The final burn of rocket-grade kerosene ended in an abrupt and ominous silence. Hurtling through the empyrean void in his titanium telephone booth of a spacecraft, fifty-one years ago today, John Glenn reached orbital altitude, 125 vertical miles above the nearest living soul. He was the first American in orbit, gazing upon the earth from a vantage point previously reserved to gods and Russians. In a capsule called Friendship, he was alone—the crackling voice on his radio transmitter his only connection to the unseen human multitude far below.
Silently spinning through an endless void, floating free from the dirt of his creation, the image of the lone astronaut is as haunting as it is sublime. In wielding a power of quasi-sacred dimension, the spaceman triumphs over the forces of gravity and seemingly transcends his earthly limitations. But at the apogee of his orbit, the pinnacle of his earthborn transcendence, he finds himself alone, utterly alone, with the cold chill of an infinite void enveloping his nickel-plated cage.
The lone spaceman in orbit, with all its semiotic potential, was for novelist Walker Percy the quintessential sign of the predicament of modern man:
The twentieth-century self lives in a post-religious age, you know, it’s post-cosmological, post-mythological, post-Oriental, post-Christian. You’re the self and the world, with God more or less omitted these days. The self is in orbit. It either transcends the world through science and art or it tries to reenter . . . “What is this thing orbiting the earth?” That’s the self, the self of the twentieth century in a peculiar situation vis-à-vis the world: he’s/she’s abstracted from it, and always with a reentry problem. How do I get back? How can I get back to feeling real at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon?
Percy’s amnesia-prone, alienated protagonists are representative victims of an existential crisis born of the claim to autonomous transcendence. For Percy, we live in the ruins of a society wrecked by aspiring demigods. The bonds of gravity that once grounded true interpersonal communion were broken by men grasping at divinity. The lodestar of the Transcendent and Immanent Deity was destroyed, and now man finds himself spinning in the void, with a peculiar reentry problem.
As perilous as such a condition may be, reentry is possible of course. The lodestar could never actually be destroyed, try as man might to throw off the yoke of his created status. The gravity of God respects no distance. The man who foolishly grasps at divinity is himself sustained in being by the intimate Knowledge and creative Love of God. Reentry is really quite simple as it turns out. All it takes is a fall—a loosening of our grip on usurped divinity. It is easy to muster the courage: all it takes is an honest look around. For all its undeniable sex appeal, its promise of unrestricted self-determination, and its pledge of absolute freedom, moral autonomy has left us freewheeling through a relativistic, nihilistic void. We may be free in our orbit, but it is a dreadful freedom—the freedom of an alienated, isolated, forgotten man, adrift and lost in space.
When we do fall back to God—when we submit our intellect and will to His own—we realize a delightful and previously unimagined possibility. We discover something from without, welling up within. Our hearts, still numb from our frozen orbit, begin to thaw by the warmth of an infectious laughter, a contagious and virulent happiness that overtakes us and overwhelms us. The joy of Beatitude Himself spills out from the depths of our soul, bubbling up like a miraculous spring. Suddenly, we find ourselves not only loving Him, but loving with Him, united to a vast communion of souls we had once left far behind.
With all that said, reentry can be a rather difficult ride. Plummeting back to Earth, John Glenn saw only an inferno out the window of his capsule. The atmosphere licked the craft with scorching flames of reentry heating, burning off the debris of a retropackage that clung to its heatshielded exterior. But, glowing with heat, the purified capsule did eventually splash down in the Atlantic Ocean, 160 miles north of the Dominican Republic. Due to a radio malfunction, John Glenn hadn’t heard the final words of the prayer uttered at his launch, but as he set his feet back on the Earth, he was a living testament to their efficacy.
As together we fall back to God from the alienated orbit of our sin and are purified by the reentry flames of Lent, may this prayer, uttered some five decades ago today, become our own:
May the good Lord ride all the way . . . Godspeed, John Glenn!
Image: William Turner, Donatis Comet, 1858