As I continue to learn the art of night photography, I'm exploring the technique called light painting. Light painting is when you introduce artificial light to illuminate the foreground of an image. The trick is to not introduce this light into the sky, otherwise you wash out your stars.
Part of me bristles when doing light painting. From an astronomy standpoint, it violates one of the most basic rules of stargazing: Don't turn on white light! So irksome has this feeling become, I decided to try a different angle on light painting. Instead of a flashlight, I decided to try and use the Moon to light paint my images. What was the result? The images below and a moment of joy when I opened them in my computer. Dare I say, it became a moment of prayer as the images called to mind the words of the Exsultet from the Easter Vigil.
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, astrophotography has given me a visual language to share my inner experience of faith. When I sing the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil, my heart is often filled with a quiet peace. It is this quiet peace I experience every time I look up into the night sky. In short, Thank you, God, for the gift of this world, the gift of a clear night, and the gift of your love from all of us.
Enjoy the pics and Happy Monday!
Why is it a challenge to convince people that light pollution is a problem? For example, St. Olaf Catholic Church is the parish I currently serve, located on the north side of the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The combined population of Eau Claire and the surrounding cities of Altoona, Lake Hallie, and Chippewa Falls exceeds 100,000. What does this mean to the city dwelling astronomer? A lot of light pollution and not that many stars in the night sky to gaze upon. Here is a visual example of what I see when I look up while standing in our parish parking lot.
Let's compare the night skies over St. Olaf with those over another parish I once served - St. Raymond of Penafort in Brackett, Wisconsin. This rural parish is situated about twenty minutes east of Eau Claire. When the security lights turn off for the evening, the night sky reveals a far more starry reality from their parking lot. Here is another visual example of what can be seen when looking up in St. Raymond's parking lot. (Incidentally, I took these images at St. Olaf and St. Raymond on the same night with the same camera setup.)
When looking at the difference between these skies, the call to reduce light pollution should be "case closed." Right? Just look at the radical difference in our ability to see stars in both image sets. The question that begins this piece then reemerges: Why is it a challenge to convince people that light pollution is a problem?
To answer this question, we only need to ask, Where are these pictures being taken? The answer - In the parking lot of two Catholic Churches. Though the stargazing priest who has served at both parishes may enjoy a dark Church parking lot for stargazing purposes, the parishioners who would be coming to a Mass after dark, along with the Diocesan lawyer and said Pastor, would also appreciate parking lot lighting that made visibility clear and consistent. Whether it be for reasons of protecting people from those who may be hiding in the shadows or simply being able to negotiate the slight elevation of the curb between the parking lot and the sidewalk, the desires of a stargazing priest will always be trumped by the necessary concerns of public safety. Still, when you see what can be done from those same parking lots with images of the night sky stretching over these sacred spaces like a banner, one might also ask, Is there a way we can have both a dark sky and a safe parking lot?
The below pictures are the above pictures greatly enhanced and rotated with the visible stars eroded to make them look more like other images of edge on galaxies.
In addition to practical concerns that would make people believe that light pollution is a regrettable, but necessary reality, many see light pollution as a means of making the night more beautiful. I was confronted with this challenge while doing some astrophotography at the farm of a good friend that lives about 10-15 minutes outside of Eau Claire. Some very low, fast moving clouds rolled in, leading me to think, "Ah, here's a perfect way to show how light pollution impacts the night sky!" However, when I showed these pictures to some friends and staff members, the first reaction was, Wow! I never realized light pollution was that beautiful! Now, in their defense, most of them knew that I was writing a piece on light pollution, so the comment was often given as a playful jab. At the same time, I know that I would have gotten similar responses from others I knew who were not astronomy enthusiasts or knew I was putting this piece together. In short, strike two in making my argument against light pollution. (I didn't even want to show them pictures I took of the Pablo Center, the new performing arts center in the heart of downtown.)
Is trying to fight light pollution a lost cause? Do safety concerns deem light pollution a regrettable necessity? And does artistic lighting actually bring more beauty to the night than do the stars above? Is there a way we can have the light we need, enhance the appearance of our downtowns, and protect the night sky? I would argue that there is a way to accomplish all three goals (and many more not mentioned).
