Let this sink in for a minute — the last total solar eclipse to occur in the St. Louis area was in 1442.
St. Louis was founded 322 years later. Prior to that, the St. Louis area was a major settlement for Native Americans, including Osage and Illiniwek tribes, who likely would have witnessed the last solar eclipse here — perhaps from the top of the Cahokia Mounds.
There's a scientific wonder to the precision in which eclipses occur, not to mention the ability of science to measure their occurrence hundreds of years in advance. St. Louis metropolitan area won't see another total solar eclipse until the year 2505 — and by then we'll all be long gone.
In a letter sent in July to principals, administrators and teachers, Catholic schools superintendent Kurt Nelson noted that this was a "one-in-a-lifetime event"; he urged schools to prepare students and parents for the event and to review measures to safely view the eclipse.
Nelson called it "a perfect opportunity to talk about the relationship between faith and science." Research by Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame has found that young people mistakenly see faith and science as incompatible. "This eclipse is a perfect time to point out that the Church has been, and continues to be, very supportive of the sciences," Nelson wrote to educators.
Religious significance of eclipses
There's a certain regularity in which God created the universe, and an eclipse is a prime example of this, noted Dr. Thomas Sheahen, director of the St. Louis-based Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology. With the understanding God created something out of nothing, the elements of faith (God as Creator) and science (in this case, understanding the orderliness of planets and moons and their orbits) go hand-in-hand.
"The stars, planets, moon and sun, these follow the laws of classical mechanics," Sheahen noted. "God thought up those laws. In the present time, you can calculate if there is going to be an eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017 — you could have calculated it in the 1960s. The regularity and predictability is a testimony to the fact that God thought up the laws with great precision."
Historically, in the centuries of humankind before the time of Christ, eclipses had a significant religious implication. The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians learned from eclipses that the world and the moon were round. But with that, they attached to it the idea of eclipses having significant social or political effects, all driven by the gods.
By the time of Jesus' arrival, the religious significance of eclipses had pretty much diminished, Sheahen noted. Part of the reason was because the longer humans experienced this significant event, they saw time and time again that "the sun would go dark for two-and-a-half minutes and then it would come back on and nothing happened," he said. The idea that it was a supernatural event had fallen to the wayside.
Referenced in Scripture
In modern Christianity, there's been a significant scholarly debate about mention of an eclipse at Jesus' death, as it was portrayed in the Gospel of Luke:
"It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit"; and when He had said this He breathed His last." (Luke 23:44-46).
Several manuscripts of the Gospel have shown different Greek words, including eskotisthe ho helios ("the sun was darkened") and tou heliou eklipontos ("the sun's light failed" or "the sun was in eclipse,") but Sheahen noted that no matter what words those early manuscripts included, the possibility of an eclipse happening at Jesus' crucifixion was scientifically impossible.
"Passover is approximately on the full moon; an eclipse only happens on the new moon," he said. "You can't have an eclipse anytime except when it's the new moon — when the moon is between the earth and the sun."
Although some people might apply religious significance to an eclipse, we know that it's scientifically inaccurate, and that the majority of people understand eclipses are part in parcel the motion of the planets.
Sheahen lives in western Maryland and will drive 600-miles to St. Louis to view the eclipse and later meet with the board of ITEST. He's looking forward to the historic event, and reiterated that it is a way to promote the unity between science and religion.
"We admire God's creation and the laws that cause things like this," he said. "There is a popular impression that science is somehow out to destroy religion, and we deliberately say no — it's the other way around. We want to see this as blended and complementing one another. Certainly the solar eclipse reflects the glory of God because of the precision of the laws that God thought up."
If there's one question meteorologist Mike Roberts has heard most about the upcoming eclipse it's probably: What's the weather going to be like that day? Any useable weather information is available no more than 10 days out. That means don't take anything seriously until at least Aug. 11.
More than 87 million people live within a half-day drive to the path of totality, said Roberts, a former TV meteorologist and member of the St. Louis Astronomical Society. If it turns out to be a nice day, the traffic to the path of totality will likely increase. The Missouri Department of Transportation and others have issued travel advisories, given the potential influx of visitors.
Roberts has been giving presentations to groups and participating in eclipse events leading up to the historic event. The member of St. Mary Church in Alton, Ill., noted that he's never needed to rely on scientific reasoning to understand faith, but he sees the connection with God as creator.
"Our God created all of this and can turn it off or on anytime He wants," he said. "Some people need to go down these (scientific) paths, but that's why I think faith is referred to as a gift. For me, faith has always been easy."
Catholic schools, parishes and even retreat centers have been preparing for the historic day. Most Catholic school children will be returning to class the week before the eclipse, giving schools just a few days to teach them about how an eclipse occurs and practicing safety measures for viewing the sky.
Students at St. Rose of Lima School in De Soto will return to class Aug. 16, having just three days to get in their lessons about the science of eclipses and how to use their eclipse safety glasses, said principal Michael Talleur.
