The Black Bread of Life: Food for the Dark Side of the Journey by Rev. Michael Hickin

Solar Eclipse, 8.iv.mmxxiv

Anticipation, a Search for Meaning

How cool—the Feast of the Annunciation, transferred from March 25 to April 8 due to Easter Week, coincided with a total solar eclipse. Did Mary really know what she was getting herself into? She did not. And in part, that’s the point, for her and for us. Paradoxically, the eclipse shined a spotlight on this key facet of the psyche—its ignorance.

Readying themselves as celestial orbs fell into line, human beings in the tens of millions assembled. Landfall happened along a great North American arc: Mazatlàn, Mexico (11:08 a.m.) → Dallas, Texas → Little Rock, Arkansas → Indianapolis, Indiana → Cleveland, Ohio → Niagra Falls, New York → Burlington, Vermont → Montreal, Quebec → Houlton, Maine → Bonavista, Newfoundland (5:13 p.m.).

While crowds streamed toward the 115-mile-wide “path of totality,” I sat in a recliner at Mom and Dad’s reflecting on Augustine’s docta ignorantia, “learned ignorance,” because I was already there. This path, traced by the moon’s shadow over the face of the Earth, is nothing more than a moment of darkness—of itself an easy purchase, just close your eyes. Yet on April 8, darkness all of sudden became a prized commodity because of its unique delivery system, technically known as a syzygy, the alignment of three or more celestial bodies sharing a gravitational field.

In the day’s rush to experience darkness, can we glimpse a hunger in people for something more personal beyond a remarkable cosmic occurrence? What would we call it?

Late morning, at my brother’s, a half hour north of my parents in Akron, Ohio, we celebrated Mass on his back porch. In the homily, I mused whether physical darkness can symbolize an unacknowledged fascination with apophaticism, that honest affirmation of what we don’t know.[1] Are we not all carriers of and surrounded by the Unknown? What might it teach us?

To unpack this, walk with me and see what plays out.

The Event

Ever since a partial eclipse experience in a frolicking city park, 2017, I’d been looking forward to this day as a community event. My family was content to view from home, but my niece Abby agreed to walk with me 25 minutes to Blossom Hill near downtown Brecksville, 15 miles south of Cleveland.

It’s 69 degrees with a light breeze. Hundreds meander about the grounds of a school complex. A trio plays under a tent surrounded by five food trucks. Folks toss beanbags and frisbees. A holiday atmosphere reigns. Abby and I make our way to a grassy knob by a water tower. Next to our blanket a family plays an obnoxiously loud game of trivia.

At 2:51, a blue sky smeared with wispy cirrus clouds welcomes a bright sun, despite being half-capped by the moon, as viewed through special ISO certified glasses (International Organization for Standardization—who knew there was such a thing?). By 3:02 temps noticeably drop along with the sun’s intensity. People chatter away. At 3:05, we still cannot look at the sun with the naked eye, but almost. 3:08, a micro-slim arc of light remains, skinnier than any crescent moon I’ve ever seen. 3:11, only a slight rim of light left as viewed through the glasses. I peek with the naked eye. Darn! Now I’m seeing teal spots with a magenta ring. 3:13, no sunlight remains but a tiny dot at the bottom of the moon, the brightness of a star. Glasses off!

I hear and participate in a collective gasp.

When does that happen?

Like a wave in a stadium, applause rolls through the crowd. It’s far from pitch black; our 360-degree view of the horizon lets in a dusky light, as if a dark storm cloud looms above. Yet the sky is clear, save for this spectacular black disk. And look! The stars are coming out. Actually, it’s the celestial neighborhood, Jupiter above and to the left with Venus below and to the right—like watching Paul McCartney invite on stage Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell. No room here for indifference; pure elation.

Most stand in reverence as for the national anthem. No salute, but I raise my hands, bookends to the spectacle, palms open in praise. Just want to receive and remember. The great and perfect black ball edged in white gold dangles like the subject of a magician’s levitation trick. Silent. Still. Beckoning?

As we bathe in the moment, it gets strange. Things get personal. I begin convulsing, focal point in the chest. Breaths shorten, heart rate leaps. I buckle at the waist. Am I going to burst into tears? Eyes moisten but no wet cheeks. It lasts five or so seconds. Weirdness outside becomes weirdness inside.

Straightening, I shake it off, then feel compelled to do my thing—whistle, one of my “special skills,” highly appreciated at ball games or a concert. Index finger to thumb, fold back the tip of the tongue, purse lips and let’r rip. It seems more appropriate than a genuflection.

