During the winter months, when sunlight in Norway is scarce, one can often observe giant strands of green and red plasma flowing across the midnight sky. This phenomenon, known as the aurora borealis—or the northern lights—occurs when charged particles from the sun collide with gas molecules in the earth’s atmosphere, causing them to emit light. It’s the same basic principle used in fluorescent light bulbs.
Put that way, the lights hardly seem cause for a pilgrimage, but recently I felt something—I’m not quite sure what—drawing me towards them. So I traveled the 3687 miles to Tromsø, a university town above the Arctic Circle, which is home to the world’s northernmost cathedral and Victorian houses with icicles hanging from their gables. It’s a numinous place, where water is so unpolluted that it flows from taps unfiltered and unpolluted and stars don’t just freckle the sky; they turn it gold. I imagined trolls lurking around every corner.
I wasn’t the only one there to see the lights—a friend from Paris came with me, and we met travelers from England, the Isle of Skye, Alabama, Italy, and Japan. Each of us was looking for something, and we all hoped that the aurora might illuminate what it was. Like Chaucer’s medieval wayfarers, we made the journey hoping to witness a miracle.
So it was that I found myself wrapped in two sets of long underwear, toe warmers, ski pants, jacket, hat, and mittens waiting to see the lights. The sky was clear, and around eight o’clock, a green band appeared across the horizon, which broadened into a deep neon glow that shrouded the stars. Then giant dots speckled the firmament, bouncing from one corner to the sky to another as if playing hopscotch. It’s like the sun’s telling a story, I thought. No, it’s like God’s writing poetry in the heavens.
I didn’t realize until then that I had traveled north of the Arctic Circle to see God. I knew you could experience God—I’d spent three years in divinity school learning that one. I’d done plenty of reading about God; I believed. But seeing God was different. Moses saw God in the burning bush; Mary Magdalene saw the risen Christ and Mohammed saw God in his heart, and once, once I met a girl who’d seen Pallas Athena hovering above her. But though I’d always believed, this was the first time I’d ever seen anything. I never expected that much.
The night sky taught me what no book could: that God, who often seems so distant, touches individual lives just as charged particles from the sun stretch out millions of miles to caress life into the cold Norwegian atmosphere. That’s the lesson I needed to learn. That’s what I’d come so far to discover, and that’s what I now believe.
I believe in the power of the aurora.
Word Count: 480
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