Three of the first four Faith and Astronomy Workshops, hosted by the Vatican Observatory Foundation, contained presentations from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). They are an organization that not only promotes the protection of dark sky areas, but provides scientific research into the impact of light pollution on the health of humans and wildlife, the dangers that using to much light can create for public and personal safety, and how dark sky approaches can actually save communities a great deal of money in electricity usage while achieving better, more consistent lighting for safety concerns. Every time I heard their presentation, I thought, "Why don't people know how much benefit there could be from using lighting that is dark-sky friendly?" I would highly recommend you dig around on their webpage to learn how you and your community can protect the skies above while also protecting the people who look up from below.
Spiritual Exercise: When was the last time you were able to go out and enjoy the beauty of a dark sky? Do you live somewhere that allows for easy access to a starry night? Does where you live make gazing upon the stars next to impossible? Are there simple, yet impactful ways that you can promote dark sky practices in your community? Pray with these questions. Learn about the IDA. And, together, let us protect one of the most beautiful treasures God has given us: The ability to gaze upon creation itself.
Below is a video put together by National Geographic that emphasizes what I find to be the most compelling argument to protect the night sky - Giving people of all ages the opportunity to experience Awe and Wonder gazing at God's creation, while also realizing we are a part of God's creation.
To follow up on last week's post, a big part of my vacation was to explore the capabilities of a new camera. Looking back, I can't remember how I stumbled upon the TinyMOS Kickstarter for the Nano1. I wasn't a frequent flyer on "fund-me" pages and really had no interest in donating toward new technological gadgets. Nevertheless, when I saw the advertisement for an astronomy camera for the beginner, I felt a tug. Ever since my youth, I wanted to do serious astrophotography, but after a few failed attempts in the film era and limited funds, I figured it was a lost cause. The promise of a user friendly camera to enter into astrophotography was quite alluring.
After receiving the camera, I was impressed with how easy it was to use (after finding the power button of course). Now, truth be told, I don't know if I would call it a completely "point and shoot" astronomy camera. In order to take good night photos, you still need to understand things like ISO, exposure times, "f" stops, and so forth. Still, all the presets on the camera are geared toward astrophotography. When using it for the first time, I had a lot of, "So that's the settings you should use for star photography!" Therefore, the first lesson was that not only was this "GoPro of Astronomy" giving me nice pictures, but it was also teaching me how to use the cameras I already own better! Even before I tried to develop any images, these insights made the camera well worth the investment!
So, this is all well and good, but I would understand if some of you are thinking, "Blah, blah, blah, get to the pictures. The proof is in the pixels... Let's see what you got!" Again, I am a beginner in the astrophotography world, so these represent my first attempts. For many, these pictures might evoke a "meh" moment accompanied by a shoulder shrug. However, for someone who's always struggled to take good night photography and has little time to commit to learning the art, these initial images took my breath away! The images below are straight out of the camera with no digital post-processing. Keep in mind, for those of you who know cameras, these images are from a 12 megapixel cmos sensor (basically a variation on the GoPro line). The wide angle exposures ranged from 20 second to 60 seconds! Typically, a camera can only take about 20-30 second exposures (depending on lens size and type of imaging sensor) before you get star trails. When you have a 3mm wide angle fish eye lens, that exposure time can increase. The moon photos are a little out of focus. The out of focus isn't the camera's fault, but mine. This is a completely manual camera and given the small margin of error when focusing a small camera through a Celestron C6 telescope pointed at a quickly moving moon... you get the point.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one of the greatest gifts this camera has given me is not only beautiful pictures, but an intuitive lesson in how to better use the cameras I already own. I own two older digital cameras: A Pentax Q that's about seven years old (12 megapixels) and a Canon EOS-M that's a little newer (16 megapixels). I bought both of them used for about $100 each (minus the lens for the Canon). A few posts back, I posted some pictures with my Pentax. I think it's pretty safe to say that the Nano1 well out performed my Pentax. In regard to my Canon, at first the Nano1 outperformed it. However, when I took what I learned from the Nano1 and applied it to my Canon, I began to see how I could use the Canon to its maximum capacity. So, can my Canon take better night pictures than the Nano1? Yes. At the same time, I don't mention this to say one camera is better than the other. The difference in sensor size alone should clue you into the fact that this wasn't a "fair fight." I mention it because I'm pretty convinced I would not have learned how to use my Canon the way I do now without the Nano1 giving me a hands on crash course in night photography settings.
So, what faith lessons have l learned from this? The more I have been doing astrophotography, the more attentive I have been not only to the night sky, but the world around me. I find myself looking at things like flowers, trees, and buildings with new eyes. My sense of Awe and Wonder has been renewed through this journey as those same flowers, trees, and buildings are no longer just the visual background noise I pass to get from point A to point B. Instead, this form of photography has given me the opportunity to encounter God's creation in new, exciting, and fresh ways. And then, when the encounter is done, I get to sit in front of a computer and painstakingly edit these images so to reveal how God inspires me to view creation. Purchasing this little (and I mean little) astronomy camera was not just an investment, but a tool that has helped me grow in my attentiveness to God's creation.
