that stopped me in my tracks. Imagine if the stars only came out once every thousand years — the whole world would indeed be struck with awe and wonder and even worship. But alas, for many city dwellers and especially for many children today, the night sky and the starry firmament are phenomena they encounter only in storybooks, if at all.
Summer in Charleston, with its long evenings and spectacular sunsets, is a marvelous time to re-engage with the wonder of God’s creation and the created order. Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens are declaring the glory of God, and the firmament declares His handiwork. Yet how many of us are completely cut off from any appreciation of the revelation of God in creation? When we contemplate the beautiful, orderly universe God has made, it reminds us that God is the author of beauty and truth and goodness, which shine with order rather than chaos.
If you are a parent or grandparent, perhaps one of the most important things you can do this summer is to take younger members of your family out somewhere like Edisto or Seabrook on a cloudless night where they can behold the stars. Until the 20th century, most people in this country saw the glory of the night sky every evening, but in our age of cities and light pollution, this quotidian miracle has literally vanished from our experience; many children have never really beheld the starry firmament. In a culture riddled with anxiety, disorder and despair, we would do well to recall Jesus’s admonition in the Sermon on the Mount to consider (think carefully about) God’s creation, the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as part of the antidote to worrying.
Colson Center commentator Shane Morris describes our cultural problem this way:
A lack of contact with the natural world atrophies the mind. Asphalt and sheet rock and glowing screens can become a prison instead of a home. We are created to learn the physics of life — to see, to sense and to wield our bodies — in nature. We are made to marvel at shapes and colors no human hand crafted and to learn what beauty means in God’s studio before ever picking up our own brushes. I am convinced that many of the neuroses and mental torments of modern life would vanish if our children’s first playmates were again frogs and grasshoppers and birds, instead of anonymous pictures and pixels; if they learned the feeling of their feet in a stream before ever being numbed by digital feeds and streams. It isn’t that technology or modern conveniences are bad. It’s that they are less real, less objective, less given than the natural world. We make them and remake them, flattering ourselves with delusions of deity. Living creation comes to us out of pure, incomprehensible grace. We meet it with the dumbfounded eyes of children, and our relationship is one of pure discovery. It teaches us that we are not the center, that there is more above and beyond us, that we ourselves have a nature and that the best things in life are gifts.
When we cut ourselves off from the wonder of God’s beautifully ordered creation, we become progressively less human. It is no accident that in Lewis’s and Tolkien’s oeuvre, characters are constantly outdoors, walking places in day and night and deeply connected with nature. Now with our Babel-like cities, we have blotted out the night sky, a huge loss to our sense of being placed under the vault of heaven. This deprivation leads to sad quotations like the following:
“I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are” (from a fourth grader interviewed for a study on the nature of play).
The famous 18th-century British essayist Joseph Addison, author of the hymn “The Spacious Firmament on High,” understood well why we need to be immersed in God’s creation:
[GOD] has made the best arguments for his own existence in the formation of the heavens and the earth, and these are arguments which a man of sense cannot forbear attending to who is out of the noise and hurry of human affairs … The Psalmist has very beautiful strokes of poetry to this purpose in that exalted strain (Psalm XIX).
Make a plan to encounter the glory of the night sky — you’ll be glad you did!
The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy, J.D., serves as Assistant to the Rector of St. Philip’s Church, where he oversees hospitality ministry, teaches regularly on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, and serves in the preaching rotation. An alumnus of Porter-Gaud School, he is also a graduate of Emory University School of Law and served as Managing Director and General Counsel of an international financial services trade association prior to pursuing ordained ministry. He is married to the former Jane Hollis Whitney and they have four children and three grandchildren. He may be reached at email@example.com.