Not the least of the advantages to being out here in the comparative boonies is that we get to see more of the night sky than do city people--although I do concede freely that our night skies are downright pathetic compared to the huge brilliance over, say, Ellesmere Island or the Dakotas or central Australia. Still, we do have the pleasure of seeing by moonlight sometimes, and if I'm willing to drive a mile or so out of town on a clear night, there's the Milky Way. Lovely. At Hallowe'en, we had clear skies with a crescent moon so clear and graceful, so white and yet so mild that you could easily see why iconographers used to set the Queen of Heaven standing on a moon like this.
Last night, though, I saw something I don't remember seeing before: the crescent (a day or two thicker now) hanging huge, low, and golden, just over the horizon. I see full moons like this sometimes --a looming low-slung moon like an enormous mottled penny, a soft coppery gold, huge and fuzzy, seeming almost to sit on the earth. But I can't remember ever seeing a crescent moon in that position.
I thought, looking at this strangeness, that of course there is a Real Moon, a definite celestial sphere, of thus and such a diameter, mass and composition, swinging in orbit around this planet at thus and such a distance; and I do not doubt its existence one lousy bit. But there are other moons as well--and I don't mean other moons of other planets; I mean other Earth's Moons of our imagination: the silvery disk that turns up in every culture's myth an language somewhere, often as a cool goddess.
The real moon, the moon of astrophysics, is substantially unchanging, except for the addition of meteor-mass and the kicking up of moon dust; it moves in certainly highly predictable ways. It has its straightforward light and dark sides, which do not vary. It's a clean sort of body, incorruptible because it's lifeless, shorn of the messiness of water and the stuff that comes along with water. That moon is absolute.
But the moon that most of us non-astronomical types live with is enchanting precisely because she is such a changeable critter: waxing and waning throughout the month, sometimes high, clear and brilliant with edges so sharp you could slice cheese with them; sometimes hanging low, rufous and almost ominous on the horizon--sharp or occluded, slim or fat, high or low, palely visible during the last of the day or completely out of sight. It all depends on where she is in relation to us, and what we're seeing her through.
It occurred to me that mostly we'd like faith to be like the astronomer's moon: clean, clear, straightforward, predictable, and at a comfortable distance. We'd like the clarity of light side/dark side, the predictability of orbit, the cleanliness that doesn't really go with life, which tends to be a wet and sloppy business. True the moon's surface is littered with rocks and craters, but we don't actually have to walk there. Since we can't see the details, we can concentrate on the admirable clarity, the blameless whiteness, so perfect, so far removed.
But in fact, faith tends more to be like our earthside vision of the moon. Sometimes it's strong and glowing; sometimes it doesn't seem to be there at all. It gets bigger, it gets smaller, it's all over the sky, and sometimes the sun eclipses it. We can see the moon only from where we are, which means at particular angles and through particular atmospheres, thicker or thinner. It's awfully hard to see the moon at all when the view's blocked by highrises or despair, or when the night sky's occluded by contending lights. Sometimes, as the other evening, we're seeing the moon at such an angle and through so much atmosphere that it becomes monstrously distorted (if still pretty kewl). But at no time can we ever really see the moon as the moon truly is, because we're here and she's there, and I for one don't have a telescope.
The essential thing, though, is that the moon we're seeing is a real thing: while we drape it with myth and imagery, there is something big and rock-solid underneath our drapery. Our faith is real; what varies is what we can perceive from where we are. We may think we know the moon, that we've got it all down pat, black and white: but in fact all that we have is our combined observations from earth, and while that amounts to a great deal, it does not mean that any of us knows what the moon is really like. That's important.
What's even more important is that faith is not God, and that worshiping faith may lead to a profound failure to worship God. Faith is no more God than the moon is the sun. Our faith reflects, imperfectly, a God we never can see with any clarity, and we should never forget that. Worshiping faith means worshiping certainty; it means being convinced that we have the moon surveyed and described and there's nothing much to be discovered. But God isn't a static bit of creation as the moon is; God is mobile, alive, creative, unchanging but unfolding, loving, beloved, knowing, unknowable, but above all *there*..
Right now the moon is up: a fat faintly golden arc, apparently about halfway out to Oxford Mills and maybe 300 feet overhead, give or take. At least that's what I see of it. It's no longer a clear slim crescent, nor that rufous hook low to the horizon; it looks positively domestic, like one of those plump and cheerful churchgoing ladies who chats companionably over the radishes in the produce aisle. That's tonight; tomorrow night's moon will be different. And yet the moon's still the moon, solid and unchanging. It's out there; but what I can see of it depends, I guess, on where I'm standing tonight, and through what haze I'm seeing.