As I mentioned last week, this review is not meant to be an endorsement or a critical rejection of the Nano1. Rather, I seek to answer a simple question, "Does the Nano1 allow me to purse my love of astronomy in a way that is meaningful and life-giving?" The answer was a resounding yes! In that spirit, the below images are from the three cameras mentioned above. These are heavily edited images and definitely fit more the genre I dubbed "Astronomical Impressionism" from last week. Some of them will appear in my piece for next week on light pollution.
Enjoy and happy Monday!
What are the most challenging questions to answer? From my experience as a science loving priest, I would have to say the easy questions pose the greatest difficulty. When someone asks me, "Father, why did you become a priest?" I often struggle to find an answer that gives the full breadth of meaning the question demands. To simply reduce my answer to feelings from childhood, affirmation from family and friends, or the life experiences that affirmed this feeling, though helpful, doesn't provide the full spectrum of what I seek to communicate. Put another way, how does one take a 45 year journey and condense it to a 150 character tweet!
I experience a similar struggle when someone asks, "Father, why do you love astronomy?" I could talk about my love of the night skies over the family farm, how my college astronomy studies grabbed me, and my first glimpse of Jupiter's Moons through a telescope. Each answer, however, never leaves me feeling like I fully answered the question. There is an illusive "something" I experience internally when gazing at the heavens I can't quite put into words. At the risk of sounding overly romantic, it reminds me of the stymied moment I observe in a newly engaged couple's eyes when I ask them, "So when did the two of you know?"
This past week I was blessed with a few days of vacation. Most of it was spent, as often is the case, on the family farm. Yet, this trip home had a different air of excitement. As I have shared with you in in the past, I participated in a "fund-me" project to help development an astronomy camera for the masses called the Nano1 from TinyMOS. Next week, I will do a more formal review of the camera. This week, however, I wanted to share the joy and insight I gained by using both this and my Canon EOS-M in ways that made me feel one step closer to provide a better answer to the question, "Why do I love astronomy?"
Being blessed with clear skies and favorable humidity levels every night but one, I began the process of understanding night photography. This learning was not only about ISO settings and exposure lengths, but it was about attentiveness to creation and attentiveness to how creation moves me. It reminded me of the shift in art during the impressionistic era to the internal, seeking to create art that didn't necessarily communicate the precise outward attributes of the subject, but the feelings that subject evoked or experienced themselves. This reflection made me think of the two approaches I encounter when discussing star photography: Is the goal to provide a true image of the night sky or is it to create beautiful pictures that grab people through digital enhancements and color painting?
The first insight to the tension between true images of the night sky and artistic renderings of night photography happened while at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. After a night of shooting with my good friend Jamie Cooper, I opened the images on my computer and had a thought that now occurs every time I take pictures of the night sky, "That's amazing! But that's not how it looked when I took the picture." Lesson One: Even "true color images" of the night sky need some digital alternation to move the picture from what ended up on the sensor to what you remember seeing.
This practice of altering a picture to reflect its "true" appearance helped me realize that any image of the night sky possesses an odd commingling of the objective and subjective. One of my favorite examples of this tension between an objective and subjective interpretation of space is the wildly colorful false image of Pluto done by NASA. At first glance, one may conclude that one of the New Horizons scientists took this image home, left it on the kitchen counter, and their children took their box of crayons and vibrant markers to Pluto. Instead, this was an intentionally false colored image to highlight the different regions of Pluto's surface to better understand the unique attributes of this popular Dwarf Planet. Lesson Two: Even a false image can lead to a better understanding of the objective truth of the subject being studied.
This insight of alteration to help express different aspects of truth helped me embrace both approaches to astrophotography: The "realistic" and the "impressionistic." While trying to take a clear image of the southern horizon of the farm, I took images that reflected both interpretations - What my eyes saw and what my heart felt.
When looking at both images, there is a clear consistency of the subject being taken - The Milky Way. However, the adjustments are not meant to paint a "false image" in a way that is a kind of lie or deception. Rather, the alterations were meant to simply communicate two clear truths: What I saw and what I felt. The difficulty for those who do not understand astrophotography or do not read Sacred Space Astronomy is that this distinction is seldom made when media presents images of the night sky. This lack of an interpretive frame can lead to a false image of creation, mistaking someone's personal artistic interpretation or emotional response to the sky for the plain view of the heavens. This, of course, presumes that a plain view of the night sky is possible.
