I have just returned from a personal, completely silent retreat of three days’ duration at New Camaldoli Hermitage. New Camaldoli is a Benedictine monastery of 800 acres set on a hillside a mile or so above ocean cliffs on the central coast of California, placed among oak, eucalyptus, various spreading evergreen trees, and lots of chaparral. Though the hillside was open to sunlight, the sea below was blanketed in fog like batting throughout the day.
I have gone to the Hermitage every year or two for a decade or more, and had been there less frequently than that since 1975. I picked the dates of this retreat back in February when I made my reservation because of a total eclipse of the moon that was to take place on August 28. I only found out a few days before my departure that the eclipse would occur between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.! Still, I woke up for it.
The sound of cicadas was everywhere. The full moon was a bit south of directly overhead. The view could not have been better. A little after 2:00 a.m. the disk of the earthshadow had bitten a noticeable chunk out of the moon. An hour later, the moon was fully engulfed by the shadow and had become the color of blotchy, drying blood. It was definitely worth getting up in the wee hours of the morning to see, but there was an added blessing I hadn’t anticipated.
I could see the Milky Way—the great spangle of stars that spreads across the night sky as if it had been sprayed. Unfortunately there were bright night-lights in the proximity of the retreatants’ rooms, but I only had to walk fifty yards or so to get away from them. I lay on my back on the top of a low brick retaining wall and looked up. The view of the stars was dazzling. There were so many it was even hard to identify common constellations.
Is this what Abraham saw? I wondered. “The Lord took Abram outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5). Abraham probably saw even more stars than I was seeing, for he had no artificial lighting of any kind to wash out the light of the stars.
As I stared upward, I was unexpectedly brought back fifty years or more when I could see the Milky Way from the back yard of my home in Northridge, a little town in the San Fernando Valley twenty miles northwest of Los Angeles. For decades now light pollution has been so strong there that one can see few stars at all, much less the Milky Way. I’ve heard reports that when there is a power failure in Los Angeles, frightened people call up the police station to ask what all the dots of light are in the sky. How incredibly sad!
I remembered that it was looking up at the night sky in the early 1950s when I was a small child that first piqued my sense of wonder and inspired a love of astronomy. From that, through many stages, came my love of orthodox Christian theology, which is itself throbbing love poetry for God. My sense of wonder has never been slaked—rather, it grew into worship.It was well worth waking up at 2:00 a.m. Although, being on retreat in a hermitage, I was in silence, I was also in a place where “The morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy!” (Job 38:7)