What the setting sun has to teach us about God’s love

My love language is skies. This works, I like to quip, when you’re dating the God of the Universe — and Our Lord has never tired of giving me glorious sunsets and fiery sunrises over the years of my discernment of a religious vocation. And, good news: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the psalmist sings; “the firmament proclaims the works of his hands” (19:1). God’s glory has been declared to me through cotton candy clouds, the soft yellows of a cloudless dusk, or the oranges and pinks that seem to deepen every time you blink.

My friends know to text me when they see color appearing on the horizon, and I am the frequent recipient of the all-caps-urgency of a single word message: “SKY!” During undergrad, you always knew where to find me in the evenings — I would schedule my day around making sure I could be parked at my favorite vista to soak in the evening light, tucked on some landscape overlooking our on-campus lakes and facing west. My sunset spot was a place of prayer and precious conversation as, day in and day out, my Love painted masterpieces across the sky. Much to my delight, the skies of both my home and the places I’ve visited in the past months have only continued to proclaim the work of his hands.

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With that in mind, a friend arranged for us to take a sunset hike to a viewpoint over the Blue Ridge Mountains with the chaplain of her college’s Catholic center while I was visiting her on one of my summer trips. With us in our Chacos and him in his Dominican habit, we cleared the last of our trail and stepped out onto a rocky overlook bathed in golden hour light, falling into a reverent silence as we took it in.

“Maggie,” Father asked, after a few minutes of quiet, “what’s your favorite phenomenon in nature?”

I laughed a little bit at the unusual question and asked a clarifier: “All of nature, or, like, this moment?”

“All of it.”

I paused for another beat and then began to wander my way through an answer.

“This is,” I replied. Or, more specifically, “when the sky surprises you.” I explained that I love when just as you’ve written off an evening — too cloudy, or not cloudy enough — or just as you assume the light has passed its peak and night has come, the sun catches a cloud with a burst of final energy, a purple deepens, or a pink catches flame. The sky has changed totally and beautifully again. I like to think that I have a pretty good eye for the kind of sky that evening’s forecast will bring; I love when he proves me wrong, and I can hear his laugh.

I love that if you’re patient enough, each sunset is a thousand different ones, which no pictures ever capture and which so many people miss. They come for a moment, take a photo, and depart quickly when the sun sinks below their line of sight, only to miss the better color that often comes later. You have to be early to a sunrise; I love that you can be late to a sunset.

“And I love the last dregs,” I said with a laugh. That’s what I call those final clouds, the late-twilight treats that the most committed of sunset fans see. The yellows and the blue-grays and the wisps of clouds still smiling with the remnants of their brilliant color; the surprise shifts that come after the sun has, precisely speaking, set. When the daylight stretches long, those last dregs can last for what seems like hours. I love that God rewards you if you sit in silence and wait; 10, 20, 30 minutes aren’t enough to exhaust a summer sky.

“And,” Father prompted after my response fell into another moment’s silence, “what does he say to you in that?”

This is a season of some brilliant skies and delightful last dregs in the landscape of my own heart. The completion of college and the long-awaited beginning of formation in religious life have both brought with them surprising skies — both literal and interior.

The sunsets of summer farewells have sung to me of the beautiful ache of endings. Just when I thought I knew the sky, so to speak, a friendship deepened or a plan fell into place and my horizon became aflame with a light and love I could have never have predicted. The radiance of his love always breaks through my gloom and or clouds of grief. I recall the frustration of a global pandemic canceling convent visits and separating me from the sacrament, and the glorious light that broke through and rewarded my long longing after that. Each and every day, he has surprised me with more joy and more providentially perfect conclusions than I could have ever dreamed of authoring or asking for. The skies proclaim: His mercies are new every morning.

The quiet of this summer “in-between” — done with school, awaiting formation — has allowed me to take in more last dregs than ever. I can sit and soak in the sky for an hour or more in the evenings, alone with him. There, in the quiet patience of the shifting light, he has taught me about waiting. As I’ve persevered (imperfectly) in quiet observance, I’ve learned something about the primacy of being over doing. He has delighted me with the gift of just sitting with him as dusk becomes dark and the night sky reveals a beauty of its own. The skies proclaim: He is with us always.

The brilliance of these summer skies has been breathtaking, and they are ones I will carry with me for months and years to come. There has been something of an almost extravagant quality to them. Is the Lord just showing off? Yet I know that these will be sources of consolation when the horizons of my interior or exterior realities do not feel quite as gorgeously painted, when gray skies loom heavy, or when obligations to my life and vocation just don’t permit me to sit and soak as I have lately. In the lavishness of my recent vistas, I have learned about his delight in my delight — in the joy that sends me running after a setting sun, squealing like a child again, literally chasing down the gift he is giving me. I have learned of that hundredfold which he promises. The skies proclaim: He is never outdone in generosity.

Whether we are in a season of brilliant sunsets, quiet dusks or the hopeful first light of morning, let us sing with our whole hearts: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, let the name of the Lord be praised” (Ps 113:3).

Unto the very last dregs.

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