An Enchanted Sky

Star cluster NGC 346, Hubble Space Telescope

Star cluster NGC 346, Hubble Space Telescope

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
— Psalm 8:3-4

Stargazing is universal.

Throughout all times, in all places, in all cultures, humans have found themselves gazing at the heavens in awe. One of the things I look most forward to about going home to Colorado is star gazing. On clear nights, my siblings and I like to drive to the foothills of the mountains where there is very little light pollution, and lay on our backs in an empty field, overwhelmed by the wonder of the abundant night sky, dusted with stars. I’m always struck by a dichotomy when I look at the stars. The first, and perhaps most obvious, thought that strikes me is that I am small, infinitesimal, insignificant. The second thought that strikes me with equal force is the complete miraculousness of being alive. As insignificant as I feel, I also feel terribly alive, aware of the seer miracle that I came to exist, here, in this moment, that I came to love these people, that my life will be short and full of meaning.

This is the gift the stars give us: an awareness the insignificance and miraculousness of our existence.

People often say the modern world is disenchanted.

This is often attributed to the advent of modern science. It is supposed that prior to modern science, people saw the world as a mystery of order and chaos, impinged upon by spiritual forces, magical in all its workings. Modern science, it is supposed, has revealed to us quite a different picture. This view would say that the material world is less of a mystery and more of a machine.

But is it necessarily true to say that science has disenchanted the material world?

Today we will explore this question with the night sky as our conversation partner. My hunch is that the cosmos is not any less wondrous, mysterious, or enchanted than it was in the twelfth century. The world is not disenchanted, we've only grown blind to its wonder.

I hope this episode will awaken you to the wonder of the music of spheres.

  1. Visual — Spheres and Telescopes

Ptolemaic orbits forming an armillary sphere, Andreas Cellarius,  Harmonia Macrocosmica , 1661.

Ptolemaic orbits forming an armillary sphere,
Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica, 1661.

“Medieval cosmology was centered around the concept of the Ptolemaic universe, named after Greek astronomer Ptolemy (ca. 150 CE). In this geocentric (earth-centered) model, the earth was the motionless center of the universe, with the rest of the universe revolving around it in spheres. Ptolemy's work was based on Aristotle's (384-322 BCE) idea of an ordered universe, divided into the sublunary, or earthly, region which was changeable and corruptible, and the heavenly region, which was immutable and perfect. Aristotle posited that the heavens contained 55 spheres, with the Primum Mobile, "Prime Mover" or "First Moveable", giving motion to all the spheres within it. 

Centermost in this cosmology was the Earth. The sublunary sphere was comprised of the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air). Next followed the spheres of the 7 planets (which included the sun and the moon). After these came the Circle of the Fixed Stars (including the signs of the Zodiac). Outermost in this scheme was the Primum Mobile, sometimes divided into three spheres of the Crystalline Heaven, the First Moveable, and the Empyrean, or highest heaven. 

While not scientifically supportable, this cosmology was eagerly embraced and adapted to fit Medieval theology. The Prime Mover became the Christian God, the outermost sphere became heaven, and the earth was the center of God's attention. The spheres, moved by the Prime Mover, existed and rotated in perfect harmony, creating the “music of the spheres.” Man, habitant of the sublunary sphere which was corruptible since Adam's fall, could no longer hear this music.”

Creation of the World,  Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493

Creation of the World, Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493

Earth at the center of the Spheres. Copy of Gossuin de Metz, 13th c.

Earth at the center of the Spheres.
Copy of Gossuin de Metz, 13th c.


We now know we are no longer the centre of the universe. 

Does this drain the sky of its wonder?

Is there only loneliness and lightyears?

Are we doomed forever to speak of Space and not the Heavens? 

Hubble Space Telescope…

These are all real images captured in outer space by the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in orbit since 1990. You can find the top 100 Hubble images at here. I spent a long time yesterday evening looking at these images while listening to Holst’s Planets (that’s coming up soon). I was filled with awe, a deep awareness of both the relative insignificance of my life and the miraculousness of it.

As I listened and looked I couldn’t helping thinking: how can any of us call this a disenchanted world?

Spiral Galaxy M51, Hubble Space Telescope

Spiral Galaxy M51, Hubble Space Telescope

Eagle Nebula, Hubble Space Telescope.

Eagle Nebula, Hubble Space Telescope.

Star V838 Monocerotis

Star V838 Monocerotis

Our response to seeing the vast beauty of the heavens needn’t be “I am alone in a dark and cavernous void” it could also be the words of the Psalmist…

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?
You have made them[b] a little lower than the angels  and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
 you put everything under their feet:
— Psalm 8

2. Literary — The Ransom Trilogy


Perhaps one of the great thing art can do is help us regard things in a new way.

