If you have a friend who is into astronomy and want to see how much of a purist they are when approaching their craft, just ask the following question, "What is your opinion on self-aligning telescopes?" A self-aligning telescope is one that uses either GPS or digital images to orient itself, allowing the observer to simply use a hand controller to tell the telescope what you would like to observe in the night sky. The purist will scoff, quickly pointing out that using such a telescope skips the necessary and at time frustrating process of learning how to navigate the night sky with the naked eye to the point of seeing the stars as a type of "road map." For some of my friends, using such a tool would be considered grounds for "hobby astronomy excommunication."
You may be wondering, "Fr. James, what is your opinion on self-aligning telescopes?" Well, at the risk of being ousted from the hobby astronomy community, I just bought one a few weeks back. (Let the gasps begin!)
You may ask, "Why did you do it and admit this scandal publicly?" Well, the answer is quite simple. As the Pastor of decent sized parish with a grade school and university ministry, my free time is limited. When the rare nights emerge when I have free time and a clear sky, I need to get to observing as soon as possible. Therefore, it's not that I don't value finding celestial objects by hand (which I have done for years before my recent purchase), but to maximize the time I have to star gaze I find that using an extra set of "digital eyes" to get my bearings greatly helps and makes for a more enjoyable night of observation.
The non-purists who read this blog may say, "Who cares what the purists think, just buy what you want!" Nevertheless, this tension points to one of the key meeting points between astronomy and spirituality: The importance of patient attentiveness to the movements of creation to grow in knowledge of what is observed and the one who created this beautiful world.
When I first started to study spirituality in seminary, I was always drawn to the spiritual masters who insisted upon attentiveness to God's presence by being aware of the world around us. One of the beautiful insights from spiritual masters of the Franciscan tradition is to be attentive to the perpetual act of praise that creation participates in. At its best, this approach to creation can turn a beautiful, sunny day into not only something to enjoy on a physical level, but to find in that warmth and calm a moment of grace in which God manifests His glory through creation.
The spiritual masters of the Ignatian tradition taught me to be attentive to my five senses, finding in sense experience a way of allowing God to be present to me. This approach made every sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell a moment of palpable contact with God as I would place myself into the Gospel narrative while dialoguing with God the Father, God the Son, and the Blessed Mother. This approach to spirituality utilizes one's imagination and helps sanctify our inner thoughts and how we see the world around us.
The spiritual masters of the Carmalite tradition taught me to be attentive to the absence of sense experience, seeking in the darkness of quiet solitude not a detachment from God, but an intensification of God's presence. It is ironic that when we enter the "nothingness" of radical detachment of sense experience, God can, in the words of John of the Cross, illumine a mystical fire of divine love within our heart so deep and passionate that it transcends our senses' ability to experience. It is a spirituality that can take a frightening experience of a "dark night" of our spiritual lives and transform it into radiant beauty as our nothingness meets the God of non-being.
I could give more examples, but the unifying thread that ties these schools of spirituality together is attentiveness to every aspect of our life, both those we can sense and those that transcend our senses, to be drawn closer to God through creation.
As of late, my priestly ministry has begun the beautiful "downshift" into summer mode. We have said goodbye to our college students, celebrated with our high school graduates, and prepared our sixth graders to make the transition from our parish grade school to public middle school. Amid this yearly transition, I begin to experience the necessity for moments of contemplation and silence. With slightly more free time, one of my favorite ways of contemplation is to pack up my new telescope, drive to a parishioner's farm that has good skies overhead, and rest in God's presence by enjoying God's creation.
These still, quiet moments call me to attentiveness. First, I am attentive to the beauty and movement of the night sky whether I am observing a planet, a star cluster, a galaxy, or a nebula. Second, that attentiveness reduces me to Awe and Wondering, appreciating many things like the gift of time that I have been given to observe the heavens, the breath of life God has given me, and to allow my senses to drink in God's presence in these moments.
From attentiveness, I often move to thanksgiving, being thankful for my priesthood, my parish, and even the struggles I have faced. At the end of this prayerful gaze into the night sky, I always find myself amazed to find that two, sometimes three hours have passed. This quiet, peaceful experience of simply wandering and wondering through the heavens always brings me to peace. Amid these dark nights that some people fear, God uses them to reveal the radiant beauty of His love to me.
Patience and attentiveness to the night sky allowing for an encounter with God - perhaps the purists have a point! In a world that is increasingly invasive on our gift of time, let us carve out some moments of quiet contemplation this week. Let's embrace the importance of not rushing from one thing to the next, missing out on small, important moments of life. If God blesses you with clear skies overheard, take out a telescope or a pair of binoculars to enjoy a night of gazing upon God's beautiful creation. And in that gaze, draw upon the lessons of the spiritual masters to turn a night of star gazing into an encounter with the God who loves you.