What man is there, who has, on some clear, frosty, moonless night in January, turned his eyes to the jeweled vault of heaven, and not been moved to admiration by the wondrous spectacle there displayed; and, if he know aught of the story which that spectacle but adumbrates, has not been awed by the knowledge of his own littleness, in comparison with that awful immensity which encompasses him?
It is probable that every person living, or who has lived, has, at least for one fleeting moment in his life, been attracted and moved to wonder by the calm majesty of the sidereal heavens. In that peaceful moment his feverish selfish life drops from him, and that great peace which the starry skies symbolize so perfectly, enters unto his inmost soul; and, in some strange way, he feels that he and the stars are one. In that mysterious hour, which afterwards, with some, stands out beyond all other experiences in vividness throughout life, he becomes truly Man; he realizes his life; he loses his idea of separate existence, and knows and feels his unity with all being. But such mystic visions are but transitory, howbeit at the time they seem eternity, and the man is forced back to climb by the appointed path to the objective realization of that distant scene, which in ecstatic moments we all more or less dimly see. And he should not be unwilling to come back. We must not forget that our ideal gives no knowledge of the condition of the world around us. We men have the power of forming ideals.
A Let us work steadily and strenuously for our ideals. But in nowise must we forget that the world does not yet come up to the standard of our vision. And if, at any time we allow ourselves to fall into the fallacy of believing the external world to exactly correspond with our ideal, in that moment idealization becomes a useless function. The ideal scene is the distant glimpse of the next rung of the ladder, and we fail in our trust if we ever cease to endeavor to raise the world thereto.
But we have wandered a little from the stars.
He must indeed be a prosaic personage who has never felt the spell of the starlit sky cast over him. Even to those who are uninitiated into its mysteries, the black dome of heaven bespangled by its thousand glories presents a scene of grandeur which sets the mind thinking. What are those placid, imperturbable specks of light? Where are they, and what relation have they to me? Were perhaps thoughts which agitated the mind of the first reflective man who turned his gaze heavenward.
From time immemorable the stars have possessed a certain allurement for humanity. They have ever been the objects of man's speculation and curiosity. At times, he has worshipped them; at others, he thought to read his destiny in them; and now, he systematically studies them.
The Ancients held divers theories concerning the stars. Yet, much as they venerated them, they never gave them their true rank. Down to only a few centuries ago, men thought the stars but insignificant things. To them, Earth was the center of the universe, and for its benefit, and for the edification of man all else had been created.
But in a few short centuries all this was changed. This tiny world, the former pivot of creation, became but a minor dependent of the Sun, and the Sun but an insignificant star lost among millions of his peers ; and man saw that his home was but one among many, or at any rate, one world among many others which possibly could be homes. This revolution was a spur, and led men to look around themselves. Strange new shapes were presented to man's wondering gaze, bearing a message that might well appall him, for therein he thought he saw portents of the birth and death of worlds. The profundities of space were sounded; and the velocities at which the denizens of those depths traveled were calculated. It appeared, too, as though the earliest traditional command had been rigorously obeyed by the stars, for their multitude was without number. It was seen moreover, notwithstanding the teeming life of the star-depths and the great gulf fixed between each fiery orb, that all was one; man saw that the whole was linked by many a subtle chain, and he has been led to postulate the mystic ether, nowise sensific yet in many ways implied, pervading the wastes of space, as the universal transmitter of the various agencies he saw to be at work. Step by step, unto this wonderland men have pressed eagerly forward as though pursuing some fairy vision. At every stage of progress along the road, their own transient nature becomes evident to them, at every advance Earth dwindles. They have been led to theorize touching the extent of matter and even of the very postulated ether itself; but the more ardently they press forward farther and farther away does the horizon become, and at length we find them in the midst of an immense incomprehensible sea (nevertheless with a trusty compass on board) and with land apparently nowhere in sight.
It is to the verge of this vast mysterious ocean, the extent whereof we cannot measure, and whose depths we cannot fathom, that we are led when standing under the starlit sky. And as we strain our sight in the endeavor to pierce the mists which lie before us, a fellow-feeling must go out to those hardy adventurers who now navigate, and to those early Pilgrim Fathers who first ventured to sail, this mighty sea of recondite problems.
And what lessons can we learn? Many. The universe of stars is a veritable moral lesson book, and the study thereof cannot fail to lead men to the enquiry touching the meaning of their life.
What is my life, the life I am conscious of as a separate individual? 'Tis but a passing flash: 'tis but a bubble that arises in an Out-o'- the-way corner of space on the boundless sea of time: one moment it is, the next it has vanished. In no other department of natural science, perhaps, is the ephemeral nature of man's carnal life brought so profoundly home to him as in the study of the stars.
Some (not without good cause) have rebuked physical science for pandering to idle curiosity, and for studying those things, the understanding of which does not appear necessary to moral salvation. But is knowledge ever, in the long run unprofitable? Is it not always possible to turn knowledge to ethical ends? And, if Astronomy show man the vanity of believing his carnal existence to be his Life, and if she induce him to enquire "Why do I live?" and thus lead him to the verity that Life is living for others, is she not justified? In the observatory at midnight surrounded by the vastness of the unknown, busy as he may be, the astronomer may experience a feeling of utter loneliness creeping over him. What is he amid this tremendous display of forces? But as a straw, the plaything of every passing zephyr. Is there no haven for him? Is he ever to be a reed tossed on the blind rushing torrent? Nay. He is a "thinking reed." He feels within the longing to love and to be loved. He seeks a rock whereon to stay his soul. Charity is that rock, and once let him build thereon he will find harmony, once let him grasp the rock he is beyond the torrent's jurisdiction; for, Charity is the true function of man, wherein he identifies himself with all life, and finds his proper office in the cosmos.