Reflection: What are the simple questions that are most difficult for you to answer? Are they about faith? Are they about science? Are they a little bit of each? What are creative ways you've found to try to express a true answer to these questions, even if it might mean an over statement of some things to draw attention to the truth of another?
Do these images give me the ability to fully express how I feel when I look at the night sky? Nope. However, they do provide a visual strand to the tapestry of truth that wasn't present before that helps me feel more at peace trying to share with you and others why astronomy moves me so. Below are other images from my vacation. I've labeled the pictures (Nano1) and (Canon EOS-M) so you know which images were taken with which camera.
Has the moon become boring to the modern world? This question has been pestering my thoughts in the wake of the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11. Yes, we enjoyed a brief window of intrigue as the anniversary approached. However, what has come of interest in our celestial partner since then? Granted, NASA plans on returning to the moon in 2024 as a major step toward sending people to Mars. However, I can't help but wonder: Will the rest of the world rally behind this mission or will lack of human interest scuttle the journey?
A fascinating and frustrating reality of lunar missions, at least in the United States, is the intimate connection between the Moon and politics. It was political will, in large part, that put humanity on the Moon. Though the purist in me would love to say that the natural human desire to explore would be enough to merit a return trip to the Moon, the inner realist tempers me with the simple truth that these trips take money - A lot of money. Given the monetary reality of space, the hard truth is that a trip to put people on our lunar satellite once again will only occur if there is a good, practical reason to return. And, sadly, the desires of a space loving Catholic Priest isn't enough.
I would like to invite you into a conversation about the desire (or lack there or) to return to the Moon. In the comments below, please reflect on the question, "Do we, as a global community, desire to return to the Moon or not?" Personally, I can answer this question with a resounding, "ABSOLUTELY!" However, I'm just one voice amid billions.
Does the Moon still captivate? Has virtual reality replaced nature, making trips to the Moon appear to be nothing more than a boring trip to look at rocks? Do the timeless words of Buzz Aldren, Magnificent Desolation, still ring with a tone of wonderment or has the Moon lost it's luster to the broader culture?
Please leave your thoughts below. Together, let's pray that wonderment wins and we return to the Moon not only to achieve practical ends, but to continue the natural human desire to explore.
In the past, I have shared reflections on the beauty of the skies over my parent's farm. I often wish I could share both the stories and the visuals. A few weeks back, I mentioned that I have participated in a "fund-me" program for the development of a point and shoot astronomy camera. I'm happy to share that it is on its way! My plan is to use it on my vacation in a couple weeks to do some night photography on the Kurzynski farm.
In the meantime, I thought it would be fun to get a cheap, but good camera set-up to do some astrophotography at the level of the beginner to both compare basic images of the sky with the Nano1 I'll be reviewing in a couple weeks and simply get outside to enjoy the night sky. The pictures below are not the greatest, they're noisy, and aren't going to show up in any magazines anytime soon. The reason I share them is because it was a lot of fun taking them! As I've shared with you in the past, when taking images of the night sky, there's a simple question you need to ask before you begin this challenging form of photography: Why am I doing this?
The answer to why I took these pictures was simple: I love the farm I grew up on and love the night skies the surround it. I also wanted to offer this post for the non-professional on Sacred Space Astronomy to show how for less than $100, you can get out and do similar photography (most likely a lot better!)
So, what did I use for these pictures?
Camera: A $60, 7 year old camera I found on an online auction in lightly used condition. 12 Megapixel CMOS sensor, and settings that allow for manual exposure of the sensor. In other words, your cellphone probably has a better camera sensor than this camera. However, the manual settings gives this camera more flexibility.
Lens: A $40 stock 9mm lens that is standard for the brand of camera I bought. I cleaned it to try and get the best images possible.
Tripod: A $9.00 Big Box store tripod - nothing special.
Image Editing Software: A highly rated free image editor you can find with a simple Google search.
Exposure Settings: ISO of 1600, f/1.9, 30 second exposures.
Welcome to the farm!
If there is one thing that unites all people from Wisconsin it would be sharing strong opinions about the weather. This past year, the Badger state has had a rather turbulent 2019. As you may recall in previous posts, February was literally a winter for the record books. The city of Eau Claire, where I live, received 53.7 inches of snow, shattering the old February record or 28.2 inches. Though the summer temperatures have been staying within the annual average of highs and lows, the winter months for 2019 were strikingly below normal. Here is a graph from the Wisconsin State Climatology Office to display our 2019 temperatures.
