Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep

This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2015

‘Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.’ -- Pope Benedict XVI

At Notre Dame University [in June 2015], Katharine Mahon, a doctoral student in theology, reminded me of this passage from Pope Benedict’s Easter 2012 homily. One of the striking hallmarks of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si', was how it was rooted in the theology and writings of his predecessors, like the passage above.

Just as our badly-overlit cities blind us to the stars, our desire to wrap ourselves in the soft wool of technology insulates us from the reality of God’s presence – not to mention drowning out the cry of our neighbor. Turn up the headphones, and ignore the fellow by the side of the road; let some Samaritan take care of him. Notice the irony. The same technology borne of a science like astronomy can in turn make more astronomy harder to accomplish. For the same reason, I dread the arrival of the first humans on Mars since bacteria leaking from some astronaut will likely overwhelm any indigenous life forms. Science can be its own worst enemy.

My time living in rural Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer (here I'm visiting a fellow teacher) taught me what life was like outside the cotton wrapping. It reignited my love of astronomy.

This disconnect between the natural world and our citified lives is a theme of James Rebanks’ [2015] book, The Shepherd’s Life. His descriptions, at times graphic, of a shepherd’s routine in the Lake District reveals a reality that was both beautiful and hidden to me, for all the times I’ve gone hiking up The Old Man of Coniston. But to me the most disturbing descriptions in his book were not, say, the details of birthing lambs in the mud of early spring. (Let’s just say, it gives a graphic zest to Pope Francis’ call for the Church to be shepherds who “smell of the sheep”!) Rather, it was his description of his own education, in a system that valued schooling only in terms of careers, and valued not at all his career as a shepherd.

I was at Notre Dame as part of a workshop for Catholic high school teachers to integrate science and religion in their curricula. Their horror stories of classroom challenges (in one class of 17-year-olds, half the students still believed that the Church vehemently opposes evolution!) speak to the struggle we have to be heard over the deafening noise of our culture.

But any high school teacher can tell you, the way to be heard over classroom noise is not to shout but to whisper. Small is beautiful, as Pope Francis reminds us… a theme long promoted by Catholics like G. K. Chesterton and E. F. Schumacher. Likewise, James Rebanks’ book appeals for small indigenous farmers worldwide to follow the example of the Lakeland shepherds, again echoing the Pope’s encyclical.

Conversations and conversions cannot occur in flashy mass movements. They soon become self-parodies, like a rock band preaching ecological constraint with electric instruments amplified to ten zillion watts. Revolutionary monocultures get co-opted by the very interests they threaten.

But as an astronomer I measure one star at a time. One teacher’s chance comment in Rebanks’ school eventually led him to an Oxford degree and his best-selling book. The teachers at Notre Dame told us of their successes: students one by one growing in faith and science. We need the personal discipline to turn off one light at a time, to rescue one lamb at a time.

Jesus didn’t expect us to save the whole world; that was His job. Our homework for today is to help one neighbor.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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