Experiencing God In Totality: Reflections On How The Solar Eclipse Stirred Religious Experience.

This stunning image of totality was taken by Michael Cain form the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS). I want to thank him for allowing me to use his images.

The other day, I called a good friend of mine with some "priest business." The call had nothing to do with astronomy or the eclipse, but the first words out of Brian's mouth were, "James! I was in totality!!" The statement surprised me on two levels. One, I didn't know he was going on a road trip, and, two, he really isn't into astronomy.

It turns out that Brian had a "happy accident," to quote Bob Ross, having planned a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska earlier this year to visit some of his classmates from seminary. When he began to get things ready to leave on his trip, it dawned on him that the dates of his visit coincided with the solar eclipse.

When I asked Brian what he thought of the eclipse, I was equally surprised at his response, telling me that it was, for him, a religious experience. Now, some of you may wonder why it would be out of the ordinary for one priest to tell another priest he had a religious experience watching an eclipse. Let's just say that Brian is a little "hard-boiled" when it comes to emotions. Therefore, for him to say he had a religious experience watching the eclipse spoke to me of the power of the moment.

As he recounted the details of his experience, both of us naturally started to gravitate toward faith language to talk about the event. I shared with him that I have heard people say that totality is almost an "other-worldly" experience, feeling like they are momentarily taken to a difference place and allowed to see our solar system from a completely different perspective.

The beginnings of the "Diamond Ring." Image Credit: Michael Cain

Brian's most impactful moment was during the end of totality when the second "Diamond Ring" appeared. With strikingly vivid language, Brian said he felt like he was at the tomb of Jesus. At first, he was simply trying to be attentive to the shimmering light of the sun through the moon's valleys, accentuated by the solar prominences. Then, it happened, the light of the sun turned a stunning white, allowing the diamond ring to appear. Brian said it was an experience so powerful that it made him wonder if this is what the Roman soldiers experienced when the stone was being rolled away from the tomb after the resurrection. I could tell that the experience left a deep impact on him.

We then talked about our small stature in the universe and how Brian experienced deep awe and wonder during totality, realizing how tiny we are in God's creation. As I have reflected on with you before, awe and wonder is associated with the Biblical understanding of Fear of the Lord - the beginning of wisdom. I then shared with him that the more I understand science, the more I am comfortable with who I am in my smallness, seeing it as affirming my significance, not hindering it.

Does size really matter in the universe when it comes to God? Depending on how we understand size, yes, it does. The goal of the spiritual life is not to increase, but decrease, voluntarily placing ourselves in the lowest place. I shared with my friend, "The larger the universe becomes, the more my spiritual life is affirmed." Put another way, the smaller I become not only physically, but spiritually, the more I am comforted that God loves me in humility, not when I am proud and haughty.

"James, you HAVE to go and see totality sometime in your life!" These words hit a chord, realizing that it would have been nice to see totality. Nevertheless, I was so happy for Brian, enjoying his passionate recollection of the eclipse. "Brian, events like this help people understand why I like to 'geek out' about this so much!" He began to laugh, affirming not only his positive experience with totality, but acknowledging that this experience also gave him new insight into me, adding a new dimension to our friendship.

As we concluded our conversation, Brian simply said, "James, a thought hit me while I was watching totality: When was the last time people really looked to the heavens?" I knew, intuitively, that his statement was both literal and metaphorical. In the literal sense, we discussed how astronomy was once the science of priests, constructing calendars and establishing feast days. In the metaphorical sense, he also implied that we need to gaze in awe and wonder not only at the beauty of creation, but also to fix our gaze upon God who brought all things into existence.

Another friend of mine, a Doctor of Biology by the name of Anne, also experienced totality and was eager to share her experience over a cup of coffee. Anne's trip was a bit more colorful and comical than my brother priest's recollection of totality. After recounting the troubles she faced actually getting to a place where she could camp out to view totality, ending up on a farm with the "guest bathroom" in an underground bomb shelter, Anne began to share her totality experience.