Though the summer temperatures have been within normal parameters for the city of Eau Claire, the precipitation level is way above normal. This has led to higher river levels, atypical flood patterns, and dangerous river conditions for tourists and those who enjoy fishing. In light of these odd weather patterns, I'm sensing a change in attitude about climate change, summarized in the sentiment I hear from farmers, "Something is changing in the weather, Father, and it isn't good."
Now, as Chris Graney and I have mentioned in the past, you can't jump to conclusions about climate change based on one, small data set. Climate science is a complex tapestry of data that is still being developed and understood. The reason I bring up these numbers is to not only share my "genetic disposition" as a Wisconsinite to complain about the weather, but to observe that I do sense a slowly growing concern around the question, "Are these weather changes natural or something we are doing to ourselves?"
I'll do a deeper plunge into this question in the weeks to come. For now, I would like to share some links to environmental disasters that were sparked by choices humans have made. My purpose for sharing this is to help us see that human decisions do have a major impact on the climate we live in. Let all of us embrace the vision of Pope Francis' Integral Ecology that, as part of God's creation, decisions that are made not only impact us on a personal level, but the broader environment as a whole. Let us explore what it means to embrace a practical ethic of ecology that protects not only the health of global ecosystems, but can also be seen as an act of loving our neighbor.
From Public Radio International: Ten Worst Man-Made Environmental Disasters.
The market-driven agricultural practices of U.S. farmers — plowing the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains and monoculture farming — led to one of the most disastrous ecological events in the nation’s history. Between 1930 and 1940, drought conditions and depleted farmland caused severe dust storms, some reaching 10,000 feet in the sky and called “Black Blizzards.” An estimated 2.5 million people were displaced and the catastrophe compounded the Great Depression, creating what some have called the country’s “most hard time.” (https://www.pri.org/stories/2010-05-03/10-worst-man-made-environmental-disasters)
The Rainbow Herbicides showered over the jungles of Southeast Asia included Agent Blue, Purple and Pink, but Orange accounted for more than half of the nearly 20 million gallons of deadly chemicals used by the U.S. military between 1961 and 1971. The cost to human life was horrifying and the large-scale destruction of the region’s environment led to the coinage of the word “ecocide.” (https://www.pri.org/stories/2010-05-03/10-worst-man-made-environmental-disasters)
First there was Windscale in 1957, then Three Mile Island in 1979, but when a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine had a meltdown in 1986, it became the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. The United Nation’s Chernobyl Forum Report estimated the total number of deaths from cancer caused by the radiation exposure to be 4,000. (https://www.pri.org/stories/2010-05-03/10-worst-man-made-environmental-disasters)
For years, residents of Minamata, a town located on Kyushu (Japan's most southwesterly island), had observed odd behavior among animals, particularly household cats. The felines would suddenly convulse and sometimes leap into the sea to their deaths — townspeople referred to the behavior as "cat dancing disease." In 1956, the first human patient of what soon became known as Minamata disease was identified. Symptoms included convulsions, slurred speech, loss of motor functions and uncontrollable limb movements. Three years later, an investigation concluded that the affliction was a result of industrial poisoning of Minamata Bay by the Chisso Corp., which had long been one of the port town's biggest employers. As a result of wastewater pollution by the plastic manufacturer, large amounts of mercury and other heavy metals found their way into the fish and shellfish that comprised a large part of the local diet. Thousands of residents have slowly suffered over the decades and died from the disease. It has taken as long for some to receive their due compensation from the corporation. (http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1986457_1986501_1986450,00.html)
Around midnight on Dec. 2, 1984, an accident at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, resulted in 45 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate escaping from the facility. Thousands died within hours. More followed over subsequent months — about 15,000 in all. In total, about half a million people were affected in some way. Many of those who survived suffered blindness, organ failure and other awful bodily malfunctions. A shockingly high number of children in the area have been born with all manner of birth defects. In 1989, Union Carbide paid out about half a billion dollars to victims, an amount the afflicted say is not nearly enough to deal with the decades-long consequences. Bhopal remains the worst industrial disaster ever. (http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1986457_1986501_1986445,00.html)
From NASA's Earth Observatory
In 1971, Turkmenistan was a part of the Soviet Union. Not far from the village of Derweze (in Russian, it is Darvaza), a Soviet drilling rig hit an underground cavern, which subsequently collapsed and formed a deep pit, almost a hundred meters across. It was spewing toxic gases.
