The 2017 total solar eclipse was, in a word, sublime. I was afraid that given my high expectations, which were strong enough to fuel an eight-hour drive (one way) after three hours of sleep, the event would leave me disappointed. It did not.
I left my home in Michigan at 5 a.m. and embarked on the eight-hour drive down to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the point of “Greatest Eclipse.” The town of approximately 31,000 inhabitants had been planning for 10 years to receive the more than 200,000 people expected for the natural spectacle. From the looks of it, many more than that ended up coming Monday.
The drive was mostly uneventful until the freeway exit approached and the endless line of cars attempted to transition to a two-lane country road. Fortunately, I had planned for that, and made it to the perfect spot just in time: an open field, surrounded by trees just a little north of the center of the path of totality. C1, the moment the circumference of the moon touches that of the sun, began at 11:56 a.m. I arrived at my spot at 12:02 p.m. C2, the moment the moon covers the sun completely, was not until 1:24 p.m.
When the Moon Covers the Sun
As the moon made its way over the sun, the spectacle was only safely visible through a pair of special glasses that allowed one to see the sun—and nothing else—through a thick and dark filter meant to let the viewer see as much as possible without permanent eyesight damage. Although seeing the sun through the filter was impressive in itself, the filter makes the experience impersonal, detached, and hidden. All one could see through the glasses was an orange globe progressively reduce in size as its silhouette was eaten away by darkness.
As the eclipse progressed, the temperature dropped some 10 degrees and the light dimmed. The transition was not noticeable until closer to C2. When the thin sliver of sun disappeared behind the moon, it was safe to take the glasses off and experience the surreal. The scene was out of a Hollywood sci-fi movie. The sky was dark enough for some stars to become visible. The horizon appeared to have a sunset that extended 360 degrees. The lively activity of nature paused, quieted by the shadow of a dark globe.
In the middle of the sky, a black sun was crowned with white light extending far from its circumference like thin silver hairs being blown by a wind emanating from within—like careful strokes by of a seasoned painter with a delicate brush. The contrast between the black and white above with the different tones of blue, orange, and red on the horizon was spectacular, a true work of art. Then the moon continued its journey, and a first gleam of white light directly from the sun made its way through and revealed what is rightly called the diamond ring. Sublime—it was heavenly!
Celestial Beauty Calls Forth a Response
The sight compelled everyone present to express their emotions. Some people shouted, others literally jumped for joy. The celestial beauty demanded a response. Before one had the opportunity to sit and take it all in, the glasses had to come back on. The two minutes were over, and the moment was gone, but not without a powerful effect.
“Science is awesome!” shouted a woman. “God is awesome,” said another. Both true, and both perfectly compatible statements. The perfect precision of scientific effect and the grandeur of God were on display for millions who were in awe. Those present with me knew that they had experienced something beautiful, and felt connected with others who had shared this experience. Total strangers waved each other goodbye as if trying to reach out one last time. The joy in their faces was evident. It remained in mine after the nine-hour journey home.
Was the 900-mile round trip worth the two minutes of total eclipse? In “The Republic,” Plato uses the sun as an image of the Good. As the philosopher leaves the cave, he is confronted for the first time with the world of the things in themselves and not mere shadows of them. Although the philosopher cannot see the sun, for it would blind him, he can see everything else only because of it.
I could not help but think of this description of the Good and truth after the eclipse. I have been excited by eclipses most of my life, but had never experienced totality. To glimpse the beauty of the sun is something I will not forget. It was truly majestic. Oh, that we could experience at least a glimpse of the Good in our lifetimes, like Moses, who was allowed to see the backside of God’s glory after it passed before him.
The eclipse cut through the nation with a spectacle beckoning everyone to look above at the things that are higher than us, an important reminder for a nation gripped by turmoil. It struck us all with awe, regardless of race, creed, or color. It was an image of the beauty and transcendence of the Good we all instinctively long to know. I hope we can all look at the things above, those beautiful, unchanging, and universal truths that can unite us.