Space for Lent

For Lent, I became an astronaut. I had the “out of Earth” experience that all those who have been to space have gone through and I did it because of an ingenious set-up that a friend of mine creatively worked on.

Imagine looking down a hole 12 meters in diameter, like a round swimming pool, with the circumference lined with giant calibrated markings that you find in camera lenses. I stood above that fantastic, enigmatic hole as if I was looking through the window of a hovering space ship I was in. Then, slowly, a gigantic blue bubble came to fill the hole and it morphed to become Earth. Then I found myself “passing” through Antarctica, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Moments later, the lens zoomed closer and I saw a giant storm passing over what seemed like our archipelago. Then there was radiance looking at a moving caravan of creatures across a vast desert: camels! Then there were two polar bears coming out of the icy waters of Antarctica, and ice fragmenting and crashing! The next moment, I was seeing what looked like painted darkness mapped with reddish-yellow “ice cubes” in various heights which turned out to be the New York city skyline. And then there was the Amazon rainforest dented by the enormous meandering snake of a river – and it really looked like it was the Earth’s lung, pushing essential air for life.  

Then I orbited the Earth some more, a couple more zooms – in and out – which, by that time, made me aware how they corresponded with the tugs I felt inside me encountering our planet this way. This is the “overview effect” that astronauts always speak of when they talk about their experience seeing the Earth this way. It is a term to capture the awareness of one’s consciousness being reborn after encountering the overwhelming evidence and reality that ALL our powers and frailties, ALL our achievements and failures, ALL our multi-scaled wars and peacemaking, are birthed on this fragile blue marble floating in the immensity of space! Nowhere else. 

Two days later, in a little over 100 kilometers from where I was, bombs exploded in Brussels airport and in the subway, killing over 30. After sending messages to everyone who cared about me that I was alright, I actively summoned the memory of what I felt having experienced the overview effect. It gives me a perspective that no religion, organized or not, could ever offer my questioning soul. With each religion claiming to be right and absolute, against the backdrop of a single lonely planet from where we have nowhere else to go, the fight for who promises the only meaning seems, at best, ridiculous and, yes, out of this world. 

We don’t need the “overview” effect to get this perspective. But it makes it more difficult to resist it. We know for a fact that there is no other nearby planet with a welcome sign for us, and being in space, even only in a simulated experience, makes that so imminent. It is like standing at the edge of a cliff and realizing that you really don’t have other options AFTER you jump.  

But even without this astronaut perspective, you can just lay on your back and gaze at the dark sacred night. It is a magnificence you can take in and where no one else has yet staked a real claim. Soak in the immensity and know that our planet is just a tiny piece of it – made from the stuff of stars and, as a consequence, so are you. Whatever you believe in or not believe in, there is only one blue marble holding us all. –