Predictably, Anne's explanation as a scientist was less religious and more attentive to the particulars of the unfolding of totality. Anne is a birder, having catalogued an impressive life list of bird observations in addition to participating in bird count research with numerous organizations. She shared two articles with me from eBird, a citizens' science program out of Cornell University, that asked its participants to track bird behavior during totality. She explained that certain song birds will start their morning calls shortly after totality is completed and night hawks will begin their evening routine during totality. Though her description was more scientific than spiritual, what came to mind was how this experience impacted more than just its human observers, but all of creation was both impacted and participated in this event.

Click here or on the image to look up bird behavior data from totality.

One of Anne's first attempts at solar photography. Beautiful prominence at 2:00!

From there, Anne shared with me her pictures, stunned that her simple, store bought camera you can find at any "big box" store took such stunning images of the sun. It led to a discussion on how solar observation is somewhat the reverse of observing deep sky objects: Instead of a light bucket, viewing the sun is about light reduction and filtration. In addition to the spectacular image she took of solar prominences, I found great humor in her picture of the land owner on top of his homemade, underground bomb shelter, watching the eclipse through a welder's mask.

The main theme of Anne's experience was how quickly everything happened, but how long-lasting the impact has been upon her since the event. When I asked Anne if she had a religious experience during the eclipse, she struggled to find the right words. She explained how her spirituality as a biologist is deeply connected with the outdoors. She has been to most of the major national parks and sought out rare and pristine regions of our planet's environment. Anne explained that of all the experiences she has had in her travels to some of the most beautiful places on Earth, totality was more impactful than all of them. She also affirmed that the spiritual meaning for her was still being unpacked, trying to digest the brief moments of totality. Similar to my priest friend, Anne said to me, "You HAVE to experience totality at some point of your life! You of all people!"

The bomb shelter.

It has been such a blessing to watch so many of my friends post images on social media of their experience of totality. I have greatly enjoyed Christopher Graney and Bob Trembly's posts about their experiences of the eclipse for The Catholic Astronomer. I was watching the evening news one night, and the host stated that, "We needed this event." I agree. Amid the fears and stresses that have been emerging globally, the eclipse was a moment when the vast majority of people gazed in wonder at something that is a true rarity in the universe. This moment gave many a sense of joy, celebration, and optimism. Dare I say, God used this moment to infuse our hearts with a moment of unifying love and peace.

Image Credit: Michael Cain

Both these conversations I mention lasted about an hour and a half with the majority being a monologue from my friends who wanted to share their experience of totality with me. Both of them were amazed that I didn't plan a trip myself, but I explained to both that it was clear to me that I needed to experience this event with parishioners. Yes, it meant not seeing totality, but the experience I had with my parishioners at St. Joseph Parish is something I deeply treasure. I saw in all the people who attended a palpable joy, whether they were young or old. I find this experience a rarity in priesthood, trying to put together events that can touch all people of all ages. Why should I be surprised that the event that was most successful for the year was not created by my hands, but by God's?

Despite my comfort with not seeing totality, there was a part of me that had a twinge of jealousy while listening to the experiences of these two friends. Some people may even dismiss the idea of making such a journey, seeing a nine hour drive or an eleven hour flight a bit of a waste of time for something that lasts about two minutes. At the same time, while listening to my friends' powerful recounting of totality, it reminds me that time can be perceived in two ways - moment to moment and as an eternal, sacred moment. Therefore, to those who ask, "Why would someone drive nine hours to experience something that lasts only a couple of minutes?" I offer this simple answer: Because there are experiences in life worth having in which two minutes can contain the joy of eternity.

A brief animation video I put together of Michael Cain's images of totality. Enjoy!

Fr. James Kurzynski

About Fr. James Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and a hobby astronomer. Originally from the small town of Amherst in rural central Wisconsin, Fr. James completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, majoring in Applied Music (Saxophone, Voice, and Composition). After graduating from UW-SP, Fr. James worked at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as a Hall Director and pursued a M.S.ed. in Group Counseling. After a year at UNK, Fr. James left his position to attend the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary to discern his priestly vocation.

