Bright Wings in the Dark
I am troubled whenever I hear someone blast atheists, agnostics, or unbelievers, saying they are wicked, immoral, and heartless. Some of the most moral people I have ever met, the most deeply committed to good and right, and the most caring, have been people who self-identified as atheists. And, as Pope Francis preached a couple of years ago, atheists who try to follow their conscience are much closer to God and Jesus than Christians who abuse and hurt others.
The issue is whether one tries to respond to the sense of awe and wonder in our hearts, regardless of how these are expressed in systems of belief or unbelief.
Rebecca Elson (2 January 1960–19 May 1999) was an astronomer and follower of science while at the same time a poet. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 29, and after 10 years of brutal treatments that bought her some time of remission, ultimately died of this blood cancer that usually affects the elderly. She looked at the world about her in her scary and uncertain remission, and wrote poems that often contrasted the stark impartiality and randomness of nature with the meaning with which our minds and hearts, also part of nature, imbue it. The following poem uses images of the stars in the blankness of space and fossils of extinct species in the rocks to express such meaning.
ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH by Rebecca Elson
Sometimes as an antidote To fear of death, I eat the stars. Those nights, lying on my back, I suck them from the quenching dark Til they are all, all inside me, Pepper hot and sharp. Sometimes, instead, I stir myself Into a universe still young, Still warm as blood: No outer space, just space, The light of all the not yet stars Drifting like a bright mist, And all of us, and everything Already there But unconstrained by form. And sometime it’s enough To lie down here on earth Beside our long ancestral bones: To walk across the cobble fields Of our discarded skulls, Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis, Thinking: whatever left these husks Flew off on bright wings.
Grace and Peace.