On the short walk to my studio at night, I’ll often look up to see the stars. It’s not some deep soul-searching thing – it doesn’t start that way, anyway – it’s usually an inconsequential glimpse to see ‘what’s up,’ up there.
Casual glimpses may become a soul-searching thing. It did one night.
The night was clear. The oppressive humidity had gone from the air, and the atmosphere was as transparent as glass. The stars were radiant; pure and glistening, the way jewelers speak of their finest diamonds as being of the “first water.” That’s a jeweler’s way of saying the diamonds are as pure and clear as a dew drop. Seeing stars on such nights as these, always stirs this recurring thought: the stars may have died billions of years ago, but their light continues on as if what flame they once generated was destined to continue through the universe and live forever. Light has a destiny. We have a destiny.
I like the thought.
Do you suppose that this is the way it is to be for us, too? The light, that life force that sets us into motion illumines the small circumference that our lives inscribe. Its beams continue beyond that circle into eternity even after we’ve ceased to generate light.
I reckon that’s why the universe is so inconceivably large – so that all the energy ever generated can continue on, unimpeded, and have a space to be accommodated as it continues on its journey. Fanciful to be sure and hardly scientific, but I believe it works something like that.
That our life force, once aglow, continues shining through the books whose authors are long gone; or in other ancient writings and scrolls, in architecture and the various artistic creations that we have unearthed from antiquity. But I mean something even beyond that.
It’s common to hear and read about light and it’s peculiar, almost magical properties, this stuff of the beginning of the universe. This was the essence of the big bang that produced all the building blocks of the created universe. For sure, in the beginning was light and it illuminated the whole universe. There was also a lot of noise, a big bang, actually.
I’ve read several theories about how light behaves and about its place in the created order, but little about sound and its role in creation. Our beginnings are called the big bang. I recall no commentary on just what the sound of it may have been like.
As I write, I’m listening to Louis Armstrong singing ‘It’s a wonderful world.’ It’s broadcasting from my Echo. To hear music, I need only to make a request out loud: “Alexa” I say, “play Satchmo.”
I imagine it’s like God saying, let there be music, and suddenly there it is.
Alexa’s pretty responsive. However, when I ask her for selections from Beethoven she comes up with the most dreadful music and I can find no reason, acoustically, for the confusion. I imagine she’s not always playing with all her chips. But when she’s on, she’s on.
Discounting sound’s import may have begun long ago when the big bang happened. There was no atmosphere and no way sound could be transmitted. If there was any sound (there had to have been) only God heard it. Strangely, he didn’t think enough of it to comment. He was definitely partial to light. When God finished the work of creation, it was “everything that he saw that he had made and behold it was very good.” It was clear that he liked what he saw. Whatever he heard, it wasn’t anything he thought was worth mentioning.
Sound, like light is a phenomenon of vibration, subatomic waves. Isn’t it possible that every time we open our mouths or play an instrument, cry out in joy or in wail in suffering, these vibrations, like light, find their way into the universe? Wouldn’t they continue on the immense journey to a destination we can only imagine? Traditionally, we think of prayer that way, but with this caveat; that our voices are supposed to wind up in God’s hearing. There is a lot of controversy about that very issue, particularly about voices not being heard, such as victims of gross injustice so common today.
In fact, echoes from the beginning of time do exist today in audible although very humble forms – static heard over some television screens and other electronic transmissions.
Madeleine L’Engle, reflecting on faith and art, tells this remarkable story.
In one of the early space explorations, the astronauts in orbit reported hearing some “old time” nostalgic music over their speakers. They enjoyed it, but wondered where it came from. They assumed NASA had aired it for their listening pleasure. The astronauts radioed the people at NASA thanking them. NASA responded saying they knew nothing about it. Their curiosity aroused, NASA began some preliminary investigations to try to identify what the astronauts may have heard. Their search included identifying any broadcasting stations that may have aired the kind of music the astronauts reported hearing. They found none. They went back in time to see if some earlier broadcasts may have made their way into space. Their research revealed that the particular program broadcasting the music had been aired sometime in the later nineteen thirties.
“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him,” St. Paul once wrote as he stood awed at the majesty of creation. He was stunned by the sheer wonder of what’s sublime in the mundane, the glory in the ordinary. He expresses this awe and wonder beautifully in the context of his Christian faith. I think his vision applies well outside this context and has been expressed from the beginning of human existence, typically in music and art. It finds its expression in unexpected ways from the most unlikely people.
The stogy Anglican bishop of Birmingham, England was asked once what he thought was the most magnificent hymn ever written.
“Louis Armstrong singing, ‘What a Wonderful World’,” he replied in a heartbeat.
In the lyrics, Armstrong sings about what he sees, like, “trees of green, red roses too… skies of blue and clouds of white.” He also sings about what he hears – the sounds of common life – like people extending a greeting, “how do you do” or whispering, “I love you.”
This universe shimmers with light; but it also vibrates with sound, sounds like the liquid gravel voice of the one and only ‘Satchmo.’ He’s long gone, but his voice continues to be heard. The author of the music has expired, but the tones that emanated from him live on to bring us joy and send light into our lives.
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.