Astronomical Liturgy

by the Rev. Katherine Bush


Last week, after church, my son and I packed up the car and drove over the Mississippi River bridge. We were bound for the small town of Newport, Arkansas, where I had scored a last-minute reservation for a room in a hotel that didn’t look too seedy. We got to town and drove around scouting out sites where we might spend the next day: like millions of other people across a band of territory from Mexico to Canada, we were there to see the eclipse in totality.


In 2017, I stood outside in the fields of St. Columba with my cardboard glasses and observed the partial covering of the sun. It was mysterious and interesting, but I had some of the most significant FOMO (fear of missing out) that I’ve ever experienced. I knew that totality was different, and I hadn’t made the time or taken the effort to get myself in the path. Inspired by the tales of friends and the writing of Annie Dillard, I promised myself I’d get to totality next time, especially since it would be so close to home. 


And I still almost missed it again. Last year, I thought about it, googled some Airbnbs, and then closed the tabs without booking a spot. I did this a few times. It seemed silly to be so caught up in the event, it felt “extra,” and it certainly would cost extra given the surge pricing that influenced skyrocketing fees for places to stay. But just a week or two before the event, my son nudged me to commit when he expressed his own interest in going. So, I found a motel room that was somehow still available and mostly immune to the price hikes and booked us for the night. I poked around online enough to know that we would be close to a state park and that the town had a few dining options.   


We got to Newport. I reread Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse.” We talked with our fellow travelers, several from the Memphis area, one family from Idaho, and a guy from Dusseldorf, Germany! And on Monday morning, we got some donuts and set up camp on the banks of the White River. 


An eclipse is a slow, quiet show. There’s no starting gun, there’s no thunder or lightning, there’s no musical accompaniment. But when the moon totally eclipsed the sun, the world changed all around us. The air and the birds and the murmurs of fellow witnesses. I could talk more about this … and I also find myself at a loss for words to describe it. 


Here, I want to talk around the edges of the trip. Here, I want to say that it was kinda like church; it was a huge communal liturgy. What we were doing, all of us, all of the millions of people who watched the full or the partial eclipse, was making time to do something that produces nothing. We paused to do something that “doesn’t compute” (thank you, Wendell Berry). Even though we couldn’t really see much as things were beginning, we peeked up through our glasses anyway. We stood around or sat around with others who wanted to witness something and then say thank you. We went, even though it was inconvenient. We craned our necks to glimpse something that reminded us how small we are. We were bored and awed in equal measure. We wondered about other people in other places, wondering what they saw and thought. We wondered about people in other times, baffled and surprised. 


For three minutes, we all looked in the same direction. And on the way home, we tried to love all the cars on the highways and the people in them who also came to see.

12 thoughts on “Astronomical Liturgy”

  1. Thank you Katherine for your “descriptive” words. Being a meteorologist I was keenly aware and eagerly awaiting the solar/lunar event. It was wonderful, awesome, and in a way majestic. You described it precisely and wonderfully.

    1. Rick, I can only imagine bringing your professional and scientific expertise to bear on this wondrous event! What a great experience!

  2. You are a good mom! We stayed here and actually
    got a decent look. We had a friend send a video from Dallas, it wasn’t like that here.
    We lucked out with neighbors that let us use their glasses. Before that Nina “ I can’t believe you could really hurt your eyes “ Greta “ said the woman with 1 phd, 2 masters, 2 undergraduates right before she ruined her eyes”. Nina “ I get it”

    Great article Katherine! Hate we are missing the pilgrimage! Next time.

    1. Greta – sounds like y’all had a wonderful and fun day too. Hope no lasting eye damage!
      We’re just settling in for the night in Montgomery, wish y’all were here!

  3. The edges were just as memorable. Before totality we watched a former Russian Olympic swimmer in the pool of the Paragould Community center. His arms seemed to be 6’ long. His flip turn push off was almost the whole 25 yard pool length. There are lots of things to notice in this world

    1. Preach on! You’re so right. I can get caught up looking for the big thing and miss the small miracles all around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *