Solar Eclipse I: The Experience

Solar Eclipse I: The Experience

After a flight into Maryland and a 625-mile drive to Columbia, South Carolina, I was ready to experience the total solar eclipse on August 21 with two of my daughters, a friend, and extended family. A long trip that was more than worth every mile.

Predictions of thunderstorms at our intended viewing site initiated a quick change of plans. Instead of driving from our hotel in Murrells Inlet to nearby Georgetown, we went to Columbia and met with my niece and her family who were hoping for good weather there for the event.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

By 12:45 pm we headed to a nearby middle school with a large, open athletic field, and set up our chairs under the shade of a covered walkway. Slowly more people arrived with chairs and pop-up canopies. Some brought picnic lunches and spread blankets under the few trees edging the field. Others tossed baseballs or threw Frisbees, or just sat and chatted.

When first contact occurred at 1:29, everyone stopped what they were doing, put on their eclipse glasses, and watched as the black moon began to slide over the sun. We moved in and out of the field for the next hour mesmerized by the beauty, marveling at the power of the sun that even as it was disappearing behind the moon, kept the air hot and the light bright.

sky during totality

PHOTO: Mary van Balen Darkening sky during the totality

Row of people sitting in chairs holding their eclipse glasses on and gazing at the sky


By 2:30, voices lowered, balls and frisbees were forgotten. The temperature had dropped and the sky was darkening.

People moved into the field. Standing or sitting, you could feel the crowd holding it’s breath.

Excitement built as the sliver of sun became thinner, thinner, and suddenly my glasses went black. I pulled them off and saw the sun’s corona blazing out behind the black moon.

NASA photograph of the total solar eclipse taken at Oregon State Fairgrounds by Dominic Hart

PHOTO: NASA taken by Dominic Hart at the Oregon State Fairgrounds August 21, 2017

People applauded, shouted, gasped, laughed, and cried. Some stood in awed silence before the magnificent sight. I did them all and hugged my daughters, grateful to be sharing the moment with them. Words can’t communicate the experience. It was profoundly moving, stirring something  elemental deep within.

Together, the sun and moon, spoke truth: Remember, you are part of something beyond anything you can imagine; you are creatures on a tiny planet in the vast universe.

For two minutes and thirty seconds we were one people, standing together, not in Columubia, not in the United States, but on earth. Boundaries and current national and worldwide issues lost their power to divide. For two minutes and thirty seconds.

Then it was over. Some lingered to watch the moon complete its transverse of the sun. Eventually, people carried their chairs and coolers  back to their cars and left.

Driving long hours back to our hotel, we shared our thoughts. Words continued to fall short, though we tried: amazing, awesome, unbelievable, overwhelming, beautiful, unforgettable, stunning….

In moments of silence, I wondered if the powerful event would change some who experienced it? Will we remember and embrace an expanded vision of who we are and how we live? Of this planet and the people we share it with? Of the Mystery who is the Source of all?


Pope Francis and the Common Good

Close up of Pope Francis addressing US Congress 9 24 2015






This past Sunday, while spending an evening with the Nuns on the Bus, I heard one man say that the words “the common good” had all but disappeared from public discourse. Today, Pope Francis put it back—front and center. He stood before Congress and in the first minutes of his speech, reminded those legislators: “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

I hope they were listening.

The organization of the Pope’s speech was masterful. He reminded us of values and struggles for liberty, freedom for all, social justice, and openness to dialogue and prayer by holding up four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Many of his listeners may not have heard of Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton. Their lives and writings were integral to the development of my own values and spirituality in my late teens and early twenties. Thomas Merton’s books have a place in my study, and his quote from his theophany at Walnut and 42nd in Louisville, Kentucky hangs on my wall.

Pope Francis highlighted the need to address poverty and climate change. To welcome refugees and those seeking a better life. He warned against reducing complex issues of violence done in the name of religion to labels of “righteous” and “sinners.”  When speaking of the need to  respect life in all its stages, he called for an international ban on the death penalty. Throughout the fifty-some minutes that he spoke, he emphasized the imperative of working not for wealth or personal power, but for the good of all.

And, in a place where it has been tragically lacking, he called for cooperation:  “We must move forward

together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.”

Pope Francis in front of assembled US Congress.

Pope Francis addressing US Congress 9 24 2015

Life the man himself, Pope Francis’s speech was also full of hope and optimisim. Of joy and love.

And then, when he finished, he left the halls of Congress and the assembly of rich and powerful to share lunch with homeless of Washington.



Permission to be Still

Permission to be Still

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

The day is perfect. I’m sitting with a friend on the porch of her beautiful home in the woods on Whidbey Island. Cool air blows by and sunlight plays on the branches of firs, cedars, and hemlocks. Chestnut backed chickadees and black headed juncos fly in and out of the feeder, and a woodpecker calls like a squeaky dog-toy from the woods. I’ve just finished drinking a large glass of watermelon aqua frescas when the feeling rises: Guilt. I should be doing something. I could write in my journal, make a sketch of the Douglas Fir, cedar, and hemlock needles so I can remember and identify them. I could read or compose a blog. I have an article to edit.

But all I want to do is sit, look, and breathe in pine-scented salty air. My friend reclines in her favorite red canvas chair, and now and then we comment on the birds, lack of rain, or deer that eat the Marion berry brambles she brought from her former home on Puget Sound. Then we are quiet, each with our own thoughts, or in my case, a combination of no thoughts and guilt.

I finally give myself permission to be still. To be an appreciator of creation, of a friendship that doesn’t require lots of conversation. To be present to the moment without having to record it with camera or pen. I simply sit, and when I think about it, give thanks.  It’s luxurious. And Graceful. And perfectly acceptable.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Not more than a month ago, I was on the other side of the country, participating in a contemplative residency for Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program. Silence and presence wove in and out of every day, reverenced  as an essential way of prayer. A way of becoming mindful of the Creator who made all and who resides within each of us. How could such stillness be worthy on retreat, but suspect on this glorious afternoon? How does our culture’s value of “doing” so quickly trump the wisdom of being still?  Have you wondered at that when the moment says “rest,” but some inner voice speaks louder: “Not now. No Time. Maybe later?” When the ingrained imperative to “be productive” pulls you away from your heart’s desire, how has your struggle gone?

Today, I wrestled for awhile, then relaxed into spacious silence. A small victory, sweet and refreshing, like the watermelon aqua frescas.

I Need Pentecost

I Need Pentecost

Photo: Mary van Balen-Detail Lectern Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London

Photo: Mary van Balen-Detail Lectern Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, London

Of Sunday’s two readings describing the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, I have always preferred the one from John’s gospel where Jesus on his followers huddled in fear behind locked doors and says simple, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Never one for lots of drama and fanfare, this account is quiet. The Spirit comes with a breath. No one jumps up mysteriously speaking so everyone can understand no matter the language. No instant transformation. These same disciples are huddled together when Jesus returns again (Granted, he does come through locked doors. A bit of drama.)to show his wounds to the unconvinced Thomas.

All in all, the followers of Jesus needed some time to respond to the gift of Spirit. Life had been confusing. Jesus had been crucified. Nothing turned out as they had expected. The Spirit had a lot of work to do, sinking into the hearts and souls of these wounded and confused folks. They needed time.

Maybe that’s another reason I like this description of the coming of the Holy Spirit: It resonates. Life has not turned out as I had expected either. Does it ever? I need time to heal from the deeper hurts. I need time to get up from life’s more stinging blows and, when I do, to rebuild trust in this God of the Psalms who, despite being billed as our guardian and protecter, sometimes lets things slip by, at least from my perspective.

So, I basked in the Pentecost celebration at Mass yesterday, swaying to  songs with beats from Pentecostal to Caribbean. I soaked up joy and hope. This morning, as I read today’s Mass readings I stuck with the Psalmist’s prayer, “My help is in the One who made heaven and earth,” and know that, like the disciples, I will grow into  deeper trust and the peace that comes on the same breath as the Spirit

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

2013 was coming to an end and I was spending a couple hours of it with Dominican sisters and their friends. We sat in the chapel facing toward the altar and the large glass windows behind it that looked out into a wooded area. Tree trunks and branches sprouted white lights shining bright against the darkness.

After a hymn stories were told of an woman whose son had shot a number of Amish children years ago before killing himself and the forgiveness she received from that community. Parent’s of murdered children had come to her son’s funeral, the first to greet her. Now, that mother takes her weekly turn caring for the most disabled of her son’s living victims. Forgiveness.

Another story. This one of Elie Weisel speaking of the moment he was finally able to forgive God for the holocaust, a moment when he realized God suffered as God’s children suffered at the hands of other members of God’s family. For fifty years, he had been unable to forgive.

Nelson Mandela’s  words were remembered: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Peace, these sisters were reminding us, begins in our own hearts, in our ordinary choices. Peace begins with forgiveness, of others, of ourselves.

We sat in quiet for a long time, in the presence of one another and of God. I tired to lose myself in the infinite embrace of the divine. I practiced centering prayer. I breathed in and out, slowly. I felt my own hurt. I tried to feel it and to forgive those who put it there. I became aware of hurts I have caused and hoped someone, somewhere could forgive me, too.

I opened my eyes and looked around me. Movement outside caught my eye. Deer were walking through the glowing trees behind the altar. Not a sound anywhere. The rows of chairs were sparsely occupied by women mostly much older than me: Retired teachers, musicians, and  professors.  Artists. Women who had given their lives to God and to the church which, I am sure for  some anyway, was a cause of pain and hurt. But here they were , a small community, tucked away in some corner of Ohio, praying for peace. Trying to be peace. How many other corners of our country or our world were filled with people, sitting quietly, hoping to learn how to live peace and bring peace and honor God with it? Quiet convents and monasteries. Living rooms and bedrooms. Chapels and city streets. Hospital rooms and party rooms.

We sang the office and then shared snacks and conversation in the common dining room.

For the moment, the world was a more peaceful place.


Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi Message

Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi Message

urbi et orbi 2013Pope Francis addressed the “City and the World” today in the traditional Urbi et Orbi message as thousands gathered to here him and receive the Christmas blessing. (read it here)

Francis asked all to join their voices with those of the angels at the birth of Jesus, singing God’s praises and promising peace on earth. He then gathered all the hurting world into God’s embrace, naming victims of war, especially children, and then the elderly, battered women, and the sick. He named countries suffering from war and violence today, refugees like those who perished at Lampedusa, and children forced to become soldiers. The pope also prayed for the earth, so often exploited by greed.

Reading his words, I sensed his desired to gather all into the loving embrace of God; his hope that all would experience that love and holy Presence. His use of the words “God’s caresses” were particularly tender, and he hoped all would feel them. We don’t feel them in a vacuum. We, citizens of the world, are responsible to give glory to God not only in word, but more importantly, with our lives “spent for love of him and of all our brothers and sisters.”

In a departure from the script, Pope Francis included non believers in his call for prayer for peace, asking them to join with people of all faiths praying for peace by desiring it in their hearts: ” And I also invite non-believers to desire peace with that yearning that makes the heart grow: all united, either by prayer or by desire. But all of us, for peace.”

This pope knows all humanity is in this together. We need one another, no matter the faith, denomination, or no faith. All for peace.