After I cleaned up dinner, I walked out into a cold Wisconsin evening with a garbage bag in tote. One of the neighbors was burning leaves. The late fall smell calmed me. I flung the day’s garbage into the large bin as if I was tossing it overboard. A friend was going through a rough time. His struggles weighed on me and felt as if they hung in the chilled air.
I stopped in the middle of the yard. My eyes had almost adjusted to the dark as I stared into the night sky. It was beautifully clear. There was depth to the layers of starlight. A slice of a waning moon hung in the treetops over the house. Orion was drawing back his bow, his belt tight around his waist. I have always loved looking at the stars here, where no city lights pollute the horizon.
I folded my arms across my chest and stood still. I felt cold, not only because of the dropping temperatures.
“Lord, sometimes it seems as if you’re cruel.”
I remembered another time I looked up into the stars for an answer. I recalled the night when my mother took us to the observatory on top of the hill. She was employed there as a secretary during the day. Kind, bearded professors had invited us to join them in their work that night as they studied far off mysteries. I remembered my excitement walking up to the white building with its dome. I climbed the winding metal stairs gripping the steel rail, sliding my hand upward until it hurt with cold. Soon, I would be able to understand the universe. All I had to do was look through a telescope. Maybe I would even see God at work. He was up there, somewhere. One just needed a big enough lens. And I was about to look through one.
The smell of old, damp wood greeted me. It made me feel like I entered the sanctuary of our small, stone church with endless wooden pews. I climbed higher and higher until I arrived in a frigid, spacious room with a rounded ceiling.
There it stood, bigger than I could have imagined, a telescope so large it had its own set of stairs with a platform. Suddenly the room shifted. The floor turned and the ceiling opened. The telescope appeared to move. But it was the entire floor that shifted the large instrument in the direction the astronomer needed it to be. The wood creaked and groaned under the pressure. Then, as the ceiling unfolded, the universe flooded into the room.
Just like I waited at Christmas for my turn to open my gift, I waited to finally see heaven. I imagined a world different from this, a better one, without cruelty. I wanted to know the truth about the stars and wanted to see how they really looked.
Finally. I was able to walk up the last few stairs. I stood in awe on the platform in front of the giant lens. I hesitated while the professor showed me. Then, as I listened carefully to the instructions, I peeked through the lens.
“Do you see that dot in the middle … well … that’s … “ I couldn’t hear the rest. The sound of his voice was swallowed by my disappointment. I didn’t see a thing. Only stars slightly bigger. Yeah, maybe there were a few more than I could see with my naked eye. I felt as if Toto just pulled the curtain on Oz. There was nothing. No God on his throne. No angels. No other beautiful places. No heaven.
Today, decades later, I still stare into the night sky. Sometimes, I admit, I’m tempted to look for a glimpse of heaven there. Then, in the silence of God, in what seems to be a cruel absence in the mind-staggering largeness of the Universe, in my prayers void of answers, I remember a deserting God who left his son for the sake of mankind hanging on a lonely cross. In this one act of cruelty, on an abandoned hill, he allowed for heaven to come to earth and made a way for me to be able to come close. Heavenly bodies disappeared and darkness entered there, when God left. Yet, through this cruelty, he remained Emmanuel, God with us. As King, he has no need to reveal his majesty. But … I wonder if he is as excited as I am for One Day, when his cruelty will finally be revealed for the Love it is, and we will have no more need for telescopes.
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
CS Lewis, from The Screwtape Letters
Observatory Hoher List … closed in recent years for lack of funding.