The Solar Eclipse of 2017

What it taught me about the Joy of the Gospel


A total eclipse of the sun!  For the first time in my life, I decided to make a “pilgrimage”; in this case a road trip of almost 2000 miles, to experience something I can only describe as a moment of transcendent beauty.  The journey was not without its difficulties, but the effort was rewarded beyond my highest expectations. The breathtaking beauty of totality was complemented by numerous delightful surprises; the sound of cicadas tricked into thinking night had fallen early, the numerous eclipse shaped images cast by the sun filtering through the trees, or the sounds of sheer delight expressed by nearby humans.  In a moment, I went from someone who might see an eclipse one day if the chance arose, to a “chaser”: my plans for the eclipse of 2024 are already underway.

The entire experience was also a lesson in the process of sharing the marvelous Catholic faith we have received.  While deep theological, philosophical, and ethical understanding of Catholic doctrine is necessary and important, our faith lies ultimately in a person, the person of Jesus Christ.  Attaining the joy of this personal encounter and sharing it freely with others will be more effective than any strictly rational or emotional dissertation.  My experience of the profound beauty of the eclipse and the path to getting there illuminated Pope Francis’ vision expressed in Evangelii Gaudium in a manner that no amount of academic study could equal.  It was illuminated, not by way of analogy, but by becoming a very real part of an evangelization whose legitimate scope is all of created reality.

The Total Eclipse

First, if left to my own devices, I would probably would not have seen the eclipse at all.  I was aware of an approaching eclipse occurring in the late summer, and my interest in astronomy had provided me with many stunning images of the solar corona and other phenomena which accompanied the eclipse.  These images, however, remained abstractions, and mere abstractions are hardly a goal worth expending effort for.  I would go if the opportunity presented itself, but I rationalized that it would probably require too much effort to be worth it.

This viewpoint was altered, not by further study or planning, but by a dinner my wife and I had with long time friends.  The conversation was enjoyable and wide ranging and soon touched on the upcoming solar eclipse. They had booked their rooms in Idaho, the place with the statistically best weather for viewing an eclipse, over 2 years ago.  The enthusiasm and almost child like wonder they expressed was what captured my attention.  No effort to convince us of the scientific value or the theory behind the solar atmosphere, just a joyous and heartfelt “Come and see” (cf. John 1).  They expressed a joy that we wanted to be a part of.  Our daughter, a recent graduate with a degree in Astrophysics was on board as soon as we mentioned it.

Once we decided to make a trip to see the eclipse, there was no shortage of “expert advice” on how to get the most out of the experience.  This advice was offered as rules of thumb with no qualification regarding levels of knowledge or observing skills, so we had to really dig in and study if we were to get all we could from this experience. My daughter and I had some practical skills in astrophotography and wanted very much to get that “ultimate picture”, while my son, a videographer, had a video in mind and provided us with great equipment and a list of sound recordings and video shots he wanted.


This trip seemed to have more than its fair share of contradictions, or “pin pricks” as St. Josemaria Escriva would say: the frayed nerves at our delayed, and therefore rushed, preparations for the trip; the first 300 miles of bumper to bumper traffic; a headache that lasted from Friday to Sunday; the shutdown of our debit cards by the bank because of a “pattern of fraudulent activity in Knoxville”; and a travel change that doubled the cost of our rental car.  In the end, the day came, and the weather held, which we attributed to St. Pius X on his feast day.  In fact, all of the difficulties became a thing of the distant past.

We watched the eclipse with cousins in the Knoxville, Tennessee area.  They provided us with wonderful hospitality and a comfortable place from which to experience the eclipse.  Their neighbors were also had an eclipse party and a new telescope which we helped to set up.  People shared their enjoyment as the event unfolded and absolutely everyone was greatly moved by the experience.  Some of our cousins commented that it was far more amazing than they had expected and were thankful that we had encouraged their interest.

