Friday, August 24, 2007

Marfa Lights: A Mystery


Seeking out the Marfa Lights was my husband’s idea, inspired by an animated short in the DVD Cars where Mater is tormented by “Ghost Lights.”

So, off we went, leaving our RV parked in the Davis Mountains, traversing mostly flat terrain—perfect for mystery hunting. After dinner in the Ghost Light Mecca known as Marfa, we made our way to the Marfa Lights Observatory. Yes, they have an actual observatory on the highway between Marfa and Alpine, complete with an official Marfa Lights plaque, an architecturally intriguing restroom (orb-shaped, just like the lights), and a viewing deck with complementary binoculars.

We pulled in about an hour before sunset, and we were all alone.

I was, of course, a skeptic. I figured that Marfa Lights were about as real as the Roswell Alien Autopsy, but I was having fun anyway. Pretty soon another family showed up, and the kids played tag until twilight. As the sun made its way downward, more and more people arrived, and they all looked pretty normal. There were some nervous giggles, and people shared stories about the Marfa Lights. One lady had seen the Marfa Lights when she was nine years old; she had made the pilgrimage back.

As we peered across the horizon in the growing darkness, a hush fell among the onlookers. Someone said, “I see lights over there!” We all squinted and tried to decide if this was it—the Marfa Lights experience! But, alas, they were stationary—just lights from a nearby ranch.

Time passed, and the kids grew restless. I was beginning to think that the whole trip had been a dud, when Kelly said, “Look over there!” Sure enough, just above the red blink of a radio tower was a glowing whitish orb. It hovered for awhile and then disappeared, reappearing in a different place in the sky, much to everyone’s delight. More lights appeared and so did goose bumps all over my skin. With each appearance the crowd grew louder and more jubilant—“I see one!” “So do I!” “Look, over there! Another, and--oh look! Another!” We were mesmerized, all of us--a community of disparate pilgrims brought together by the inexplicable.

The kids grew tired, so we piled in the truck and headed back, weary believers who had seen the Marfa Lights with our own eyes. We discussed possible reasons for the phenomenon. Surely there was a plausible explanation—car lights from the nearby Presidio Freeway, mirages caused by temperature changes, St. Elmo’s Fire. But people have studied these things for years, and as the observatory plaque indicates, the mystery of the lights remains unsolved. My husband said, “I hope they never figure it out.” “Why?” I asked. “Because that would ruin it—what makes it special is the fact that no one can explain it.”

I think that’s true for more than Marfa Lights. We live in a world increasingly devoid of mystery. We have an insatiable need to explain, to resolve, to drain life of mystery. I think it’s due, in part, to our scientific world view. What the ancients ascribed to God or the gods, we, in our sophisticated and altogether modern way, attribute to natural and very un-mysterious phenomena.

Now, I’m not saying that we should live in ignorance. I don’t believe that God sends hurricanes to punish people in New Orleans, nor do I endorse the very biblical concept of a flat earth. What I am saying, though, is that, in our well-intentioned attempts to explain everything, we divest ourselves of a sense of mystery.

And what of mystery in our church experiences and theology? We have a tendency to try to make spirituality systematic and God tidily unambiguous. We do our religious devotions each Sunday, not expecting the unexpected, but instead happily content with the familiar. We theologize about God, categorizing the deity into simplistic syllogisms or haughtily proclaiming decisive truths. We paint God in broad strokes of black and white instead of varying shades of gray. God and church are neatly packaged so as not to offend or frighten or invite questioning, and mystery is stifled by our throttle-hold need for control.

Perhaps, we all could do with some goose bumps now and then—a tingling reminder of our limitedness, a humbling chill on our human omniscience, a hair-raising glimpse of that all too uncommon mysterium tremendum.

2 comments:

Bezner said...

Prophetess, I agree wholeheartedly. We need mystery...and for more than the creation of a deus ex machina...

Question: Has Marfa become as cool as they make it sound in Texas Monthly? We drove through there when we went to Big Bend so many years ago...and, well, there wasn't much to it.

William Ricketts said...

Sounds awesome!

I hope they never figure it out as well.