Fr. James earned a Bachelor in Sacred Theology, a Master of Divinity, and a License in Sacred Theology. While pursuing these degrees, Fr. James also studied Spiritual Theology with the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr. James was ordained a priest June 28, 2003. Fr. James’ first assignment was as an Associate at the Tri-Parishes of St. Mary’s - Durand, Holy Rosary Parish - Lima, and Sacred Heart Parish - Mondovi. After two years, Fr. James was assigned as Chaplain and Instructor of Religion at Regis Middle and High School and was also assigned Associate Vocation Director. In his final year at Regis, Fr. James was also appointed Parochial Administrator of Saint Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church, serving south east Eau Claire County. From 2012-2015, Fr. James served as Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish, serving the college students of Western Technical College and the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In 2015, Fr. James was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which also serves St. Joseph's Grade School (3K thru 6) and the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. In 2017, in addition to his responsibilities to St. Joseph Parish and StoutCatholic, Fr. James was also named Pastor of St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Fr. James also teaches Introduction to Philosophy for the Diocese of La Crosse’s diaconal formation program.

In regard to his interest in astronomy, Fr. James is a member of both the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society and the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. He taught an Introduction to Astronomy course during his time at Regis High School in Eau Claire. Fr. James' first involvement with the Vatican Observatory came when an inquiry led to the development of the first "Faith and Astronomy Workshop" (FAW), designed for parish educators and clergy that are not professional scientists.

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Experiencing God In Totality: Reflections On How The Solar Eclipse Stirred Religious Experience. — 5 Comments

  1. I drove 2 days (from Baltimore MD to Jefferson City MO) to see totality. The day before the eclipse, I drove through some of the heaviest rain I had ever experienced, and was decidedly pessimistic about my chances of seeing anything on the 21st.

    I awoke on eclipse day to ominous clouds in every direction, but the sky overhead was miraculously clear. Checked out the Sun before the eclipse started, and there were 2 beautiful groups of sunspots on the disk. A line of at least 3 near the center, and an irregular grouping of 3-4 more near the edge furthest away from where the Moon would come in. These would come in handy during the partial phase of the eclipse, as they provided context to the Moon’s agonizingly slow progression across the disk of the Sun. It was fun to watch the various sunspots get “swallowed up” by the inexorably advancing shadow.

    The first bite out of the Sun came at 11:46 AM, and it took until 1:14 PM for the Moon to cover the entire Sun. I was right out in my hotel’s parking lot with about 50 other people. There were 2 (filtered) telescopes set up, and I had a constant line at mine to take a look. A number of people took pictures through my eyepiece with their phones, and many of them looked pretty good.

    Just as predicted, the light between the leaf shadows became thousands of little crescent suns on the sidewalk. I tried the trick of putting my fingers in a waffle pattern and it worked! At about one minute to totality, the light became really strange – like nothing I’d ever seen before. I shooed everyone away from my scope just before totality, and watched the crescent sun break up into little arcs, and then into scattered points of light (Bailey’s Beads). When I heard everyone simultaneously yell, I looked away from the scope, and there it was!!! The most awesome, utterly amazing sight I had ever seen!

    Where the sun ought to have been was this circle of the blackest black one could possibly imagine. It looked like a hole in the universe! Surrounding it were ghostly streamers of pure white light – the atmosphere of the Sun. When I was sure it was safe, I pulled out my (unfiltered) binoculars, and could see a bright red solar prominence shooting out at about 5 o’clock on the disk. I didn’t risk looking through the binoculars for more than maybe 30 seconds, and went back to naked eye viewing.

    Other things of interest: The temperature almost instantly plunged from about 90 degrees to maybe somewhere in the mid-70s. And there was a red sunset glow in the horizon in every direction. Weird! I totally forgot to feel for the wind that is often associated with a total eclipse. The sky was nowhere near as dark as I thought it would be. More like late twilight than actual night. Venus was brilliant – brighter than I had ever seen it. Both Mercury and Mars were up, but I didn’t manage to see either of them.

