The Tranquil Star (Audio Available)

January 13th, 2019
Rev. Diane Rollert, with music by Eleuthera Diconca-Lippert and Louise Halperin

“You have come with stardust in your hair, with the rush of planets in your blood, your heart beating out the seasons of eternity, with a shining in your eyes like the sunlight.”

 These are the words I’ve been using to begin a child dedication for years. I don’t know where the words come from. They were passed on to me, like a gift out of time, from someone who got them from someone else, who got them from someone else. There is something so powerful that happens as you hold a child in your arms, surrounded by their parents and family and the whole community, and you speak those words.  

“You have come with stardust in your hair, with the rush of planets in your blood, your heart beating out the seasons of eternity, with a shining in your eyes like the sunlight.”

Perhaps that’s as close as we get to a foundational story in this tradition. “We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell once sang.

This is the mystery of who we are. We are atoms, molecules, that were once the stuff of stars. We are this amazing something that comes to life — and we still don’t know how or why. Our existence, itself, is a mystery.

Why are we who we are in this incredible uniqueness? Why was I born as me and not as someone else, in another place and time and circumstance? How is it that we are in this physical, mental, emotional form that makes us alike in our humanity and yet so utterly different, down to the most minute detail? Fingerprints and voices, DNA from strands of hair, that can be catalogued and used as unique identifiers for the billions of inhabitants on this earth and all those who came before and all those who will come after.

And yet here we are, small and insignificant in this vast universe that scientists tell us is still expanding. How can infinity expand? I can’t even begin to comprehend that.

Sub specie aeternitatis. There’s a term for you, from Spinoza. “From the perspective of eternity.” Or as I recently heard it defined, “In the light of eternity.” What does anything in our life mean, in the light of eternity? All the things that we think are so important to us right now, will they really matter to us on our deathbed?

 I love what the contemplative Richard Rohr has to say about living life in the light of eternity. He writes, “This life journey has led me to love mystery and not feel the need to change it or make it un-mysterious.” And this — he says, as a Jesuit priest — “This has put me at odds with many other believers I know who seem to need explanations for everything.”

 He continues:

 “My scientist friends have come up with things like ‘principles of uncertainty’ and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true.”

 Which brings me to Primo Levi’s story of the tranquil star. Primo tells the story of a star that lives billions of years, and is observed and first named by a patient man somewhere in the Arab world. He names the star al-Ludra, the capricious one, the star that flickers and changes within an unpredictable but noticeable cycle. Hundreds of years later, the star becomes a nova. It overheats, it flares, it explodes, and then it’s gone.

Perhaps it’s a sun that wipes out an entire solar system like our own, melting an earth like our own, erasing the accomplishments of people and cultures in a distant world. Whatever it destroys in its wake, it becomes nothing more than a potentially noticeable blip in a photo taken by Ramón, a Peruvian astronomer, living in an observatory with his Austrian wife and two children on a remote hill somewhere in India.

Ramón’s children are anxiously waiting to go on a family outing, when he checks his film to discover something that might be a significant astronomical event or just a speck of dust.

In the light of eternity, what matters here?

The Italian Jewish chemist Primo Levi, the author of the short story “Una Stella Tranquilla” (A Tranquil Star), was himself a Holocaust survivor. In the story he tells us that a person’s life is always pitifully brief compared with that of a star. There’s no language that can even begin to describe the difference between our understanding of reality and that of the star’s. I wonder if he wants us to consider that, even in our darkest hours, there is always something beyond us, something more eternal, and yet even that eternity is finite. Does he want us to recognize that our lives are futile in relation to stars and the infinity of time? Or does he want us to appreciate each moment that we live?

In the story, Ramón decides that he has to forgo connection with his family to pursue the answers to a mystery. How are we to interpret his choice? Is it about his ego? Is he doing it for the possibility of fame? If he can document the death of the star, will his name become forever attached to the event? Or is he drawn back into the observatory in dutiful and loving service to science itself? Maybe he tells himself that his children will survive the disappointment. But this particular star, flaring into a nova before it’s forever extinguished in the night sky, will never be seen again.

What choice would you make? Family or science? Love or reason? Answers or mystery?

In the light of eternity, maybe everything means nothing — and nothing means everything. In the first half of life, Richard Rohr tells us, everything seems incredibly important — who will we become, who will we love, what will we accomplish, what will we acquire. In the second half of life, the things we once thought were so important fade. Our whole relationship to time shifts. If we allow ourselves, we can move from chronological time to deep time, to time that brings us to a place of greater contemplation, to less worry and perhaps even to wisdom. 

So here we are. These tiny beings on this tiny planet in this tiny solar system revolving around a star that has its own life expectancy. Our sun’s days will run out someday, but not in our lifetimes or in the lifetimes of generations to come. Rest assured, we’ve got at least another five billion years to go.

In the meantime, what choices will you make in the light of eternity?

“You have come with stardust in your hair, with the rush of planets in your blood, your heart beating out the seasons of eternity, with a shining in your eyes like the sunlight.”

We are stardust. We are golden. And maybe that’s enough.