Someone said on the radio the other day that, in America’s current condition, a total solar eclipse could be just what the nation needs. An ‘awesome’ experience, one that merits the overused adjective, with the power perhaps to draw a divided nation together – even if only momentarily. Its path across the States makes it likely to be one of the most watched ever; and in our social media age, doubtless one of, if not the most shared.
I well recall the last total eclipse to touch Blighty – that’s to say, clip our south-western corner of Cornwall – at 11 minutes past 11, on the 11th of August 1999 – a timing coincidence not matched again on these shores till Andy Murray lifted the Wimbledon crown amid a rash of fortuitous ‘7’s. The celestial event arrived at a significant time for me (though I was in the north of Scotland, so unable to witness its full glory). I was emerging from a period of spiritual depression; which can sound a bit weighty and worthy, but I just mean I’d been in the grip of negative thought patterns that banished hope and struck right at the core of my sense of well-being. The effect of finally finding inner release, not least through a fresh insight of divine mercy in a book called ‘Guilt and grace’ by Paul Tournier, at the time struck me as akin to the magical moment when a splash of light at last breaks out again from behind the moon’s blackened disc.
The extraordinary cosmic coincidence at the heart of an eclipse is now quite well known: the (variable but to all intents and purposes ‘perfect’) fit of moon disc over the sun, enabled by the ‘400 times larger, 400 times further away’ relation of sun to moon. I tend to think such a quirk of celestial geometry could perhaps engender more wonder and deeper questioning than it does in our sceptical culture, though I wouldn’t want to posit such a crass conclusion as ‘startling solar eclipse stats, therefore God’. But I do feel that the extraordinary spectacle and experience that an eclipse creates, at least provides a rare opportunity to reflect a little deeper on life, our place in the cosmos, and indeed the meaning of it all.
Ponder for a moment its attendant marvels: a deepening hush, illumination of stars and planets, revelation of the mysterious milky dancing corona…sudden sparkle of the ‘diamond ring’… the sense these phenomena give people of unity and cosmic connection. There is a gift quality to this event, a beckoning to search deeper, an invitation to encounter… It’s not easy to say more without cheapening what I’m trying to express. But if there is perchance a transcendent, numinous and personal Reality out there, there’s nothing in nature to rival this event for its power to coax you to ‘taste and see’… It’d be a shame, to put it mildly, to return to the humdrum unchanged.
I leave the last word to a fabulous piece of eclipse writing by Pulitzer-prize winning Annie Dillard in ‘Total Eclipse’, about the last US one in 1979: ‘The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us…the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon…It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth’s face’. (from ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’, 1982.)