Starry Skies

Starry Skies

January 10th, 2016                    Rev. Fiona Heath  

Science fiction writer Douglas Adams says that "There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened. Whether this is the right universe or not, we don’t know. Maybe it is the bizarre and inexplicable one. As people of the chalice, we belong to the earth and celebrate the mystery.

For me, belonging to the earth, celebrating mystery, is our fundamental orientation. We acknowledge our kinship with all beings, we accept we are part of an interdependent web of life on this planet. And we also acknowledge that beyond this planet, this solar system, lies an immensity of time and space we have barely begun to see.

As Unitarian Universalists, we follow Earth Scholar Thomas Berry, who said:  “The universe, the solar system, and the planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.”   

The evolutionary universe reveals the ultimate mystery. This is the mystery of life. The big bang. The flaring forth of all that is – which has been going on for billions of years. The universe is still expanding – infinity is getting bigger. Mind-boggling – staggering ideas to try and understand.

For me, looking up into the stars, seeing the images from the hubble telescope, are sources of great awe. It is both humbling and amazing to be a small part of this very great whole. Looking up at the moon, at the bright stars, barely seeing the dim stars, And knowing, knowing that each of those stars is a sun, Knowing that we are part of one small galaxy which is composed of millions of stars, and billions of planets, which is only one of millions of galaxies – stunning.

It gives me a sense of perspective that I find deeply comforting. My anxieties and worries fade away, And I feel part of something so much greater than myself. All the pettiness of daily life diminishes under the impossible grandeur of the shimmering stars. I am not the only one who finds the starry night a source of spiritual sustenance.

Naturalist William Beebe told a story about his friend the American president Teddy Roosevelt. After an evening of pleasant conversation, they would saunter out to the lawn and search the sky for the faint patch of light-mist at the lower left hand corner of the constellation Pegasus.

One of them would then recite: That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light years away. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun. After a contemplative interval, Teddy Roosevelt would turn to Beebe and grin: “Now I think we are small enough!  Let’s go to bed.”

For others, the immensity of the universe is overwhelming. Ursula Goodenough is a religious naturalist and scientist best known for her book The Sacred Depths of Nature. When she was twenty years old she went camping in Colorado.  Looking up at the night sky from her sleeping bag, she became overwhelmed with terror.

The universe is filled with billions of galaxies and trillions of starts.  Each start will die, exploding, including our sun.  Earth will be destroyed. There will be an end. Ursula felt a bleak emptiness when looking into the cosmos. It all seemed so pointless. Over the years, though, she began to shift her thinking. Ursula began to look up at the stars and see a vast mystery. The mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing.

The mystery of the laws of physics – which grow more complex the more we learn. The mystery of all the strange ways the universe works. Ursula realized that she didn’t need to seek answers to the big questions of life.  She didn’t need to find a grand meaning for life. She could lie under the stars and unseen galaxies and let their enormity wash over her. She could reach out towards the universe, accepting all the known and unknown aspects, the facts and the mysteries, and simply bathe in all its beauty.  The darkened land, the shimmering stars. Beauty. Meaning doesn’t matter, she says, because experience is so wonderful. (adapted from The Sacred Depths of Nature)

To accept mystery, to allow the unknown to stand as it is, allows us to bathe in its beauty. Most of these time these kind of experiences don’t just happen, we have to be open to them. Openness takes an attitude of humility, gratitude and awareness. Humility in the sense of knowing how little you know, Gratitude to being present and alive, And attentiveness to the moment. If we can manage to get outside of our egos, then, sometimes, when faced with mystery we can experience awe and wonder. And that sense of awe is compelling.

For myself, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ursula Goodenough, we found that the mystery of this immense universe is freeing. Those moments when I can bring humility, gratitude and awareness to the mystery restore my spirit.

That sense of wonder and awe allows me to escape the cage of my mind and simply be.

And in simply being, I find myself renewed.

Life feels richer.

Celebrating mystery is sometimes the best thing we can do.

It may be the only thing we can do when we feel broken and helpless.

To stand there and just be in the dark looking at the light of the universe.

We all need moments of renewal that bring peace.

It is never bad to be reminded of how much we don’t know.

As a species, humans are pretty arrogant.

And with good reason.

We can bend so much of the planet to our needs.

We’ve have literally changed the world with our technology.

We have stood on the moon and sent messages beyond the end of the solar system.

I don’t want to deny the value of knowledge, scientific and otherwise.

But living with mystery means recognizing that all of human knowledge is just “an island in a sea of mystery”.

