Wedges of geese flying overhead ritualistically at twilight. Nice to know what we can count on. #summerevenings
—Terry Tempest Williams, Twitter
When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which You have set in place,
what is man that You are mindful of him,
and the son of man that You care for him?
I get distracted by the sky.
I begin most days in the armchair in our living room with coffee, breakfast and the Bible. In my right-hand peripheral vision is a triptych of a view: a window-paned door to our backyard flanked by two large windows. When I look up from my reading to grasp a stoneware pottery mug for dear life, the light often catches my eye. Between the neighbors’ rooftops and low-hanging branches of our Drummond red maple, there is a trapezoidal space of sky that I watch with great interest both in the quiet luminescence of morning, and in the warm glow that precedes sunset pastels, which all too quickly fades to darkness. I try to fill my eyes with as much of the changing light as possible.
After a few hours of various quotidian domesticities and work-related emails, I step outside to drive a few blocks away to the gym. I assess two things before I get in the car: 1) the horrifying presence of, or the blissful absence of, wasps between the door and my means of escape; and 2) the current state of the sky, including the particular shade of blue that day, or the lack thereof, and the situation of the clouds. The shape of my emotions often responds to the sky’s composition.
Back home, the moveable feast of writing takes me to the couch in our library/TV room, steps away from my office. The words don’t come easy. I recently read that allowing my eyes and thoughts to wander the perimeter of my surroundings enhances the writing process. And so I look around. One time I gazed at the view from a second story window precisely as a Great Egret swooped overhead and out of sight. I took it as a blessing.
The sky is most distracting, and a tad precarious, when I’m driving around the concrete arteries of Houston. I’ve developed a knack for keeping my eyes on the road, yet peeking at the sky. The other day I tracked a cloud formation that seemed to be the Shekinah glory. It was not so much a pillar of condensation, but three large clouds conjoined at the center, emanating beams of light upward, outward, downward. These clouds stayed in front of my car during the drive home.
Also while driving, I catch birds gliding on the wind in flight, their wings at horizontal ease, their bodies in cruciform shape. I’ve noticed this so often lately that I think God is trying to tell me something. Isn’t He always? I mean, there’s a trinity of Great Egrets in my neck of the woods that fly at dusk — over our roof, over traffic, over the local park, over whatever it is that suburbanites are up to.
I am not the only one to be obsessively wooed by clouds and light and aerial space. John Constable painted 100 cloudscapes during the summers of 1821 and 1822 while living in Hampstead. He called his cloud-watching “skying,” which of course is the perfect term. He continued to document his cloud studies when he took his ailing wife Maria to Brighton Beach in the hopes that sea air would heal her tubercular lungs.
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
Clouds often appear to be pastoral hills or august mountains in my imagination. Constable might have imagined similarly as he painted, hopeful for his beloved’s recovery. Perhaps spiritual intuition draws our eyes heavenward as we suffer through valleys of unsettling shadows and pain. This is true for me — I direct my tired eyes to the sky for comfort, encouragement, and a good dose of beauty. At red lights I snap iPhone photographs of the aesthetically-pleasing intersection of telephone wires and clouds. “You can never be nubilous,” Constable told a friend, “I am the man of clouds.” Dare I say I am the woman of the clouds with my mere Instagrams?
Georgia O’Keefe also looked upward and painted the ephemeral transience of clouds, as did John Muir:
On July 23 : “What can poor mortals say about clouds?” While people describe them, they vanish. “Nevertheless, these fleeting sky mountains are as substantial and significant as the more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both alike are built up and die, and in God’s calendar, difference of duration is nothing.”
—For the Time Being by Annie Dillard, pages 71-72
But lately, I sense something other than mere elegance and cerulean hues in the realms of heaven. The sky seems to be at work. I’ve come to believe the sky is at work.
A few months ago I drove away from a friend’s neighborhood with tears sliding down my cheeks. I didn’t approve of some things occurring in my life. I was trying to thank God in all things but could not find those particular words of gratitude and submission. My external and internal vocabularies were comprised of bitter antonyms. My friend is dear to me, and honest. Very honest. She didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. She hugged me tight, whispered the truth in my ear and sent me home with mango coconut grilling sauce.
The sun — an enormous golden orb — sat directly on the horizon, to the peril of cars swooshing over the freeway. Or so my dire sensibilities persuaded my eyes to believe. I did not understand God that evening nor was I interested in talking with Him. He was there anyway. I was heartened for a moment thinking that beatific view would lead me home, but I veered toward a thunderstorm instead. A strata of thick grays and pinks trimmed with strings of dark rain whispered ominous questions ahead. At least a mystery. Perhaps He wasn’t interested in talking to me, either — at least not right then. You know, His timing and all. The conversation seemed to be just between the sky and God — one that I could behold but not comprehend.
I uttered repetitive, nerve-shaken prayers through blinding torrential rain. On the last stretch toward home, a storm raged to my left, and the last traces of a storm gleamed with tranquility to my right — a forecast of the past of eternity. I pulled into the driveway and looked up to an odd transition of gray to ochre lingering above our home. I begrudgingly took note that the drama of the heavens declared the glory of God loud and clear that day despite my tears, petitions, protestations and my eventual quietude. There are times, though rare, that I forget myself enough to recognize the liturgy of the sky.
* * *
I keep a cloud wish list — lenticular are at the top. If I beheld those stacked, ring-shaped clouds whose name hearkens to a penitential liturgical season, would I live more confessionally? Walk in step with humility? A girl can (and should) hope.
* * *
One morning I took my husband to the airport in an hour wee enough to hold a crescent moon and a sea of stars in the sky. I searched for The Big Dipper. . . . my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life . . . (Psalm 23:5b—6a). As I weaved through traffic with the aid of an Americano, the sky awakened in the motions of Morning Prayer. The onyx expanse changed ever so slightly to slate blue, to periwinkle, to baby blue, to the palest blue, to finally, a pink whisper glowing with soft light and sparse clouds shaped like angels’ wings, or the wings of a giant bird.
* * *
The inhabitants of the geography of the sky participate in liturgy, day in and day out — completely apart from myself, and out of my control, which is a strange comfort. This perpetual display of beauty, obedience and worship displays the Maker’s glory, yes, but also His faithfulness. And why wouldn’t celestial beings behave in such a way? They were created within liturgy — an antiphony of God’s voice and creation:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.—Genesis 1:3-8
The cosmology continued, so on and so forth, until the sixth day when God made man in His image, and on the seventh day when He rested from all of His work. But creation did not rest. It took up the liturgy, the rhythms of what we now know as science. To this day, within the bookends of sunrises and sunsets, the sky speaks. The glory of God! I, Sky, am His handiwork. He is. I, Day, pour out His speech. I, Night, reveal His knowledge [Psalm 19].
* * *
I immerse my flesh and spirit into liturgy at church on Sunday mornings, and liturgy kneads itself into every aspect of my life as the weeks and months and years unfurl. Now there are also many other things that the sky does. Were I to write every one of them, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Liturgy — of the sky and otherwise — has always been, is, and ever will be. I believe that my eternal vantage point one fine day will be something like a glorious time-lapse film of the sun, the moon, the stars, birds, clouds, rain, thunder and lightning. I’ve often wondered if I’ll be able to fly. If so, I will befriend the clouds and join in the liturgy of the sky.