Tomorrow we celebrate the Fourth of July – mostly with fireworks displays.
There’s still more.
I read how, on this Fourth of July, after traveling for five years and 8.5 billion miles, the spacecraft Juno will arrive at its destination close enough to begin exploring the mysteries surrounding the planet Jupiter. Jupiter’s mysteries are manifold and the planet is voluptuous to behold: photographs reveal bands of soft pastel-like clouds embracing it like cartographers’ meridians, and the creamy textures of its cloud masses look like Ben and Jerry’s new flavor freshly scooped from the container. Jupiter is a sight to behold.
Jupiter, the fifth planet from our sun, eighty-nine hundred miles wide, is made up of gasses and liquids and with sixty-two moons orbiting it. Jupiter is largest of the planets. A hundred earths would fit into it. It has a huge, round, red spot presumed to be some kind of activity, perhaps a monster storm. It is the most mysterious and alluring of the planets. Its existence excites wonder and a passion to plumb its mysteries.
For its magnitude and its mysterious goings on, most religious traditions picture god residing above us in the heavens, like stars and planets. I can’t imagine there’d be room enough anywhere else, except maybe deep inside all of us.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the earth shows forth his handiwork,” the psalmist writes. He’s awed by the mystery and the wonder of the heavens and the craftsmanship evident in creating the earth. He believes that by pondering the heaven and earth we’ll catch glimpses of God or perhaps more particularly, experience the majesty of divine energy. God likes to show more than tell when making a point. He likes doing it quietly.
The planet Jupiter contains radiation fields that create auroras similar to what we know as the Northern Lights. Jupiter’s are far more spectacular in magnitude and intensity. I first saw Northern Lights as a boy crossing the Atlantic on a German freight ship, the Volkland. I was eighteen then, still young enough to be astonished. I still had that youthful imagination that lives expectantly, always hungry for amazement.
I suspect that youthful innocence and inexperience helps us see more clearly and feel more deeply. The constraints that follow on the disappointments in growing older can limit vision and restrict our depth of feeling. On that ship one evening, I was certain that I was watching God at work. I stood astonished and in silence.
As the planets were just becoming visible, in the blue-black of twilight large swaths of luminescent green shot across the sky, then another of pale orange and blue tinged white as though god were a painter and had taken a large brush in his hand and swept the sky in broad strokes that momentarily lit up the sky. They quickly vanished as if the brush had insufficient paint to cover that entire firmament. Again more bands of pale colored light pulsed randomly in the sky until, as though the painter tired of his exuberant excursion, decided to call it a night.
This was the first time I’d witnessed the northern lights. I thought this dramatic display would have been accompanied by a thunderous roar or clap. The whole display took place soundlessly. As I stood there for those few minutes I was barely aware of any sound except occasionally the rhythmic beat of the ship’s diesel engine and the whisper the ships wake produced as the Volkland made her way eastward through the Atlantic.
The sky, having gone from deep blue to pure black created another wonder. The wake that would normally be invisible in the dark had become a Milky Way of its own. The ship’s propeller churned up tiny bioluminescents which, when struck, glowed like the tiny lights on Christmas trees. They left a luminous trail as the ship passed through them and as far as my eye could see, the course the ship was holding was illuminated by the incandescent trail that the jellyfish lit.
All this happened sixty-four years ago. It stays in my mind’s eye, I suspect, because for a moment, I had watched as the glory of God revealed itself in his handiwork.
I wonder, too, what wonderful discoveries we will make when Juno begins sending back its reports on our Independence Day. The first report will be three long beeps. I don’t suppose a spacecraft can be astonished. It’s just the messenger.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.