    In way too short a time, the Sun burst out from behind the Moon. Now I’m a big fan of orchestral music, especially live performances. A particular favorite of mine is Mahler’s Second Symphony, which I must have experienced live a good half dozen times over the years. During the performance, half of me can’t wait to get to the Earth-shattering climax at the end. But the other half wants it to never come, because then the symphony is over.

    I felt that way during the eclipse. I had missed the first diamond ring, and was determined to see the second… but I really didn’t want it to come, because it would mean the end of totality. But when it did, WOW! I really think it was the most beautiful and spectacular part of the entire eclipse… and it only lasted an instant.

    But sadly, it meant that the only thing left was the (rather boring) moving of the Moon away from the face of the Sun.

    More people came back to my scope, most of them to take pictures of the event. But after about 15 more minutes, I packed up my equipment and went back into the hotel. 2 plus hours of standing in the sunlight in almost 90 degrees had left me soaking wet and overheated. I desperately needed a shower.

    The very next day, the eclipse took on added significance for me. I hadn’t gone very far on my way home when I collided at 60 mph with an 18-wheeler big rig. My car was destroyed, but thanks to my swerving to the hard left in the last millisecond before impact, we did not crash into each other head on (which surely would have killed me), but instead side to side. In my case, the (unoccupied) passenger side of the car was shredded, but I managed to walk away totally uninjured! I was still nearly a thousand miles from home, and now with no car. It took me 3 days to finally get back to Maryland.

    Perhaps those ancients were right after all, about eclipses being evil omens!

    But you know what? In 2024, I’ll be on the road again to see the next one. (This time, up to Vermont.)

  2. Re “…the eclipse was a moment when the vast majority of people gazed in wonder at something that is a true rarity in the universe…”

    The eclipse “brought the country together”. The idea that everyone is so divided is always being talked up in the media, but at the eclipse all sorts of people gathered together, talked, watched, were amazed — and then (in Kentucky, at least) they all crammed together onto highways and drove in mile upon mile upon mile upon mile of bumper-to-bumper, start-and-stop traffic, and no one complained. I have met many people who spent 6 to 9 hours driving from the path of totality back to Louisville (a trip that would be 2.5-3 hours normally), yet no one complains or gripes or relays story of people acting like idiots. In fact, getting stuck in traffic seems to be a sort of “Badge of Honor”. The eclipse brought people together.

    • You’re absolutely right Chris! My friend Anne shared that, driving through Colorado, she was stunned how the bumper to bumper traffic was patient, polite, and showed true charity. A couple cars were being more aggressive and her first thought was, “They obviously didn’t see the eclipse!” There was something unifying I’m trying to give voice to. Thank you for clarifying that voice!

  3. There was a party atmosphere amongst perfect strangers where I observed the eclipse. We were all staying at a hotel on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri, and simply set up on the grass at the edge of the parking lot just before first contact. One couple from New Orleans realized we’d be there until the mid afternoon, so they took it upon themselves to speed off and return with lunch for the lot of us. Someone from the hotel brought out bottled water for everyone.

    I had my (properly filtered) 60mm refractor set up, and there was an unending line of people wanting to get a better look at the encroaching shadow prior to totality than was possible with just eclipse glasses, with many taking pictures of the Sun using their smartphones. I didn’t lose any opportunity to look for myself however, since my scope was not tracking. So I had to return to the eyepiece to re-center the sun every minute or so. Didn’t miss a thing!

    Across the street from the hotel was some sort of office building. Obviously, whoever was in charge over there decided no one was going to want to stay indoors that day, so they had made the best of things. There was a big tent set up out front and many picnic tables, a row of ice chests, barbecues, and a smoker for making BBQ pork. They had music playing with songs like “I’m being followed by a Moon Shadow”, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, and “Bad Moon Rising”.

    It was a beautiful holiday from all the troubles and divisive issues besetting our country.

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