Darkness at Noon by George Merrill

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As different as night and day? In a binary world maybe, but not this one. This world is a bewildering both/and.

When two self-contradictory statements make sense we call it a paradox. When two self- contradictory statements claim to be equally true but when examined make no sense at all, we say it’s equivocation. Equivocation is the art of the deal, a tool of deception and the soul of politics. Paradoxes are the heart of spirituality and the occasion for astonishment. “To gain one’s life, one must first lose it,” is a paradoxical statement.

Nothing new under the sun? An eclipse can make the world seem new. For a moment, there’s darkness at noon. That’s new.

I suspect what appears new to us is how fundamentals, the basics of our universe and of our human condition, become arranged and rearranged. Author Bill Bryson writes: “During the big bang, ninety-eight percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced . . . the universe is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in the time it takes to make a sandwich.”

What’s new is how all this fundamental matter continually coalesces to form new creations.

For us, a specific confluence of time, place and awareness can generate extraordinary moments. It’s mix and match of sorts. Like a bridge game, the number of possible hands can be staggering. In my lifetime, the range of possibilities that may open to me, created by a finite number of variables, is endless. Hope and wonder are predicated on that belief. How life actually proceeds for us includes the hand we’re dealt but even more, how and when we play it.

My first introduction to the Eastern Shore was an overnight sail across the Bay with a friend. We left Middle River mid-afternoon and arrived at Fairlee Creek, a popular gunkhole for boats sailing to the Upper Shore. The sail became one of the signature moments in my life, a moment greater than the sum of its parts.

We arrived shortly after five, successfully negotiating the narrow dogleg that forms the entrance to the creek. We anchored, made drinks and watched as the sun began descending in the west, while slowly shrinking into an ever-diminishing orange ball. The sun’s usual brilliance softened as the heavy moisture laden atmosphere settled in, common on steamy August nights around the Bay. The evening was still. The only sound came from a boat anchored nearby. Someone on board with a flute was playing airs, the notes wafting through the night air around the creek. At that moment, I was sure the whole world had been reconfigured right there before me and momentarily revealed the heart of the universe. Everything came together to create a moment of pure magic. What became paradoxical was how I felt about it. I’d have sworn at that moment I’d been in Fairlee Creek before. I’d never been there. It was new and it was not new.

How did this bewildering universe begin?

Some people hold to creationism. Creationism teaches how the universe and all its living organisms originated from specific acts of God, as described biblically rather than by natural processes such as evolution. It didn’t take God long, but longer than making a sandwich; six days to be exact. Scientists believe creation is a 13.772 billion year evolution – plus or minus 59 million years. For creationists, the crabs we catch in the Bay today are the same as they were when the Bible was written. It’s not a majority opinion, but it seeks to account for the wonder of how our world began.
For me, creationism is too static. There’s no process, no growth, no ongoing shifts and realignments. There are no paradoxes. It’s all tidily finished off, wrapped and presented.

Even a flaming biblical literalist or a hard-nosed scientist might agree to at least this much: how and whenever it happened, the universe was conceived with blinding light. God either spoke that light into being or the big bang illuminated the void, while creating a universe out of nothing. Ex- nihilo, meaning ‘from nothing,’ and the idea of light being the first order of creation have offered some nascent possibilities for agreement between religion and science.

While writing this essay, the solar eclipse had been under way. Light and darkness were on my mind. Hordes traveled to be in its path and witness the event. News broadcasters across the country were hyped as they interviewed festive crowds assembled for the event. During lunch I joined my wife for an hour and we watched on TV as the total eclipse occurred over Oregon. It loses its wonder on TV.

An eclipse is predictable; responses to it are not. Its predictability provides thousands the opportunity to experience what darkness descending during mid-day is like. Some described it as fun, others, eerie, scary, otherworldly, and awesome. What was unique to the event was witnessing a certain configuration, the confluence of forces already in existence but converging in such a way as to reveal in the things familiar to us – like a sun and a moon – something new and awe inspiring.

Miles O’Brien, PBS’s science correspondent interviewed a scientist knowledgeable in cosmology and physics. The scientist said that the sun’s corona, hotter than even its atmosphere, is expanding. In billions of years it will grow to such proportions as to burn off our earth’s atmosphere and eventually cause the seas to boil.

This suggests an ongoing process of ‘becoming.’ Become what is the mystery: toast or completely transformed. The process under way is how everything is being inexorably woven together and making all things new. You and I and the world are engaged in a process of becoming, during which many truths exist without necessarily having to contradict one another.

The author of the 139th psalm thought God a paradoxical way: “Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”

What’s it like when darkness and light are alike? Perhaps something like the experience of finding ourselves in darkness even in the middle of the day.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

 

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