Rainbow photographed by Beth Williams Liou

This photo of a rainbow was posted on Facebook the other day by Beth Williams Liou. She took it on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. It happens that Pat and I were on the island that day with two of our daughters and our four grandchildren, and were waiting for a table at a restaurant when someone spotted the same rainbow.

First, those of us who were standing outside the crowded restaurant stepped out into the parking lot and looked up at the sight. Then some people who were already seated got up and came out. Even some of the wait staff rushed over to have a glance. There was a lot of excited chatter, and several people were taking pictures of the rainbow with their cell phones. Maybe that’s how Beth Williams Liou caught this image.

As often happens with me, I knew while this event was taking place that I would write a column or homily about it. It turned out to be a column. What immediately struck me was that all of us for whom this rainbow became the center of attention are immersed in a world of seemingly endless technical advances — 3D movies, HDTV, WiFi, Wii, hand-held devices of every description. But we aren’t so jaded yet that we won’t look in awe when nature from time to time reminds us of the source of all genius.

One of the best things about a rainbow beyond its sheer beauty is that it’s a trick nature pulls on us humans. Where we see bands of color, for instance, there actually is a continuous spectrum of light. And the rainbow itself doesn’t really exist at all; it’s only the way our complex but still limited senses and nervous systems perceive the refraction of light passing through tiny drops of moisture. If we try to chase the rainbow, it is never where we look. If we do something else before giving the rainbow our attention,  it disappears.

”We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow,” crabby old Mark Twain wrote, “that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.” I don’t know if we were a band of savages on Long Beach Island the other day, but I don’t think any of us was any less impressed by the spectacle overhead because we knew how it was made.