I’m not much of a TV watcher. I’m vaguely aware of popular shows, but have no desire to actually watch one, especially if I have to commit to remembering characters and plot lines from one week to the next. I’m afraid the past year has exhausted me for character and plot line. I’m pretty much just pure image and rhythm at this point and have come to regard current events as so much really bad poetry. Also, I simply don’t have the time. Still, at the end of the day, for half an hour or so I’ll find something on one of the streaming services and watch it till I start nodding off. It’s my bedtime story.
I tend toward documentaries, especially science and nature shows, and will watch just about anything about outer space. In the morning as I’m praying, Venus will often still be low on the horizon, and I’ll think how pretty it looks. Then I’ll recall that it has sulfuric acid rain and a surface temperature of nearly 900 degrees. This is by no means to indicate I’m of a scientific mind. On the contrary, I don’t understand ninety percent of what the scientists on these shows are talking about. That’s why I watch them. I like getting lost in other people’s abstruse thoughts.
The other night, listening to an astrophysicist, I remembered the first time I tried to read Duns Scotus. They talk about primal forces in the cosmos that have to be there but only exist in theory, about distances so distant they can only be measured in time. They’re probing so deep into space with their telescopes and mirrors that they’re picking up light only a few moments (i.e., a few billion years) from the Big Bang, and the closer they get, the more their own laws and suppositions fold over on themselves into a kind of cosmological mysticism. The other night a scientist on the screen said if they could just get close enough to the moment of the Big Bang, get close enough to the beginning, they might finally be able to explain how all of this came to be, and that’s when things really folded over, when I went from knowing nothing to everything. That’s when I said to the scientist on the screen, “Oh, I can tell you that.”
But what I really like about space shows is that they make me feel small—really small. Even just a show about Earth tends to put me in my place. But then Earth is part of the solar system, which from the Sun to Pluto stretches 3.67 billion miles. The solar system is part of the Milky Way, which in turn is part of a larger set of galaxies called the Local Group, in which Andromeda is our nearest neighbor, two and a half million light years away. The Local Group is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which itself may be part of a larger supercluster or may simply give way to an infinite phantasmagoria of stars, galaxies, and gases that finally render distance and number absurd. And I’m a carbon-based organic entity considering all this on a laptop in a failed biosphere called New York City.
Thousands of years before the Discovery Channel or NOVA, a psalmist peering into the night sky with no telescope but his soul wrote, “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged, what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?” Like the scientists, the psalmist is awestruck at the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, and when he considers the power that created that vastness, the hand that crafted that beauty, his awe is imbued with the deepest resonances of mystery and he experiences humanity’s holiest state: humility. The scientists, however, gazing at the same sky with better instruments and no humility at all, look back to an older tradition, older than the psalms, older than the prophets. They look back to Eve. Adam and Eve lived in perfect unity and innocence with God, in perfect relation: they knew they were small. Lucky; gifted; graced—but small. So the serpent’s idea for original sin was the idea of being bigger: “…you will be like gods.” But it was when they tried to be as big as God that they realized they were naked and twisted their God-given humility into shame.
Bigness, however, proved a long-lasting and successful temptation. The Tower of Babel was another notorious too-big-for-our-own-britches moment, resulting in the confusion of languages—and, by extension, the confusion of ideas [see: internet]. Israel decided, against God’s earnest advice, that it would stand bigger among the nations if it had a king. By the death of the third one, Solomon, the kingdom itself had split in two, and it takes several books of the Old Testament to record the epic fails of Solomon’s successors. And in a parody of bigness, the Roman Empire subsumed the ancient world: so overwhelming and arrogant, so unthinking and inhuman that it made the big mistake of crucifying an itinerant teacher, a former carpenter whose followers said was God Himself. Three, four hundred years later the Empire collapsed. The carpenter’s followers are still here. And now we’re in a Big Bang of deadly social, political, and cultural radiation and gases, poisonous, suffocating, and billions of little people across the country, around the world, are just trying to feel bigger, doing just about anything to feel bigger.
So I keep it small. (The carpenter said something about being meek…) I watch my little TV shows. I get a good night’s sleep. In the morning I go, as the carpenter told me, to my private room and pray. Facing east, I pray and wait for the dawn. It’s a New York City sky. There’s not a lot of stars. But some mornings there’s Venus. Some mornings there’s the moon. And some mornings, just a psalm and the heat coming up in the radiator are enough. Enough to make me feel small. Tiny. Enough, among the trillions and trillions of stars, to be in a tiny room in a tiny apartment where God gave me a candle, a cross, and a prayer book, and we can listen quietly to one other in the expanding silence of the universe.
Jeffrey Essmann is an essayist and poet living in New York. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, among them the New York Times, the Washington Post, America Magazine, Dappled Things, the St. Austin Review and The Road Less Traveled. He is a Benedictine oblate of Mt. Saviour Monastery.