By Kathy Berken
A few weeks ago, on a bright and gorgeous sunny day, I decided to take a bike ride. What I saw that day was not at all what I expected.
As usual, I stopped at Fort Snelling State Park to rest and to enjoy the 3,000 acres of natural beauty located in the middle of the Twin Cities. Except for the nearby airport and highway bridge, you might think you were in a forest way up north. I found a picnic table close to the lake, took off my helmet and gloves, and just sat listening and watching.
What great timing! I witnessed a phenomenon very similar to an experience I had decades ago, and wanted the people near me never to take this for granted.
No, I don’t mean the eclipse. That happened two days later, where from my home in Minnesota, I saw about 90 percent of the eclipse through the thankfully moving dark clouds threatening rain. It was memorable, too, but I think I will also remember what I saw in the park.
Of the 40 or so people of varying ages gathered around picnic tables and coolers up the hill, I noticed a tall, gray-haired man wearing a blazing sun-like yellow-orange tie-dyed shirt that I’m sure had a tag reading: “Looking directly at this shirt without proper eyewear could cause serious vision damage.” Because he was motioning and calling people towards him, I guessed he was the grandpa of the family at their summer reunion. “Must be time to eat,” one of the boys coming up from the beach said. A young woman and a barefoot toddler carrying her own beach towel walked past me, headed toward the rest. The group slowly formed a large circle around the tables and held hands. I heard laughter as “Grandpa” shouted to a few stragglers walking slowly up the other path to hurry so they didn’t miss the prayer.
However, prayer wasn’t first on the agenda. I heard announcements and voices in the group responding. “Next year . . .” told me this was an annual event. “Someone’s turning 81 next week and you’ll either be there or you won’t!” got a lot of laughter. They were still holding hands, taking turns making important declarations. After at least five minutes of this cross talking, it became suddenly quiet, as if the sun was about to go completely dark. Everyone bowed their heads and “Grandpa” began to speak. I couldn’t hear the exact words, but I could sense their praying. Out here at a state park, amidst many other visitors, the family reconnected once again to share stories, to pray, eat, swim, visit and laugh.
I was tempted to walk over and tell them what a treasure they had, and that they should never take this phenomenon for granted. But I left them to their privacy. I wondered, as I put on my helmet and gloves, if they already knew how very special all of this was, or if they just felt so good in each other’s company, no philosophy was needed to mention it.
As I biked out of the park, and through the I-never-take-it-for-granted beauty of the trees, water, rocks and sun, I prayed for that family and wondered what next year will be like, what new announcements will be made, who will be there and who won’t. But I also thought about my own life and the myriad combinations of people that I called “family” through the years, and how grateful I was to have been at similar gatherings, now fading into a distant memory.
Solar eclipses are unusual and can give us wonderful feelings and memories. But so are communities of love, regardless the size or relationship of the members. Being part of such a family or community is rare phenomenon never to be taken for granted.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)