Letters to Peregrinus #33 - On Syzgy and the Mystery of the Moon

Seeing the “far side” of the Moon as it transits the sunlit Earth[1]
Dear Peregrinus (Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time):

I have been thinking about syzygy.[2] You?

 No, it was not a New York Times crossword puzzle that compelled my interest in this noun (I don’t do crossword puzzles), but the poetic loveliness of the names given the full Moons of the year by different tribes[3] of the First Nations[4] of our country. For example, the last full Moon of Spring (in May) is called the “Flower” Moon; the first of summer (in June) the “Strawberry” Moon. [5] But because the poetry had caught my attention, I then found myself wondering about the process by which the Moon becomes “full,”[6] which then led me to understand that it concerns the alignment of the Sun and Earth and Moon in their monthly dance.[7]
From https://www.scienceabc.com
But before letting my thoughts run where they wanted to go, I knew that I needed to discipline them, making sure that I understood what syzygy meant. Here is how I sorted it out.

Syzygy[8] is an astronomical term used to describe the two moments[9] each month (a “new”[10] Moon, and a “full”[11] Moon) when there is achieved a rectilinear[12] alignment of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon.

 In the first instance, the Moon moves into position directly between the Sun and the Earth (i.e., the Sun-Moon-Earth alignment). The “dark side” of the Moon (the side of the Moon facing away from Earth) is completely illuminated,[13] while the side of the Moon facing the Earth is lightless. We call the latter a “new” or “black” Moon, whose faint outline we can see on a dark and clear night. The syzygy of conjunction.[14]

On the other hand, when the Moon has moved to the other side of the Earth from the Sun, causing the Earth to take its position directly between the Sun and the Moon (i.e., the Sun-Earth-Moon alignment), we are able to see our Moon completely illuminated in the night sky – a “full” Moon. The syzygy of opposition.[15]

With justification, old friend, you may be wondering why I thought you needed to know this! I will answer you this. Often it has been the case that when I commit to learning something, I am given to understand something else that I had not sought to know. This other insight is often of greater value to me than the one I had given myself to seek. And such is the case here. Here are two developing insights that were given me.


The Sun, the Earth, and the Moon are always “aligned” in the sense that they always stand in the same relation to each other, through perceivable phases, each month. They are “yoked” to each other – the original meaning of syzygy – by gravity. But in this ancient “dance” of the Three, it is the Sun that is the dance’s reason, its explanation. The Sun is the “still-point of the turning” solar system – a nod here to T.S. Eliot’s famous lines[16]:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The Earth finds and keeps to its elliptical orbit – its “circle dance”[17] - because of the Sun. However, it is not because of the Sun’s light, but because of its gravity. And the Moon, which does not orbit the Sun[18] but the Earth, keeps to its unchanging promenade not because of the Earth’s light (it has no light to give), but because of its gravity.

It is the felt attraction that matters when it comes to finding one’s Path, and remaining on it. Without attraction, we, as well as planetary bodies, are lost, pathless. This could not be more clearly expressed, in a personal rather than planetary sense, than at 1 John 4, wherein John writes about “love” and “remaining” – the “gravity” of all personal life, both Divine and human:

 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.f 10 In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.g 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.h [19]

So, I ask, why does Religion so often prioritize giving light to people (teachings, doctrines, rules, explanations of all sorts) and esteem less, or forget completely, about the priority of getting them aware of, and helping them with, their degree of attraction (or not) to the Divine Persons and to divine matters? No attraction, no Path. No Path, no instruction that makes any sense.

People talking without speaking;
People hearing without listening;
People writing songs that voices never shared,
No one dared…


Because we are humans, and we humans are notoriously obtuse, we fail to perceive sufficiently, and to love, a vast grace inside of which we stand, in which “we live and move and have our earthly existence.” We fail to notice the Earth.[21] Instead, we are famously interested in the Moon, whose utter lifelessness and trackless emptiness should appall[22] us, not attract us. Our attraction to the Moon can seem an example of that all too-human attraction people may indulge for a person (a friend, a lover, a political leader, a clique, or an enemy[23]) whose very lifelessness will kill them, whose deadness of soul will petrify them, whose soul-emptiness will drain them, and who has no life at all of his or her own to give them.

See her, how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon's a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold[24]

Does this attraction to the Moon exist in us because we human beings love the darkness more than the light?

 John 3: 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 

What is this “mystery of the Moon” that is our attraction to it?[26]

 I am thinking, old friend, that it is the light of the Moon, not its gravity (i.e., its tidal attraction), that is the reason we feel an attraction to the Moon. In the night,[27] when the very darkness frightens us, we have a companion given us brighter than any distant star, which continues to find and to hold on its surface the light of the Sun that we miss. Even when we have witnessed at day’s ending the “dying of the light,” as the Sun disappears beyond the western edge of the world, it is the Moon that “remembers” for us, and so reminds, that the Sun still exists, burning fiercely and confidently even when at night we have become unable to find the light, and so to receive it.

