Faith Commons

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Last week people across North America put on special glasses, tipped their heads up, and watched the solar eclipse. The energy created in those few minutes acted as a salve for the pettiness and divisiveness corroding our hearts, our brains, and our bodies. The physical world seemed to stop, leaving space for transcendence. Awe and wonder bridged the divide between conservative and liberal, wealthy and poor, secular and religious. We felt connected to everything and everyone around us. After the eclipse, there was a palpable feeling of loss, and letdown. “When will we feel that again?” many wondered. 

It will be years before we will see another solar eclipse. But there are other things we can do to cultivate the feelings of unity, awe, connectedness, and wellbeing that it stimulated. They are not time-bound, short, or effortless, but for those who want to live in a kinder, more compassionate, just, and humane world, these feelings are indispensable. 

In 1969, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a speech entitled “On Prayer” at a meeting of the National Liturgical Conference. The conference organizers wanted to convey the message that prayer was an important aspect of political change and social justice. Heschel concluded his lengthy talk about the meaning and purpose of prayer, using metaphorical language reminiscent of our recent eclipse: 

“The spiritual blackout is increasing daily. Opportunism prevails, callousness expands, the sense of the holy is melting away. We no longer know how to resist the vulgar, how to say no in the name of a higher yes. Our roots are in a state of decay. We have lost the sense of the holy.

“This is an age of spiritual blackout, a blackout of God. We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but also the dark night of society. We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth of a living God theology in the midst of the blackout.”

Heschel was making a case for his audience to pray as an act of resistance to despair and an affirmation of our unique partnership with a living God. He was not advocating for prayer in schools, or at football games, or before city council meetings. Rather he was asserting the power of personal, daily, spontaneous prayer. Anne Lamott describes this kind of prayer in her wonderful book, Help, Thanks, Wow: “Prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.”

How do we discern what is real, and true, and good in a spiritual blackout that seems to just get darker? With all the challenges we face in the world, it may seem like cultivating an active prayer life is self-indulgent. Some might consider it irresponsible, or even dangerous. But Heschel believed that the sense of helplessness and hopelessness we feel, the fear, the uncertainty, the distrust that undermines our mental and physical and societal wellbeing, prevents us from fulfilling our obligations to God and human beings. His antidote was more spirit in our lives. The fact that tens of millions of people felt a lifting of the spiritual blackout Heschel spoke of during a cosmic blackout proves his point. Being attuned with the cosmos has a lot to do with healing hatred and standing up for justice. Connecting with our spirits gives us the spirit to continue the work of healing and repair, even when that task seems most daunting. 

Lots of people who do not consider themselves religious or spiritual were surprised and delighted to feel moved by the eclipse. Figuring out where the source of our spirit and soul resides is an ongoing experiment, and we should check ourselves when we relegate that inquiry to the pew or the altar. None of our religious traditions suggest there is only one way to connect with what is holy. Scripture and liturgy give us broad and vast prompts for our spirit; it is up to us to notice which of those prompts resonate in our own hearts and souls. 

We may not recognize the tools we have to find the light and warmth and love in the world, but that does not mean we don’t have them. Just as psychotherapists make us more aware of our minds, spiritual directors are trained to help us access the sources of connectedness that foster a healthy spiritual energy. Christians may be most familiar with the concept of spiritual direction, but today people of all backgrounds and faiths are trained as spiritual directors so they can help others engage in the process of spiritual discernment. 

The memory of the eclipse will inevitably fade, but the energy it created can be maintained if we work at it. We can break through our spiritual blackout if we are willing to try. As Heschel said, “We are called to bring together the sparks to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives, to defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: ‘Let there be light.’ And there will be light.”