The Sky Before Electricity
In our light-filled world, with electric lamps illuminating our streets, backyards, and skies, few of us ever see the magnificence of a star-filled heaven. Indeed, as Paul Bogard explains in his book, The End of Night, only a few, very isolated places on Earth allow a vision of the night sky like the one our ancestors would have enjoyed, and then only after many hours of waiting for our eyes to adjust.
Now that it is fall, I’m out for my walk before the sun rises, yet everywhere I go my path is lit by artificial light. Even when I turn onto the wooded path behind the golf course, the most I can see of the stars, assuming it is a cloudless morning, are a few constellations—the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia. Once, while in the smaller city of Port Townsend—this was many years ago—I stood outside on a clear night and gazed at the endless expanse of flickering dots above me. Watching them, I knew something of awe. Yet apparently, even that sight was paltry compared to the deep night of, say, Vincent van Gogh’s day.
In his painting, A Starry Night, we see what we think is a fanciful rendering of colorful, swirling stars. Yet the view Van Gogh renders is more like what any of his contemporaries would have seen than we know. In true darkness, not only are the stars immeasurable, but they are colorful. Bogard tells us that, back before the dawn of electricity, “flashes of red, green, yellow, orange, and blue” filled the black sky.  Once, the night danced and whirled with a fantastic, almost magical, glow.
Once There Were Gods
Perhaps that’s why our ancient ancestors believed in the divine. They lived closer to a world constrained by the forces of nature, one more frightening and also more wonderful. When you can generate stars of your own, you’re less impressed by the work of the gods. In our modern age, the glare of lights has blinded us to the mystery and the miracle. It has blinded us to the power of the holy.
When the biblical God said, “Let there be light,” it was a big deal. Ancient humans knew what it was to fear the darkness. Many native peoples tell stories about a time when not even the moon diluted the dark. For instance, the ant people could not see to find finding their way home after going into the fields to work, and Grizzly Bear could sneak up and steal their babies from their nests without them realizing it.
Knowing the living creatures needed light, Raven stole the sun and moon from a chief who wanted to keep them for himself.
In the Bible, everything was chaos before God made light. It’s a good thing, too, because the dark is perilous. We can run afoul of spirits, ghouls, murderers, and thieves, not to mention wild animals and unseen ditches that trip us up.  Light was considered sacred because it protected us from sin and danger.
Gazing at the Sky at Night
At the same time, night was when adults could rest, think, and make love. And while A. Roger Ekirch gives numerous examples of families barring themselves in at night, closing shutters, and drawing curtains, someone must have braved a view of the heavens during those dark hours. Unless he had stepped outside to see the sky, how else could Henry Wadsworth Longfellow write about a moonless night?
The night is come, but not too soon;
And sinking silently,
All silently, the little moon
Drops down behind the sky.
There is no light in earth or heaven
But the cold light of stars;
And the first watch of night is given
To the red planet Mars.“The Light of Stars” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The poem is about suffering and strength, which is partly why Longfellow uses the metaphor of Mars, the God of blood and power. Still, if humans always hid when the sun went down, not only could Longfellow not know that Mars glowed red in the sky, the reader would not understand his celestial references. Nor could William Wordsworth have waxed poetic about seeing the moon “in a blue-black vault . . . Followed by multitudes of stars.” 
In the Hands of a Force Divine
Yet long before those poets lived, our ancestors named the constellations. Obviously, we have been scanning the heavens to try and make sense of the universe for as long as we have been human. Darkness may be a fearful thing, and God may have given us light so we could have life, yet as Sarah Williams wrote in her poem about the love of an astronomer for the sky, beauty is worth the risk.
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams
The wonder of the darkened heavens has grabbed our imaginations, filled us with awe, and helped us understand that we are but minuscule creatures in the hands of a force we sometimes call divine.
We Are Made from Star Stuff
They say that God said, “Let there be light.” Because words have power, his intention became fact, and light appeared. At the time this story was being told, no one knew what the stars were. They didn’t realize our sun was one of them, that our planet was just another ball in space, our moon but a satellite. We like to think we are special, that God populated the heavens with shiny things for our pleasure.
But maybe God put those things in the sky, if indeed some divine hand—or voice—did as much, that we might understand how small we are. Or maybe I only think that because I know a truth about the heavens that the ancients didn’t. Those bits of light that spin above us are not holes in the sky dome, nor the souls of heroes, nor lamps hanging from strings and tended by angels, which are just a few of the explanations for stars we humans have suggested over the centuries. 
Now we know that stars are fiery furnaces that stream through endless space, hurtling away from one another at a speed I cannot begin to comprehend. These stars are also the foundries in which the elements are forged. They make up our bones and blood, our eyes and hair. We come from those bits of fire. How awesome. The stars are the seat of the soul, even if they are not souls themselves. What an incredible thing, but I know it more than feel it, for the night I see has been tamed by our human search for power and grandeur.
A God of Stardust
I am hardly the first person to say that we are stardust. Science tells us that when stars explode, the pieces make up the stuff of comets and moons and planets. The science our Western world has traditionally revered, the knowledge and creativity that brought us the comfort of steel, antibiotics, and electricity, make it possible to believe that we don’t need Gods. The minerals in our bones and blood first formed in those furnaces in the sky. By going nova, which is a kind of sacrifice, one would suppose, the stars begat planets, oceans, and life.
God didn’t do it. Certainly, we didn’t. Like the good and bad of our days, it just happened. Life just happened.
But what of this god who supposedly formed us like a potter or a woodworker, shaping our bodies, pinching the clay of our face to make a nose and a brow, forming the creases of our lids? Do we lose this god when we see the stars as whirling orbs of burning hydrogen?