You, my good friend, have held over many years now the Light for me to see. Like the Moon you have reminded me, when I have found myself in a dark time, that the Light is real – burning bright, fierce, not tame, and faithful. I have my “Moon” in you as Dante Alighieri had his “Virgil”.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh -
the very thought of it renews my fear!

While I was fleeing to a lower place,
before my eyes a figure showed,
faint, in the wide silence…. [28]

Peregrinus, sometimes I feel such longing for home, to be able to go home. But I have known for years now that home is not where I am from (and so it is not about my “returning” there), or where I am, but that towards which I am, like a tangent of Geometry,[29] proceeding asymptotically[30] as a Pilgrim bent toward his heart’s finality. More and more I understand that I am from where I have never yet been.

Thank you for always being there for me.


 Rick, SJ


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/from-a-million-miles-away-nasa-camera-shows-moon-crossing-face-of-earth. “The images were captured by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope on the DSCOVR satellite orbiting 1 million miles from Earth.”

[2] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “syzygy” has this etymology: “Etymology: < late Latin sȳzygia, < Greek συζυγία yoke, pair, copulation, conjunction, < σύζυγος yoked, paired, < σύν syn- prefix + ζυγ-: ζευγνύναι to yoke.” See further about this word below.

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary notes concerning the noun “tribe” – “The earliest known application of tribus was to the three divisions of the early people of Rome (attributed by some to the separate Latin, Sabine, and Etruscan elements); thence it was transferred to render the Greek ϕῡλή, and so to the Greek application of the latter to the tribes of Israel. This, from its biblical use, was the earliest use in English, the original Roman use not appearing till the 16th century.”

[4] I lived in Canada, studying there at the University of Toronto, during the years that Canada was trying to come to terms with its Native American tribal history. As is often the case, the language itself used to describe “them” was penetrated by, and perpetuated, ignorance, bias, and often simply fear. Think of the progression in language from “savages” (from the French sauvage), a development from the Latin noun silva for “forest” or “the woods” but which came to mean in English a person who is “wild, untamed” and therefore dangerous, to “red Indians” or “redskins”, to “Native Americans”. The Canadian government knew that much of the language concerning the original Canadians, those there before the arrival of the Europeans, was unhelpful and inevitably prejudicial (in the literal sense of “pre-judging” someone). After years of trying to figure out a name that Canada could helpfully use to mean “them”, they decided upon “the First Nations.” I thought it an elegant solution, primarily because the “native Americans” approved of it, and so I have wondered why all those years of Canadian argument and solution never gave to our American language that expression. We still most commonly use “Native Americans”, which to my ear and understanding is a genuinely awkward expression, if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) than the name “America” derives from an Italian (!) explorer and cartographer – Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512 CE).

[5] See, for example: https://www.bustle.com/p/when-is-the-may-2018-full-moon-the-flower-moon-will-rise-very-soon-9034863. When I first heard of this designation for the Moon of May, I was told it was called the “Blossom” Moon.

[6] https://www.moongiant.com/ - “It takes the moon about 27.3 days to travel its complete orbit around the earth. With the months being 28 to 31 days long it makes the Full Moon and New Moon fall on a different day of the month every year and rather difficult to keep track of.”

[7] Early on in the Christian theological tradition, the “syzygy” of the three Divine Persons was described as a dance – in Greek περιχώρησις or perikhōrēsis – “cyclical movement, recurrence; reciprocity; coinherence, interpenetration.” The Latin translation of this Greek noun was circumincession. The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “dance” – “A rhythmical skipping and stepping, with regular turnings and movements of the limbs and body, usually to the accompaniment of music; either as an expression of joy, exultation, and the like, or as an amusement or entertainment; the action or an act or round of dancing.”

[8] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “syzygy”. The word originally meant, and only meant, the perfect conjoining of, or conjunction of, two things or persons, and thus was a word for sexual intercourse between persons – “yoked; paired.” But then later it came to mean both objects in conjunction and opposition! Thus: “Now extended to include both conjunction and opposition (opposition n. 1) of two heavenly bodies, or either of the points at which these take place, esp. in the case of the moon with the sun (new and full Moon).”

[9] Technically there is just one moment each month, when the syzygy of opposition is perfect. And so, technically, a “full” Moon lasts about one minute or less! But typically we perceive the Moon as full when it is at 98% illumination or more, and so we perceive the Moon as “full” on the night before, on the night of, and on the night after.

[10] Notice the optimism in this “new” designation. Humans from long ago until now could have spoken of the “dying of the light” of the Moon, because each month the Moon does “die” – the lightless Moon. Humans could have easily called that the “dead” Moon, which scientifically does describe the actual surface of the Moon as we have now explored it – a dead, a lifeless surface. But our hope overcame Death even then, and so we called it the “new” Moon.