I think one of the things Lewis aimed to do with his writing was both to work within the mythological vision passed through medieval cosmology, but also to pass on a new vision of a sacramental world. A great deal of Lewis’ academic life was spent thinking about the heavens. In The Discarded Image, a collection of lectures Lewis gave at Oxford University, he discusses the way the Copernican revolution changed the face of culture and literature, and how it left us with an image of the stars that as cold, vacant, and dark.

James K.A. Smith summarises this shift as a “move from a ‘cosmos’ to a ‘universe’...from an ordered, layered, hierarchical, shepherded place to… an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space” (How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 31).

Lewis didn’t want to throw out scientific discoveries so he could hold onto a comforting but ultimately incorrect understanding of the cosmos, but neither did he want to sever the literary and cultural branch upon which most of our treasured works of art rest. So, in much of his work, he attempts to form a synthesis of the two— the old and the new, the ordered and the mysterious, the immense and the particular.

In Narnia, he draws on the old tradition to make an imaginative world meaningful.

in Cosmos Trilogy, he takes us to see that the stars were never only great balls of gas.

In the Space Trilogy (which Lewis would have preferred to be called the Cosmos Trilogy), Lewis describes the adventures of Ransom as he travels throughout space and ultimately helps to save earth. In this passage from Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis beautifully blends the two traditions…

“There was an endless night on one side of the ship and an 2 2 C . S . L ew i s endless day on the other: each was marvellous and he moved from the one to the other at his will, delighted. In the nights; which he could create by turning the handle of a door, he lay for hours in contemplation of the skylight. The Earth’s disk was nowhere to be seen, the stars, thick as daisies on an uncut lawn, reigned perpetually with no cloud, no moon, no sunrise, to dispute their sway. There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations to dreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness. The lights trembled: they seemed to grow brighter as he looked. Stretched naked on his bed, a second Dana, he found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in old astrology: almost he felt, wholly he imagined, ‘sweet influence’ pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body. All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorite’s, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too ‘solemn’, for any emotion, save a severe delight.”

  • C.S. Lewis, Out of this Silent (1938).

The title of the book plays off of the medieval idea of the music of spheres; that we on earth are deaf to the glorious song of the stars because of sin, death, and decay.

Worth reading…

3. Musical — The Planets and the Planetarium

Holst: The Planets
Deutsche Grammophon

Gustav Holst was a British composer who lived from 1874-1934. Although he was a gifted composer, and good friends with the iconic Ralph Vaughan Williams, most of his music failed to gain a broad audience with the exception of the Planets. Holst was fascinated by the mythology behind medieval cosmology, and decided to compose a work which attempted to embody the mythos of each planet. Notably, however, he does this with regard to a modern understanding of the heavens, not using the sun or moon as planets (they were in medieval) and instead adding Neptune and Uranus.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is one of the most famous of these pieces…

Something I find interesting is that the last two planets (both modern discoveries) have the most mysterious, magical, enchanted names: The Magician and the Mystic.

It’s as if Holst wants to remind us that, if anything, scientific discoveries have opened up new chasms of mystery. The world is not less wondrous for having discovered them but more.

In Neptune (The Mystic), he ends with voices to remind us of the song of the spheres. An author at the Global Orchestra writes “Holst intended the voices to be placed off stage in an adjoining room, the door of which was to be left open until the very last bar when the instruments stop and only the voices are heard repeating the final two chords over and over while the door is slowly closed (global orchestra).” For Holst, at the end of all our wandering is not less wonder but more.

More recently, other artists have taken up the task of re-enchanting the heavens as well. I wanted to end today with my favourite song from Sufjan Stevens’ project Planetarium. It’s the Mercury song. As I discussed last week with Dr. Ward, Mercury is my planet. It is the planet of words, scholarship, swiftness, and changeability, all of which describe me rather well I love that Sufjan ends with this planet. The song is addressed to Mercury, and over and over again Sufjan asks “Where do you run to? Where do you run?” I think this is the question he ends with after gazing at the stars. Where does all this beauty, this order, this immensity run toward? In a way, it’s not such a different question from the question of the medievals.

We can’t help but hope the stars will lead us to the true, higher heaven.

Your parting assignment…

Go look at images from the Hubble Space Telescope while listening to Gustav Holst's The Planets. Bask in the beauty, the immensity, the mystery. The world is not disenchanted, friends, we've only grown blind to its wonder.

And while you’re at it… a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins always makes everything better as well…

The Starlight Night

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! 
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! 
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there! 

Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes! 
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies! 
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare! 
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!  
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize. 

Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows. 
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! 
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows! 
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house 
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse 
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows. 

Further Reading…

Joy Clarkson1 Comment