Do you have an astronomy "bucket list?"
This past Sunday, I had a wonderful afternoon at the home of one of my parishioners. I took my H-Alpha solar telescope along with me to look at the Sun. As I am getting a little older and my assignments are getting a little more complex, I am finding myself gravitating more to solar observation during the day. Night calls me to go to sleep earlier and earlier as the years roll by.
As I was setting up my telescope, I began to see a palpable joy emerge from the family that I was visiting. The father of the family sprang up from his patio chair, displaying the same type of eagerness a child displays on Christmas morning before opening their gifts. Suddenly, he informed me, "Father James, observing a solar flare (or prominence) on the Sun is on my bucket list!" The statement caught me off guard. I have observed solar prominences numerous times, becoming a bit desensitized to the wonder of seeing one for the first time. My parishioner's excitement help rekindle a little of the childhood wonder that so drove me to gaze at the stars.
NASA video of a Solar Prominence. This is not what they look like through my solar telescope.
Excited to help a parishioner check something off his bucket list, I centered the Sun, adjusted the focus, and let the telescope settle. So, what did I see on the rim of the Sun? Nothing, absolutely nothing other than a crisp, uninterrupted sphere around the sun.
"You've got to be kidding me!" I muttered under my breath. I couldn't remember the last time I looked at the Sun and didn't see a solar prominence. "Well Rich, it looks like your bucket list is going to have to wait." The entire family took turns, gazing through the telescope, getting their first look at the surface of the Sun. After a readjustment, Rich went back to the telescope and announced, "I see a flare!" Nicki, his wife, who is known to rib her husband from time to time, quickly retorted, "Are you sure it's a solar flare? You've never seen one before." After smiling and gesturing me to check to see what her husband had found, I was happy to confirm that he had a flare. It was at 5:00 on the disk, small, but definitely a flare.
"I discovered a solar flare! I'm going to call it 'Rich's Flare.'" We all laughed at his self-proclaimed discovery on the Sun's surface. While we had dinner, Rich commented time and time again how he was so happy that he could check something off of his bucket list. I assured Rich that there were more prominences to come as we agreed to do some more solar observing in the future. As I left, the joy on Rich's face sent a clear message, "I'm hooked!"
As I drove home to get ready for our evening Mass with the college students, I thanked God for the experience I had with the Welsch family. It revealed to me that, even as a hobby astronomer, I had allowed myself to become a little desensitized while gazing at some of the wonders of the universe. This desensitization reminded me of my faith life and how so many beautiful aspects of Catholicism can become so common place that we forget their beauty and impact.
For example, I have prayed the "Our Father" thousands of times in my life. However, do I stop and reflect on the beauty of this prayer or do I simply allow it to ramble from my lips to be quickly forgotten? Just as St. Augustine reminds us that the "Our Father" is the perfect prayer, containing within it a prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and repentance, so, too, does a simple gaze at our star (with the proper filter for eye safety) remind us of the wonders of our solar system, humbling us when seeing a solar storm in which the Earth could easily fit, and the miracle of how our common home is "just right" for life to exist. The lessons our prayer and our wonderment of the universe teach us is that every moment of our lives is to become an act of prayer and that every encounter with creation is to become an opportunity to see God's glory on full display before us.
When I got back to the Church, I thought to myself, "Do I have an 'Astronomy Bucket List?'" The honest and slightly embarrassing answer to the question is No. However, even if I had a bucket list, my involvement with the Vatican Observatory Foundation would have fulfilled all of them and then some. Nevertheless, the joy of my parishioner has inspired me to develop an "Astronomy Bucket List" to help me set some goals to further my love of astronomy. What will make it on this list? As of right now, I don't know. What I do know is that I want to make it something both fulfilling on a personal level, but realistic enough to actually achieve (ergo, no trips to the International Space Station... darn!).
What would you put on your "Astronomy Bucket List?" What are the wonders of God's creation you would like to observe? What are experiences with astronomy you hope to have with the time God has given you on this good Earth? Pray with these questions and share your thoughts! It just might help me as I develop my Astronomy Bucket List!
Important Note: The telescope I referenced is specifically designed to observe the Sun and I have been trained how to use it properly. NEVER observe the Sun directly without the proper equipment to protect your eyes. Also, have someone who is skilled in using this equipment help you learn how to use it properly before trying solar observation on your own.