[11] Notice the designation “full” for the Moon. But the Moon is always fully itself, round, all there, whether fully or only partially perceivable in the sky above our Earth. How interesting that we associate the Moon’s degree of being fully or partially “there” with the degree of light received on its surface. In other words, when it comes to the Moon we are actually paying attention to Sun – the source of light, and the amount that gets to the surface of the Moon – more than we are to the Moon itself.

[12] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “rectilinear” – “Forming or lying in a straight line.”

[13] See https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/01/12/why-theres-no-such-thing-as-the-dark-side-of-the-moon/#769afe1c7d13. There is no such thing as the “dark side” of the Moon, because in its rotation all of its “sides” get illuminated by the Sun, as does our Earth. What a person should say is the “far side” of the Moon, because we on Earth are only able to see one “side” of the Moon, “because the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth.”

[14] The Oxford English Dictionary at “conjunction” – “An apparent proximity of two planets or other heavenly bodies; the position of these when they are in the same, or nearly the same, direction as viewed from the earth.”

[15] The Oxford English Dictionary at “opposition” - “The apparent position of two celestial objects when they differ in ecliptic longitude by 180°; esp. the position of a superior planet when in this relation to the sun.” In other words, from my position in Earth, the Sun is on one side of the Earth and the Moon is on the other side of the Earth.

[16] Taken from the “Burnt Norton”, Part II, being first of the “quartet” (1935) in T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. See: http://www.davidgorman.com/4Quartets/1-norton.htm.

[17] https://www.strictlycircledance.co.uk/what-is-circle-dancing/ - The “circle dance” is the oldest known dance form of humans. It is a way of expressing, of enacting, the affectively experienced truths of a community as this particular community. A key aspect of this form of dance is the physical linkage (by hands, etc.) maintained throughout the dance. The dancers stay physically in touch, or “yoked,” (syzygy) to each other as they perform the dance.

[18] Obviously, the Moon, because it orbits the Earth, does by association also orbit the Sun. But its gravity is that of the Earth. Its “center” is there.

f Jn 3:16.

g Rom 5:8.

h Jn 1:18; 1 Tm 6:16.

[19] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 1 Jn 4:7–12. Consider in this short passage how many times LOVE is mentioned, and then the one mention of “remains” as if to clarify that LOVE means MUTUAL INDWELLING.

[20] Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence” (originally the song title written in the plural - “Sounds”). This was the song in early January 1966 that won their worldwide reputation and started them on their career as a peerless duo. They then in late January 1966 published their Sounds of Silence album, and in it renamed their hit single, the first song on that album – “The Sound of Silence” (notice “sound” in the singular).

[21] Pope Francis’ exceptionally important, and eloquent, challenge to humanity to cease overlooking our most sustaining grace, or pay a terrible price … which the environmental refugees of the Earth are already paying and have been paying for many decades now. See Pope Francis’ encyclical (i.e., a Letter addressed to the whole church, or in this case, to the whole world), Laudato si (24 May 2015). See complete text at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals.index.html.

[22] The Oxford English Dictionary as the verb “to appall” – I.8 – “To cause the heart of (anyone) to sink; to dismay, shock, discomfit, terrify.”

   [23] This widely perceivable attraction people have for their enemies is something that Jesus saw so clearly, and for the sake of breaking such a “fatal attraction” He spoke of the command (not suggestion) that we forgive our enemies. The poets of the deeper Way notice this when they see how close is the attraction, as felt, between hatred and love. Both affections are attractions to a person that powerfully “yoke” them to each other.

[24] Wikipedia - 'The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress’ (sometimes titled as ‘The Moon's a Harsh Mistress’) is a song by American songwriter Jimmy Webb. It has become a much-recorded standard, without ever having charted as a single. Webb appropriated the title from the 1966 science fiction novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. The song is especially associated with Glen Campbell, who performed the song on his farewell tour, Judy Collins, and Joe Cocker, who first recorded the song in 1974.” The Joe Cocker version of this song is best heard on his 1974 album I Can Stand a Little Rain.

[25] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jn 3:19.

[26] Henri de Lubac, SJ in some work that I have not been able to track down offered a wonderful insight in the mysterium lunae (“the mystery of the Moon”), which was quoted by Pope Francis in a major address he was invited to give to the Conclave that ended up electing him Pope. At https://www.biography.com - Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 17, 1936, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, when he was named the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio, the first pope from the Americas, took his papal title after St. Francis of Assisi of Italy.”

[27] I have yet to discover a poem about the attraction of the Moon when it is able to be observed in the daytime, as often it is. No, the poems are of the Moon in the night sky.

[28] The opening lines (lines 1-6 and 61-63) here of Dante’s Inferno - http://etcweb.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/dante/campuscgi/mpb/GetCantoSection.pl. The Princeton Online Dante is an outstanding resource for this and all of Dante’s works.

[29] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “tangent” – “Geometry. Of a line or surface in relation to another (curved) line or surface: Touching, i.e. meeting at a point and (ordinarily) not intersecting; in contact.”

[30] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “asymptote” – Mathematics: “A line which approaches nearer and nearer to a given curve, but does not meet it within a finite distance.”

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