A reflection on stillness, at a northern Michigan church that preserves dark skies
The aurora borealis was visible over northern Michigan last night. One church outside Traverse City offers a dark enough sky to catch a glimpse and rest in quiet stillness.
The Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church is hard to miss. The large white building sits along U.S. 31 in Williamsburg, its enormous copper dome gleaming in the sun.
"I wanted the property to have three things: to be accessible, visible and inspirational," said the Rev. Ciprian Streza, parish priest at the church. "I think this property hits the trifecta."
In the daytime, you can look out and see East Grand Traverse Bay, open fields and, given the right timing and weather, stunning sunsets.
But at night, it gets even better.
When the church was built in 2020, it was intentionally designed to allow for dark skies. With a tap of a smartphone app, Streza can turn off all the lights — the lights in the building, the lights shining on the building, and the ones on tall poles illuminating the parking lot.
And when he does that on a clear night, it becomes nearly pitch black out here, offering a relatively vivid look at the sky above.
On this particular Tuesday night, a small group of people have shown up to enjoy some night sky viewing. The night before, the northern lights were visible over northern Michigan and this group is hoping for a repeat performance.
But tonight, there are too many clouds. So they've given up on the dark sky and are sitting around a fire pit behind the church, chatting.
As they chat, Streza greets them warmly, offers to let them use the church bathrooms and water fountains, and even gives them a 25-minute tour of the nave, explaining some parts of Orthodox Christianity and what some of the icons in the church represent.
Streza says there's value in letting people visit the church grounds freely to stargaze. Sure, he gets to talk to them and, yes, sometimes he, in his own words, "gets a little preachy."
But he believes the church can be a restful place for people to find a few moments to rest and connect to each other or, maybe, something larger than that.
"We have a concept in the Orthodox theology, which is active stillness," Streza said.
It's the idea that intentionally seeking a few moments to pause — even in a noisy environment — can clear the head and open the heart.
"We believe that in the deep stillness, we encounter God," he said. "That's when the stillness becomes active. So, active stillness is fundamental in our spiritual experience."
Use the audio player with this post to hear a conversation with Streza about the value of stillness, in an excerpt of our "Up North Lowdown" podcast.