Tripping across the crunchy pebbles, I stubbornly refused to pull my phone out of my pocket to act as a flashlight. I slowed my pace, feeling the atmosphere of awe so present around me. Loathe to make more unnecessary noise or disturb my friends’ stargazing with the bright light of my phone, I slowly fumbled my way to an open spot. Sitting down on the gravel, I was instantly, acutely aware of every sharp point and uncomfortable edge of stone that pressed into my legs. But tonight it was worth it. Tonight I would not complain and shift uncomfortably. Tonight I would settle into my seat, strain my neck looking as deep into the sky as I possibly could, and observe the phenomena of which I had only been made aware 20 minutes prior. Tonight I would get to watch the total lunar eclipse.
The atmosphere on campus was quite special. As I walked from Regents to my lunar viewing spot, I passed a huge number of people gathered on the quad, all gathered in hushed reverie. For the most part, nobody was moving, and all were looking upwards. Though the scene was strange, one only had to look up at the moon to join the crowd in silent contemplation and understand the hushed voices and upturned eyes. When I finally made it to my viewing place, I stayed there, staring at the moon as long as I could. I forgot the people beside me, the time, and all the many things I had yet to do that Sunday. I lost myself in the moon’s slow movement across the sky. This eclipse was cosmic theater, and for that night, St. Olaf was the silent audience.
One of the many strengths of the theater is its ability to evoke strong emotion in people through storytelling. To see a story told on a stage, wherever that stage may be, can be powerful enough to make people giddy and joyful, pensive and moody or just shocked. Communicated emotion is incredibly powerful, and subsequently dangerous, since its application can be misused.
The lunar eclipse evoked a sense of awe. Watching the moon travel the sky and shine a brilliant red served to remind those watching of the grand scale of the universe, and the incredibly intricate and huge systems at work so far beyond our sight. When confronted with the vastness of the world we inhabit, awe seems like the only possible emotion with which we can respond. The story told by the lunar eclipse is one of a universe that keeps moving and working despite any help or hindrance from humanity. The brilliant colors and remarkable visuals of the moon would have been there had no human audience members been present, and they certainly didn’t need any human help to be astounding in appearance.
Since the eclipse, I have been trying to go stargazing more often. Enjoying the spectacle of the cosmic theater always helps me ground myself. I forget myself and my homework. The beautiful vastness of the sky above me, representing inconceivably vast distances and billions of trillions of places I could never possibly see, kindly accepts my human concerns and invites me to sit and watch. I always leave the experience in a state of quiet assuredness in my meaningfulness and a desire to create something beautiful, or try to somehow capture the beauty I witnessed.
At St. Olaf we belong to a rich tradition of performance. With Christmas Fest every year, performances of our numerous nationally recognized ensembles, the yearly performances of the Theater and Dance Departments and the host of student organization performances that happen each year, we do not suffer from lack of theatricality. Some of these performances inspire awe and joy in people like nothing else can. One of the most powerful memories I have is that of participating in Christmas Fest last year and contributing to the sheer power and magnificence of the performances. But once in a while we need to step out of the observation of human performance and revel in the wonder of natural performance. The effortless beauty and vitality of the world around and above us, manifest in the lunar eclipse we all so silently beheld grants us a certain introspection.
Call it meditation, call it prayer or call it simple theater-going. But go out some night. Bring friends, hot beverages and warm blankets. Go to the natural lands, Thorson hill or the middle of the quad. And just sit. Or lay down. Look up at the sky and see the light that has travelled incredible distances to your eyes. See the brilliance of a shooting star, the incredible beauty of an eclipse. Let the universe bring itself to you, and accept the gift it gives you.