Where will you be when the once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse occurs on August 21st?
Renowned astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson has dubbed this event “Muuurica’s Eclipse” because only those in the contiguous United States will have the privilege of viewing it. And within the U.S., only those in about 10 states will find themselves in the path of totality. When it comes to enjoying total solar eclipses, where you are matters most.
So where will you be?
Unfortunately, I will be well outside the path of totality which, according to NASA, swoops down from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South, hitting a lucky string of states in between. Where I live in Vermont, the experience will likely be a bit underwhelming, a partial blocking of sunlight involving few celestial splendors. But if you’re in, say, Nashville, Tennessee around 1:27pm — well, then you’re in luck! The “total” darkness in early afternoon will include a brilliant glowing corona around the sun-blocking moon, thanks to the near perfect symmetry of the two orbs at the astoundingly perfect distance. (Just make sure you’re wearing your eclipse glasses.)
Of course, it’s not just where you are that matters. It’s also when. Because in only 600 million years or so, the moon will have slowly distanced itself from the earth enough to no longer be able to completely block out the sun, no matter the alignment. Bummer, future humans! We are truly living our best life now.
In the interest of finding metaphors in astronomical phenomena, all this eclipse-craziness has me thinking about the where’s and when’s of our spiritual journey too. Most of us can look back on an experience where everything seemed to align and our spiritual senses were overwhelmed with clarity, brilliance, and wonder, in a way similar to how many describe the sensory overwhelm of a total solar eclipse. Those moments are like a total eclipse of the soul — singular milestones that set the course for the rest of our spiritual lives. One thinks of the once-in-a-lifetime experience that John Wesley had at the Aldersgate meeting where he felt his “heart strangely warmed.” All his previous attempts at religious living were eclipsed by that one powerful moment, and nothing was ever the same.
But sometimes our spiritual eclipses are not all sweetness and light. Sometimes it’s not the wonder of the brilliant corona but the sudden blackout that changes us forever. A total eclipse of the soul can so rob us of the light we once had that we doubt the sun will ever return. And this dark day can last a good long time — months and even years that seem marked more by light’s absence and void than anything else.
...all my assumptions about God and faith and life were called into question, if not completely uprooted. Where would I go from here? Would I even continue on this spiritual journey at all?
About five years ago, I experienced a total eclipse of the soul in this latter sense — a loss of light. It came about when my dream and calling to plant a church came crashing to an end, with devastating side effects on pretty much every area of my life. I was plunged into a season of deconstruction where all my assumptions about God and faith and life were called into question, if not completely uprooted. Where would I go from here? Would I even continue on this spiritual journey at all? Was I becoming part of the demographic group that religious statisticians call “the Dones”?
I certainly felt done — done with my ministry call, done with pursuing Jesus, done with church.
And maybe you have too.
This kind of total eclipse of the soul can take many forms. But all of them involve suffering that feels like a sudden blackout in our spiritual journey. Job loss, physical or mental illness, the death of someone close to us, relationship loss or betrayal, the moral failure of someone we look up to or depend on — all of these can bring about that perfect alignment of circumstances that plunge us into the dark day of the soul.
And when the light goes out, we are left looking for some glimmer to guide us out of the wilderness.
Glimmer of Hope
In drawing out this eclipse metaphor, perhaps I’ve jumped to a conclusion too quickly. Certainly, there are moments in our spiritual journey that are purely light-filled and life-changing, filling us with the kind of wonder and joy that many literal solar eclipse viewers describe when they see that crown of light glowing around the blocking moon (again, through proper protective eyewear). The darkness isn’t the point — it’s the once-in-a-lifetime sensory thrill of it all.
“Mountaintop” spiritual experiences of conversion or renewal or receiving a call can be just like this.
But what about spiritual experiences in the wilderness?
What about the valley of decision?
Fr. Richard Rohr has described experiences of suffering as being “necessary” — not because God brought on our suffering or wants us to suffer, but because suffering is a part of the human experience. It is never wanted, never desired, and never expected. But if we receive the suffering that is coming to us, instead of rejecting it or denying it, then we will find ourselves being transformed.
In this sense, the two “kinds” of total eclipses of the soul are actually one: because the point of both is to get to the brilliant, wondrous experience of light in a new and deeper way.
For me, that meant growing to see that the end of one calling, with all the suffering it entailed, with all the deconstruction it sparked, was actually necessary to bring about the beginning of a new one. I was not, after all, a Done. I was simply in the wilderness, and the only way out of the wilderness is through.
Perhaps you find yourself in the dark desert of deconstruction, where all the light seems lost. If so, don’t lose heart. And, when you’re ready, just look up.
The brilliant corona is already shining, and the sunlight is about to return.
Zach Hoag is the author of The Light is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life. Find him writing at zhoag.com and on Twitter @zhoag.