Quiet absorption ensues.

At the bottom of the moon remains this spot of light. I ask Abby, a high school science teacher with a recent masters in physics from Purdue, whether it might be a star.[2] We ponder aloud, but realize this is not a time for discussion.

Peter Thomas / Unsplash

After three and a half minutes, anchoring my focus on this pinprick of light at the edge of the black host, shazam—the sun reemerges.[3] Like a smile exploding across the face of someone whose surprise birthday party worked out to a T, the slight prominence suddenly swells. The burst of radiant joy billows like the skirts of a performer offering a flamboyant curtsy with a silent ta-dah!, as if to say, “Excuse me folks, but did you just see that?!” Our forever firework reclaims the sky. The sun is back! Glasses back on.

On the blanket in supine observation, head propped on a backpack, the heaving chest thing overtakes me again. As before, it’s shocking, but only for a few seconds—short enough I don’t have to figure out how to handle it, long enough to make an impression.

This whole-body quiver-and-quake raises a question: “What’s happening to me? To us?” Thus begins my search for meaning. Shoot an arrow, cool. Get struck by an arrow, that’s a whole ’nother thing. To be continued.

Stretched out on the blanket, a nearby woman asks, “Where are we?” I glance at Abby, whose face gently twists in confusion. “Brecksville, Ohio,” I say.

“That’s all we need to know.”

“Where are you from?”


“Where are you spending the night?”

“Oh, we’re driving back right now; it’s only five hours. We drove up this morning and got off and said, ‘This looks like a nice place.’”

This 70-ish couple verify what newscasters said about an influx of people from every direction. This path of totality is indeed a great magnet drawing millions into the experience of a lifetime.

Surprisingly, folks move on shortly after the sun regains its brilliance. Abby and I continue watching, a shared contemplative moment. Still and focused, I plunge my attention into the overlapping circles, a loosening of self, like thanksgiving after Holy Communion. I rest in thanks for the beautiful black host as it gradually gives way to the bright white host, as seen through the special glasses. When we gather our things about 3:50, a quarter of the eclipse remains. We walk away like spectators to their cars after winning a state championship: not much talk, just relishing the moment.

The Aftermath

Life is a tapestry of everyday complexities woven into an array of patterns, the contexts we belong to. Days like April 8, 2024, rightfully steeped in symbolism, portend insights unique to each observer. We do not see things as they are, says the old Talmudic adage, but as we are. I was there, and this is what the eclipse means to me: humans are drawn to darkness. Here are two kinds.

Aftermath I

Enjoying a cold Peroni with my brother around the firepit, we swap accounts of what just happened. Then, before I drank the neck out of the bottle, he picked up where we’d left off, a hard conversation about the LGBTQ community. I became amazed at how the eclipse would help negotiate a cherished bond between brothers.

He fears normalizing lifestyles he cannot condone. He steers his family clear of gay and trans influences. He views LGBTQ advocacy as promoting sin and infecting society with a permissive lifestyle that destroys family values and lowers the moral order.

I remained calm and simply stuck to my experiences of speaking with gay people or the few parents I know of trans children. I drilled down on what he meant by sin. He was trying to derive from my acceptance of LGBTQ people that I was affirming sin. I denied that simply by saying I did not know where the sin was. I asked him to specify.[4]

We struggled with that a while. Then the Spirit stepped in and flipped the script. I wondered out loud about greed. People outside the US—Latin America, for instance—look at us and speak of capitalist-folk creating a culture of pervasive sinfulness—overindulgence, waste, monopolies, manipulative colonial mindsets, imperialism, the whole “throwaway” culture. This very lifestyle violates a moral principal clearly enunciated in the Catechism. I remind him: all the world’s goods belong to all the people of the world.[5]

To me, the irony was clear. What he fears about a compromised society quite accurately describes the critiques of opulence in America and abroad.[6] Capitalism is a trigger word for my bro, a bank VP. He got predictably defensive. “Describe for me a capitalist’s sin. Name one.”

This played well into the argument that I didn’t even realize was taking shape, as the eclipse took the lead, unbeknownst to us.

“I don’t know,” was my simple reply. I didn’t try to drum up the sins of capitalists because I know it’s a thing of degrees and intentions. So I said, “Just as I can’t go into somebody’s bank account to validate fears of lavish spending, you can’t go into the bedrooms of gay people, or anybody, to see where the sin might be.” This scored some points.