Evangelii Gaudium in light of this eclipse experience

The eclipse, and indeed any experience of the overwhelmingly beautiful, leads quite naturally to contemplation and reflection.  The beautiful itself reflects the longing of our very nature, a longing that seeks itself and finds itself only by losing itself entirely in love, the full realization of which is only found in God.  God, who dwells in unapproachable light, has come and approached us, become accessible to us in Jesus Christ and, through the miracle of his mystical body the Church, in one another.  Our self’s deepest fulfillment and abiding joy, the Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium) lies only in turning outward, away from self toward love of others and finally to that most “unotherly other”, God himself.

Experiences of great beauty enable us to reflect upon deeper things but unless we bring them down to earth, as a concrete attitude towards our approach to life, they soon fade into memory and perhaps even strengthen the longing while despairing of the possibility of fulfillment.  It is here that this eclipse was both a rich experience of the transcendent and an object lesson on the path, preparation, and effort to reach it.  It was the vision of Pope Francis for the new Evangelization, conveyed to me through a very tangible life experience.

Our evangelization must begin with the joy of our life in Christ.  Our living in Christ should be a constant source of joy for us.  Without Christ, our doctrine and our rigorous adherence to the moral law will be joyless and will repel others.  What set me on the path to the eclipse – my “kyrigma” so to speak – was the child like wonder expressed by one who had been there before and would go again in a heartbeat. Imagine if the topic of the eclipse evoked only the following: “You will be blinded if you look without proper filters.”  “The roads will be unnavigable the day of the eclipse.”  “Only experts can take pictures, your attempts will fail miserably.”  “Tennessee weather is dreadfully hot in August”.  Etc.  I never would have given it another thought and would not have known the wonder I was missing.  Yet for many seeking the truth, this is what they encounter.  Christians providing little more than a joyless list of don’ts, giving an image of “sourpusses” to quote Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.

Moving beyond the kyrigma, however, to a life remade in Christ is essential.  It is turning outward, in gift of self to the other, to truth, to Christ and God.  This takes effort, time devoted to prayer, to actively seeking the truth of God’s calling, to growing in faith, and struggling to overcome our selfishness.  In short, to learn how to truly live, turning outward, without shortcuts, without attempting to reduce Christ and God to a source of nice feelings, or some theological syllogisms and abstractions of our own making, both of which simply turn us inward again.  Here too, our eclipse experience provided many lessons.  We could have gone with the rules of thumb, left our camera at home, and perhaps by forgoing some of the complexity, we may have even been less inclined to involve others.  But by putting in the effort, preparing and planning, and even rehearsing our camera operations, we were able to live in the moment of beauty while also helping both cousins and neighbors enjoy the eclipse in each other’s company.


Our efforts to live and share the joy of the Gospel will be ineffective if they fail to recognize that this joy is a gift and the initiative is God’s.  Our efforts should only serve to help us keep out of God’s way.  It is a lesson we need to be reminded of, and at times, God may need to remind us simply by leaving us to our own devices and helping us to see how inevitable failure is the result of our taking charge.  My daughter and I had carefully defined a sequence of photographs we would capture at the beginning of totality that we fully expected to yield stunning results.  When the time came, she made an error in the sequence which would have yielded some very poor pictures.  Instead, the results were amazing: had the pictures gone according to our original plan, they would have hardly been usable.  Her guardian angel had intervened in a most delicate manner: we obtained a series of stunning photographs but in a manner that made it clear it was in spite of ourselves.

I could continue itemizing lesson after lesson, but the real lesson here for me is not an analogy for my faith but simply another vision of how it is actually lived.  All of creation is the word of God, a book of Divine revelation.  Each experience, from the suffering endured for the sake of others to the breathtaking beauty of a total eclipse, comes from the same God, and must be allowed to lead us out of ourselves to others and ultimately to God himself.  Christ reconciled all things, all of creation, to himself, not simply our prayers or our alms.  Only in this lived integrity, this unity of life, can the Joy of the Gospel penetrate our entire existence and shine forth from it.  The sheer beauty of a life so lived, like the beauty of the solar corona, attract many to the Christian life without ever preaching a word.

I hope I will see you on 8 April 2024: bring your solar glasses!  And come with the mind of a scientist, the heart of a child, and, most of all, the Joy of the Gospel!


About PTT

A phenomenologist wannabee recently treated for scholasticism overdose
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