Standing in the shadow of the nebulae.
One June night, while people in the Southern Hemisphere prepared for their winter solstice, I stood in a campground high in the Andes and looked at the sky. The Milky Way ran right over our heads in brilliant clarity.
Our guide pointed to formations in the bright band of light, and I realized that most of the patterns he pointed out were not patterns of stars but patterns made by the absence of stars. They were black areas within the thick bright stream of the Milky Way. It looked as though there were no stars there, but we were actually looking at dark nebulae that blocked out the light of the stars behind them. We were standing in the shadow of the nebulae.
The biggest dark area is a nebula that modern astronomers call the Coalsack. The Incas saw in it the shape of a llama. Nearby is a smaller dark patch they said is her baby. The dark nebula is pierced by two bright stars that they said form the big llama’s eyes. The Incas told a story about the Great Llama, that as her head dips toward the horizon at the solstice, she is bending down to drink from the ocean. Her drinking prevents the floods that would otherwise come; and the water she drinks flows through the Milky Way and becomes nourishing rain.
The story of the Great Llama is a story of Creative Spirit revealed in darkness, not light. To the Inca observer, the starlight was the background, the foil. The darkness was the foreground.
It is a good story for our season of long nights in the Northern Hemisphere. It reverses our usual focus on the sunlight, the bright star, the candle flame. It invites us to allow the light to be the background and center our attention on the creative darkness. We may meditate upon the darkness of the blessed night that brings rest and healing; the darkness under the surface of the soil, where the fertile seed begins to grow; the darkness of the mother’s womb. The old story of creation begins in the dark. All life begins in the dark.
Reprinted with permission from Stone Blessings: Meditations, ©2010 by Robert Walsh (Skinner House).
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The Rev. Robert R. Walsh is minister emeritus of the First Parish Church in Duxbury, Mass., and the author of Stone Blessings: Meditations.
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