Because the school is at the center of the path of totality, students will be treated to one of the longest periods of totality — 2 minutes and 40 seconds. And because it's one of the choice places to view the eclipse, the school is welcoming fifth- through eight-graders from Holy Spirit School in Maryland Heights.
Talleur said that it will be up to teachers how and when they will bring students outside to view the eclipse. Parents have been invited to join their children. Those who opt to stay inside will be able to view a livestream from the classroom.
Prayer is certainly going to be a major part of the day, too. "We'll start the day with a prayer service focused on God's creation, thanking the Lord for everything He's created, especially the sun and the moon that will cross paths," Talleur said. There will be plenty of time for fun too — students will participate in an art activity and enjoy eclipse snow cones. (Orange, with a red and blue ring, in case you were wondering.)
La Salle Retreat Center in Wildwood will host an overnight retreat the night before the eclipse. Many rooms have been booked, but some space remains, said marketing and program coordinator Michelle Cook. (The cost of the retreat is $75; see www.lasalleretreat.org for more information.)
The public is invited to the grounds the day of the eclipse. Totality will last 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Viewing glasses, bottled water and snow cones will be sold, and visitors are invited to bring a picnic lunch. "Guests will be able to walk around our beautiful grounds with meditation areas, including a labyrinth and grottos," Cook noted. Mass will be celebrated earlier that day at 8 a.m.
At St. Joseph School in Zell — the smallest school in the archdiocese with 52 students — students will enjoy an afternoon of barbecue, ice cold watermelon and taking in the sights. They're also in a prime spot, with totality expected to last 2 minutes and 39 seconds.
Pastor Msgr. Jeffrey Knight said the whole thing is going to be "not only a great learning experience, but a memorable experience. We're using this as an opportunity to let them know about how orderly the world is" through this scientific occurrence.
"I'm just hoping that the weather cooperates and it's a clear day," Msgr. Knight said. "It will be disappointing if its rainy and cloudy — it will take a lot of the effects away."
>> The Catechism on creation
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that we believe that God created the world according to His wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God's free will; He wanted to make His creatures share in His being, wisdom and goodness (Catechism 295).
Creation is a free act of God who creates out of love and gift. The freedom of God is seen as He creates "out of nothing" (Catechism 296).
St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase His glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it," for God has no other reason for creating than His love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened His hand" (Catechism 293).
The revelation of creation is inseparable from the revelation and forging of the covenant of the one God with His People. Creation is revealed as the first step toward this covenant, the first and universal witness to God's all-powerful love (Catechism 288).
>> Essentials to know
• The partial phase will begin in the late morning around 11:52 a.m. Totality will last from 1:16-1:19 p.m. The eclipse will end at 2:44 p.m. Times may vary by a few minutes across the area.
• The path of the eclipse will span Missouri from St. Joseph, Mo., in the west to Ste. Genevieve in the east. More than half of Missouri's 105 largest cities are in the path of totality, with more than 3 million people actually living within the path.
• Across the United States, the path of totality is 110km (approximately 68 miles) wide, running from Oregon to South Carolina.
• Strange events may occur within nature. Because of the brief period of nightfall in the middle of the afternoon, a temperature drop might occur. Dusk to dawn lights may come on, and shadows will look strange. Wildlife might become confused by the sudden change in sunlight.
• During the time the moon's disk covers that of the sun, it's safe to look at the eclipse. In fact, to experience the awesomeness of the event, you must look at the sun without a filter during totality.
• That said, the only safe way to view a partial or annular eclipse is using a projection of the sun (such as a pinhole projector). Filtered views of the sun (such as eclipse glasses) can be safe, equipment must be properly filtered and correctly used.
Source: St. Louis Eclipse Task Force
NASA Total Solar Eclipse website: eclipse2017.nasa.gov
Includes information on the science behind eclipses, links to NASA livestream events on Aug. 21, an interactive map with the path of the eclipse, activities (including how to make solar viewing projector), information on viewing the eclipse safely and a flickr page to share images from the day.
MODOT site for traffic safety: www.modot.org/eclipse
Great American Eclipse: www.greatamericaneclipse.com
St. Louis Eclipse Task Force: www.stlouiseclipse2017.org
Missouri state government information website: www.mo.gov/eclipse
Totality app (by Big Kid Science, available on iOS and Android): www.bigkidscience.com/eclipse
National Science Teachers Association: static.nsta.org/extras/solarscience/SolarScienceInsert.pdf
ITEST (Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology): www.faithscience.org
Creation Lens (part of ITEST): Provides lessons for PreK through eighth grade and focus on connection faith and science. www.creationlens.org
Vatican Observatory: www.vaticanobservatory.va
Vatican Observatory Foundation Video: www.vofoundation.org/blog
EWTN video on Vatican Observatory: http://stlouisreview.com/j2f
Magis Center: www.magiscenter.com