I leaned into this ignorance. Capitalizing on our united desire to avoid personal judgement, I backed up Cardinal Robert McElroy’s argument that we should not exclude LGBTQ people from Holy Communion, nor those in any irregular situation, for the simple reason that we do not know the state of their soul.[7]

By the end of the night, after watching the NCAA women’s basketball finals, we were able to hug it out. With our goodbyes, he said, “We’re not in the same place, but I’m glad my family got to hear our conversation. You’re kinda like Jesus, hard to pin down.”

Don’t know about that, but in the luminous darkness so many millions beheld, I got to see a vibrant icon of a black medallion, personally mine. It hangs invisibly between my breasts, uniting head, heart, guts, loins, education, family, and contexts of every type—religious, social, personal, spiritual—in a trust fund that reminds me that I know that I don’t know.[8] Many call this mercy.

Mercy celebrates a sacred ignorance. This type of darkness pairs well with Pope Francis’s call for todos, todos, todos to enter the church. Deep down, we know that we don’t know. Might this be why we harbor a strange fascination with darkness? Ignorance is not always bliss, but it can be when it transforms the mind into a judgment-free zone. Not knowing can be a gift we give others, as St. Peter realized: “Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance” (Acts 3:17). Such darkness is a permission slip to love everyone.

Did the darkness we humans in the tens of millions flocked to see on April 8 represent in chaste cosmic magnificence a holy land within each of us? My hypothesis: the black bread of life fed a hunger within human consciousness to be alright and at home with what is dark and unknown. Someone has to say it: we were kissed by a Mystery, one we’re all born to adore in silent awe. Accept or deny it, this is my witness.

Aftermath II

Admittedly, the lion’s share of reality belongs to affirming what we don’t know. Learning to stay with this ignorance, even while vigorously growing in knowledge, is integral to healthy living.

After 27 years, still five from retirement, this hit home when I asked my bishop for a transfer to another diocese. The question had been on the man’s desk for five weeks without response by the time April 8 rolled around. I was in suspended animation and in need of some comfort. It came in the form of a floating black ball, this black bread of life.

It is no small matter to lean against that fuzzy border between the second and third age, what we call middle age and what we’re getting more uneasy about calling old age. Turning 60 highlights this frontier.

What needs to be done that only I can do? If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.

If you dare to name something, you find yourself standing on a threshold. It’s risky. You don’t know if you’re doing the right thing and/or if you’ll like it. You can control your own choices, but no one else’s. You’re bound to disappoint some or many people, including even yourself. It’s unnerving to see the unknowns pile up.

We can be pushed into this liminal space by outside forces, or it can well up from within, in a process that Carl Jung called individuation. This creative confrontation with one’s unrepeatable identity is a passage that’s all on you. Helpers are great, but no one else can do it.

Paul Rysz / Unsplash

Talk of liminal space kicks up a Beatles memory. In “The Long and Winding Road,” the singer stands at a door that never opens. The road leads to the door, and from the door the road winds into the distance. Paul called it a sad song—maybe so, maybe not. It fills the one at the threshold with a wonder that belongs to the unknown. What’s behind that door? What’s down that road?[9]

Another memory comes to mind. From 1986 to 1989, I trained with the Airborne Rangers, known for their night jumps. As the blacked-out C-130 approaches the dropzone, doors open. The wind is tremendous. You stand up, hook up, and shuffle toward the door. Because of my specialty weapon in the platoon, I’m usually the first out. My head, stuffed into a Kevlar helmet, immersed in a blast of white noise, stares at a red light to the right of the entrance to the cockpit. When it goes green, you hand the jumpmaster a cord attached to your parachute and step out, knees to the breeze. Waiting for the light to turn green is a peculiarly intense liminal space. Fear, queasiness, thrill, and danger mingle with adrenaline on high alert and a daring that has the tang of wild game. The concoction swirls in your gut. The calm of this moment is not your normal brand of patience. You wait, supremely focused. When it goes green, you perform your duty and launch into the darkness like spit out the car window, moving at a cool 110 mph.

When life transitions, especially by one’s own volition, waiting for the green light can be a matter of months.[10] I’ve learned it’s okay, and the eclipse taught me that.