Chet Raymo says “we live in partial knowledge as the Dutch live on polders claimed from the sea. We dike and fill. We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow.

And still the mystery surrounds us.

It laps at our shores.  It permeates the land.

Scratch the surface of knowledge and mystery bubbles up like a spring.``

Mystery bubbles up like a spring.

The more we learn the more there is yet to learn.

Whether that is scientific learning about molecules or understanding ourselves, mystery bubbles up like a spring.

Let us embrace its beauty.


For myself, I meet the mystery most often in looking at the night sky.

Or more often these days, videos of the night sky.

For me it is that sense of the ineffable universe that is ultimately so moving.

That there is this vastness of all things.

It seems so impossible – this contrast between messy physical life on earth and the galaxies so far away and so big.

We are grains of sand on a beach.

We live in a universe that is indifferent to us, creatures on a small planet on a distant arm of an out of the way galaxy.

In a universe 13.8 billion years old, my life as a grain of sand matters absolutely….not at all.

And yet, my life does matter.

My life matters as part of the intricate web of life that is shaping this planet in this moment.

We are part of a vast universe, and we also belong to the earth.

We are part of the interdependent web of life on earth.

But we are also each unique, with our own very particular genetics and  experiences of being alive.  In what we do and feel and think and create, we contribute our particular expression of life to the greater  whole.

We can live quite well just as ourselves, doing our thing as individual grains of sand.

But we can live better.

The Sufi poet Rumi describes it like this:

If you want what visible reality

can give, you're an employee.

If you want the unseen world,

you're not living your truth.

Both wishes are foolish,

but you'll be forgiven for forgetting

that what you really want is

love's confusing joy.


If you ignore the mystery you are just an employee, putting in time for the paycheck.

If you seek only the mystery, you miss out on the truth of your unique life.

Engaging with both reality and the mystery,

knowing they are two sides of the same ribbon,

you find the joyful confusing love of life.

As people of the chalice, this evolving spiritual orientation, we try to live in the here and now, to be present to the time and place we inhabit.

But we don’t want to just be employees.

At least I don’t.

We belong to the earth and celebrate the mystery.

The mystery exists beyond the earth but it is also part of life on earth.

In paying attention here and now we find the mystery of the many.

The mystery of the many – the thrumming, chirping, breathing, moving multitude of life on earth.

We are part of a great whole, a unity, but it is unity that arises out of diversity.

The mystery can be found in the glory of life.

My colleague Mark Bellentini puts it like this:

Mystery not to be solved,

like some detective story.

Mystery not to be dreaded,

like sudden news that a friend is missing.

Mystery not to be mystified all the more,

like a creaking floorboard in an old house.

Mystery not to be feared,

like a hungry roar in the middle of a dark forest.

But a mystery to be lived,

this life of ours...


something rather than nothing!

A mystery to be lived:

red-bud branches aflame in the air,

apple flower petals floating on the wind,

shooting stars streaking green at night across the

path of the full moon,

the chirp of early birds,

the purr of a cat in a lap,

the wag of a dog’s tail,

the giggle of a child,

mysteries to be savored,

women and men and children

moving toward lives made just and free;

life! life!

mysteries to be celebrated, loved,

life! life! life!

mystery that is majesty,

mystery that drops some to their knees,

lifts others in dance or loud outcries;

mystery that is not, of need,

devalued by the mere reality of death,

or the unfairness of sorrows.

Life! Life! Life! Life!...

Mystery lies out there in the unfathomable reaches of the stars.

It also exists right here, in the amazing facts of life.

Mystery doesn’t need to be solved.

There is no answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

The mystery is to be lived and savoured and celebrated.

Finn is one of the chieftan heros of early Ireland and many tales are told of his grand deeds.  

Finn was hanging out with a group of hunters, and a debate began as to what was the finest music in the world.

One said ‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge.`

A young warrior said `the ring of a spear on a shield.’

And the hunters told of their delights:  the baying of wolves in the distance, the song of lark, the laugh of a girl.

Finally, a hunter asked Finn what he thought was the finest music of the world.

Those are all good sounds, said Finn, but the music of what happens is the finest music of the world.

The music of what happens.

This is the music of the mystery.

The mystery that what is, is, that life exists at all.

In all its beautiful diversity, from cuckoo songs to laughter.

Life is.

The finest music of the world.

May we find awe out among all those bright stars.

May we hear the finest music of the world.

May we know not just in our hearts and minds, but in our bodies, that we belong to the earth.

And may we never stop celebrating the mystery.

So Say we all.


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