Can we kindle and keep an eternal flame? A celestial, earthly, journey to a pre-apocalyptic world
I don’t remember when I first realized I am about to die. I must have been four or five. This, at least, is what scientific studies tell us about the average age humans realize their own mortality. But I do remember how, not long after that, I sought solace in the stars. I looked up to the heavens, and, transient human me, found transcendence in the nightly skies. Those steady zodiac constellations promised eternity, and gave perspective, and purpose, to everything. In the grand scheme of things, all my vexations felt so trivial, all the wonders awaiting to be explored.
Yet just as vividly I remember what I was taught: lodging so many light years away from us, these seemingly secure stars might no longer be there. Some, by now, are dying red giants, others already passing into white dwarfs (the inevitable fate of our own Sun) or, more to my romantic liking, in a supernova, with or without champagne. Stars, like fireflies, flame and fade. Worse: when we see them shining, they are already withering; it’s over before we know it. There is no eternal flame. Have I found comfort and transcendence in a phantom?
I hope not. The dark romanticism of looking at the stars imagining them dead draws on a fiction. In fact, almost all the stars we see are very near to us. Most of the 6,000 stars visible to our yearning, naked eye, are within 1,000 light-years of the Sun, really just a cosmic walking distance to the nearby (now closed) café. So barring some rare exceptions (Eta Carinae, dude, even at death, you’re dashing!), our stars are quite alive and kicking dark energy all around. Still, looking at the nightly sky is looking at the past – and if, one day, they’ll be looking back, they might see our future. Do we even have one?
Perhaps we don’t; nuclear power, pandemics and climate change might take care of that. We are always above a precipice. In that case, maybe the very evanescence of everything can comfort and inspire us. When the Persian king asked his advisors to give him a ring with an inscription that’s always true, they turned to the wisest of all, King Solomon, and the royal ring got its most accurate inscription of a universal description: “This too shall pass.” Our joy and sorrow, our love and heartbreak, our lives, and this earth, indeed our universe, all shall pass. The end of the world as we know it is always around the bend.
We are always above a precipice. Maybe the very evanescence of everything can comfort and inspire us?
Notwithstanding the contemporary torrent of apocalyptic fiction and films, we might do well to recall the earliest tale of global doom: the biblical deluge. You know the gist of the story: the sinful humanity, the great flood, Noah’s Ark, and of course the dove’s fresh olive branch. One mythical moment in particular fascinates me. In the aftermath of the flood, having nearly annihilated all living beings, God forges a “covenant” with “every living creature on earth… Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God gives a sign: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth…” (Genesis 9).
An impressive testament of divine commitment – with an unexpected twist. At first, it’s clear that God is creating the rainbow to reassure humanity that no global catastrophe will again come its way. But then this is how God concludes his pledge: “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” The rainbow’s appearance is not altogether timed by God – its very purpose is to surprise God himself, and remind him of the covenant, an eternal sign of a promise he signed, and may well be tempted to break.
The rainbow’s purpose is to surprise God himself, and remind him of the everlasting covenant
Does God still remember? How can he if “God is dead, and we killed him,” as Nietzsche pithily put? Can God’s killers – we – step up to take the pledge, and what can ever remind us of it – of both God and his promise?
Perhaps, again, the rainbow. A couple of weeks, a lifetime, ago, walking at Letchworth State Park, the meeting of hearts saw our Sun, still very much alive, and the Middle Falls, making love. It was a hot reunion, so hot in fact, that it looked like fire, and an image of another, almost Promethean, yet biblical, fire, came to my mind: The Burning Bush, on Mount Horeb, where God first appeared before Moses, and where Moses will later receive, and give, the Ten Commandments. The burning bush too was a divine sign – to Moses, and his people-in-the-making, and the divine trick was cool enough: “behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2).
Looking at the rainbow reunion I couldn’t but behold, at its very edge, the flames, and wonder: was God self-plagiarizing his sign? The rainbow, I began to think, that divine promise to not let humanity die, is a flamboyant flame. This is what Moses saw in the bush; this is how it was not consumed.
God talked to Moses then, does he still, in rainbows, talk to us? If so, what is he saying? “You may have killed me, but not the promise; only now it’s up to you to keep it.” Rainbow, that most beautiful bridge between heaven and earth, that marvelous marriage of sunbeam and water, however scientifically analyzed, remains a testament to this world’s fleeting wonder, an offering, divine or not, we may embrace or discard. Aware, we are at awe.
The playful rainbow – now you see it, now you don’t – is always elusive, yet never illusive. It is there to remind us that marvels are still out there, in and beyond ourselves – and that promises, not least to ourselves, should be kept. Whether Prometheus stole the fire from the Gods, or we stole it from God, it’s in rainbows we may find fire’s most inspiring, embracing, flame.
In one of the most arresting moments in the bible, facing the burning bush, Moses asks God for His name. God cryptically replies, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, which no translation can fully capture: “I am what I am, shall what shall, cause who I am.” The latter, I think, is truest to the implicit meaning: God as self-creation. Nietzsche could not have been prouder. And if we, humans, are created in God’s image, then self-creation, including in communion, may not be that far from our shores as well. We only have to look in rainbows to remember, and hope 🌿