I’m being called forth, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. The darkness within asks to be honored. There I find the black host, a different kind of ignorance from the one inviting us not to judge others. This regards my own path. Ignorance of the future, the inability to know how others will decide, whether they’ll agree with my choice to be free, whether they’ll help or hurt me, and how it’ll all work out—this ignorance invites trust. I think of a passage from Anthony de Mello’s The Heart of the Enlightened: “Some people will never learn anything because they grasp too soon. Wisdom, after all, is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling. To know exactly where you’re headed may be the best way to go astray. Not all who loiter are lost.” 


Since April 8, I catch myself dipping into the memory of the eclipse. Though momentary, the fact that the moon-shadow swept through a generous swath of North America drew me into a community of admirers, learners, and adorers. The event continues to conjure up this black medallion jealously guarded in the folds of my inner being, recharging my daily need for trust and mercy.

The dance of our solar system bequeathed me this gift, becoming for my traveling self a sacrament of unknowing. When I don’t see where my vulnerabilities will lead, nor how long until I get the green light to advance, I close my eyes and tilt my head back. I relive the quiet absorption of the black bread of life, feeding our hidden hunger for a yes to all that is unknown—not so unlike a once-upon-a-time young woman’s answer to an angel.

One day, I will pack my bags. Being in between this and that, however, will never end. “This” will change along with “that,” but the eclipse event journeys with me, as I hope to show more definitively by broadening the spectrum of Augustine’s learned ignorance in the second half of this essay. ♦

Fr. Michael Hickin is the pastor of two parishes in Richland County, North Dakota, in the Diocese of Fargo, and a member of the leadership team of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.

[1] Apophatic statements belong to the via negativa or negative theology, a way of acknowledging our inability to grasp the Mystery we belong to—the “beyond” is always greater than any definitions, our cataphatic (via positiva) statements. “One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them” (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215).  

[2] This “solar prominence” is a rare sighting, usually visible only during an eclipse. It is an enormous loop of light that comes in various classes. Like a cat’s paw swiping at the outer darkness, these eruptions can reach over a hundred thousand miles. Unlike solar flares, ejections into space, a solar prominence is a racetrack of light anchored to the sun’s surface and can last from a day to months.

[3] Billy Batson cries “Shazam!” when he transforms into Captain Marvel—an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. Intriguing, the word includes a biblical figure. I picked it up from Gomer Pyle.

[4] One sees a similar struggle in the NPR article, “Taliban affirms that stoning will be punishment for adulterers—especially women,” May 8, 2024, by Ruchi Kumar. Here we read: “[W]hile stoning as a punishment is mentioned in the Hadiths—which are the records of the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammad that are believed to guide Islamic way of life—the conditions to prosecute for a moral crime like adultery requires ‘four sane Muslim male witnesses of actual penetration. And as the legal scholars put it, with the precision of a pen in an ink pot.’” Hence, the obvious: “the burden of proving the act is almost impossible.”

[5] “The goods of creation are destined for the entire human race. The right to private property does not abolish the universal destination of goods” (CCC 2452).

[6] Such critics include Pope Francis himself. Even within the American tradition, we read, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country” (Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, November 1816, from the Jefferson Cyclopedia at the University of Virginia). Also, aware the private sector could overrun the government, FDR declared, “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, message to the US Congress, April 29, 1938).

[7] See “Cardinal McElroy on ‘radical inclusion’ for L.G.B.T. people, women and others in the Catholic Church,” America Magazine, January 24, 2023; and “Cardinal McElroy responds to his critics on sexual sin, the Eucharist, and LGBT and divorced/remarried Catholics,” America Magazine, March 2, 2023.

[8] Subsequently, in conversations occurring in the wake of Diginitas infinita, a similar note resounds. Quoting a Maltese woman who wrote to the Vatican: “This document may have had good intentions but it misses an opportunity to put a bit more clarity and, like a parent, have the humility to admit that it does not know enough and may still need to learn more.” From National Catholic Reporter, “Pope responds with ‘open heart’ to Vatican document criticism from parents of LGBTQ children,” Christopher White, April 30, 2024.

[9] The Bible counts multiple liminal moments: the garden of Eden, the desert journeys, Jesus in the tomb, Saul struck blind, etc., etc. The Upanishads set in motion a development that became known as the bardo. George Saunders introduced readers to this concept, a state between death and rebirth reminiscent of a journey through purgatory, in Lincoln in the Bardo (2017).

[10] Matthew McConaughey’s memoir Greenlights (2020) has a lot to say about creating green lights and not just awaiting them.

Banner image: Rasheeque Ahnaf (Piash) / Unsplash

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