Imagine a God with feet and hands who walked in the garden with Adam, who interfered in history, who wrestled with Leviathan, a god whose steps on the Earth made the lakes and mountains. Such a God would seem large to us, but small to the universe. Yet how could a god that is larger than all existence touch us, hold us, know us intimately? That’s the kind of god we want.
That’s why Jesus is so popular, and why we have Corn Woman, and Kali, and the many prophets. We need something tangible to believe in. The Hindus think of Brahman as a vast, unknowable deity, so their countless avatars became the face of the divine that the people worship.
Life Is Beautiful
So what if God were stardust? What if God were made of the same stuff that formed us? Would we all be holy then?
A few years ago, in my rounds as a chaplain, I met with a woman whose accent revealed her Eastern Europe roots, which itself implies a story of some kind. One does not move across an ocean without good reason. Unlike the metals and chemicals within a shattered star, we generally have a choice about whether to stay or go. We may hunger for new vistas or flee from some rupture in the social fabric, from war, the explosion of hatred, of a volcano, of a faith. There are more stories of terror and horror than there are of love, yet out of the suffering that Longfellow describes, comes not just the strength he admired, but also the love that makes the universe sacred.
That is what I felt in the room with the Eastern European woman. She was close to death, on what we call comfort care, that time when we stop trying to save a body and focus, instead, on making a person comfortable. This woman did not appear to know she was dying. In her nineties, she had enough dementia that, while she knew who she was and what she believed, she did not remember she was in a hospital. She thought she was at home, preparing to go to church, and that I was one of her friends.
In quiet companionship, we spoke of her past and of the lovely comfort quilt that warmed her legs and would hopefully ease her passing into that darkness of death. Though unaware of the quilt’s symbolism, she derived pleasure from its beauty. Even with electricity, life is beautiful.
Within an Endless Universe
At one point, she requested a prayer. When I asked what she wanted me to pray for, she said, “Peace and harmony for all mankind.”
So I prayed for that, and if my prayer has not yet been granted, perhaps there is less power in prayer than we like to believe. On the other hand, they say that God does things in her own time, like taking souls and exploding stars. We don’t generally know when the end will come.
But if we are all star stuff it can hardly matter. We are of the same essence as the cosmos, perhaps even of God. I cannot prove that any more than I can prove there is a thing of spirit and laughter and love that infuses everything. I only believe it. Yet, if one can believe such a thing, doesn’t that mean that life and death themselves are but representations of the divine? If one of us dies in infancy, we all do; if another lives a full century, so do the rest of us. What one experiences, so do we all.
It is one way to understand existence within the context of an endless universe.
To Be Blessed
When I felt it was time for me to leave this woman’s room, I asked her, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Although I often feel blessed by my visits, that blessing rarely comes in such an obvious way. Smiling, I took her hand, and we spoke for a moment more of nothing of consequence. I felt certain that when the time came for her to slip into death, her soul would be at peace. She was old enough to have seen the splendor of a dark night filled with stars. Maybe staring at a brilliant sky had never been her thing, but holiness was. She believed in a divine creator, in a god who caused light to come into existence simply by breathing aloud a word.
So how can the stars be anything but holy? Those stars created everything that is. That must count for something.
The Holiness of Stars
I know. Stars have no consciousness. It’s not as if they sacrificed themselves on purpose to spread their essence into space, so calling them holy is a stretch. But moments like the one I shared with that Eastern European woman, or the times I witness a pain beyond endurance and discover within that suffering person a force that gives us the strength to endure, or the times I feel the embrace of something fiery and awesome and terrible and kind, make me believe that our paltry understanding of consciousness is insufficient.
In at least a material way, we are one with those stars, or—if you must—with the dust that streamed from them when they went nova. Is there not holiness in that somewhere? How can the salt in the sea and the moss on the trees and the mud and the murderer and the carbon dioxide that warms our world and the furniture in our homes and the coat in our closet and the cat on our bed and the craters on the moon be of the same stuff and none of it be holy?
Let There Be Light
In the beginning, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And the light shone amid the darkness, and it was good, the dark and the light, the cold and the warm, the wet and the dry, the sharp and the dull. All good.
Without light, we would not be here. The stars made us. They also made everything else. Perhaps, then, it’s true that we—all existence—are one thing. Perhaps the sacred does live within us all.
Of course, I have no proof of this. I’m not even sure I have faith in it. Yet this sense of being made of star stuff, of being divine, was in my bones there in that hospital room with that Eastern European woman. Being with her, I felt touched by grace.
During our visit, she kept asking me to take her to church, and I kept telling her I could not. Finally, she accepted that.
“Then you go on your own,” she told me.
I said I would. Then, with a few more words and a kiss on her forehead, I left. I felt as if, rather than going to church, I was leaving it. I felt as if everything were holy.
In faith and fondness,
- Bogard, Paul, The End of Night, New York: Little, Brown, and Co, 2014, ebook 70.
- Ekirch, A. Roger, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W. W. W. Norton, 2005, Chapter One: “Terrors of the Night: Heaven and Earth” 58-109.
- “A Night Piece” by William Wordsworth.
- Williams, Sarah, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil,” Best Loved Poems of the American People, Hazel Felleman, ed., Garden City Publishing, Garden City, NY: 1936, 613-614.
- Taylor, Una C., “Astronomy through the Eyes of the Ancients,” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 25, p. 55, February 1931, 1931JRASC..25…55T, https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1931JRASC..25…55T/abstract, accessed October 1, 2022.
Photo by Dino Reichmuth
Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.