In order to contain the hazard, the gases were set alight, with the expectation that the gas would burn off in a few days. A few decades later, though, the pit is still on fire. (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2011/09/14/gates-of-hell/)
One of the greatest gifts NASA has given to the world is public access to their images. Below are images of lunar landing sites from various Apollo Missions.
Let's have some fun!! Can you guess which Apollo missions the pictures in the slideshow are from? I've numbered the them1-35. Let's see if we can guess all of them!
If you struggle to guess the missions, you can download these beautiful images for yourself from NASA by clicking here.
Enjoy! And NO cheating! 😉
This past month, I have embarked on a personal project: Designing an outdoor patio. The reason for this project is multilayered. From the perspective of being the Pastor of St. Olaf Parish, we own a vacant lot next to my rectory that is empty. Due to zoning regulations, there is very little we can do with this lot since we are within the direct flight path of the Eau Claire Municipal Airport. A garden patio is one of the few things that would both beautify the lot and respect the zoning laws.
On a personal level, I come from a family that, during summer, would spend a great deal of time on our outdoor deck. When visiting home, it is common to wake up to an empty house as my parents would be having their morning coffee outside. This simple wood structure, combined with the beauty of our central Wisconsin farm, became a true oasis for the family. The simple, but restful experience of our family's deck greatly influenced how I put together the patio for the parish. Since I was paying for this out of my own pocket and was doing this myself, building a wood deck was out of the question. However, I tried to capture the feel of peace I would find on our farm.
One of the uses of our family deck I wanted incorporate into the parish's patio was a place of observation. On the family farm, I remember fierce summer storms that would, at times, prompt tornado warnings. Thankfully, the worst of the storm always seemed to track south of us. The interesting "rural meteorology" observation was that when the storm would pass our farm, the skies over us would clear, giving us a clear view of the massive thunderheads to the south. It was not uncommon for us to stand or sit on the deck and watch these storms roll through. After they were done, we would go for a ride to both see the aftermath of the storm and make sure everyone was okay.
Simpler observations were the numerous opportunities to watch nature. Whether it be the birds that would visit my mother's feeders, rabbits that would investigate the backyard for something to munch on, or the occasional deer that would wonder through our property, the deck became a place of encountering nature. This spirit of observation was deepened when I started getting into astronomy. I would so enjoy times of bringing my telescope home to show my parents the wonders of the night sky. I will never forget the night I had my binoculars and showed my mother how to find the Andromeda Galaxy. That evening, Andromeda was lined up perfectly over the silo on our property. It was so rewarding when I heard my mother simply utter, "Wow! That's a galaxy?"
I have used social media to keep the parish and friends updated on the patio project. I have come to realize that Facebook not only allows me to share my faith, but is also a fun way to share my life away from the work of priesthood. The patio project has grabbed a lot of local attention, leading to the predictable, "Father, what you need to put in next is..." comments. One suggestion came from my brother, Brian Kurzynski, "You need to make a small observatory as part of your patio!" My brother was on the mark with his request. Part of my original intent was to have a place that would be both relaxing and a good location for stargazing.
My brother's request inspired a question for reflection, "What is an observatory?" Webster's Dictionary or Google will tell you that the word "observatory" refers to a structure designed for astronomical observation. The etymology of the English word goes back to the 1670's, identifying such places.
When you parse the word observatory, you arrive at the Latin word observare. Observare offers the potential for a more expansive definition. "Ob" is to keep something in front of or before us. "Servare" speaks to watching something or keeping it safe, while "ser" communicates an act of protection. While praying with this, I realized I was not just building a patio, but an observatory. I was building a place where I could observe the night skies, nature (specifically the numerous birds that visit my feeders), and find a spiritual peace that is intimately connected with a desire to protect what I observe. In many ways, I have come to realize that the patio is becoming an expression of all the things that inspire me to explore faith and science: The God I love and the beauty of the world we live in.
Request: It wouldn't surprise me if many of you have an "observatory" in your backyard, whether you realize it or not. Some of your observatories may be intentionally built for astronomy, while others might be more like my "patio/observatory" that is a bit more expansive in its use. If you would like to share pictures of your observatory on this blog, respond in the comments below. I will give you my e-mail address so you can send me pictures of your backyard observatory. My hope is, similar to my last post on Apollo 11, we can develop a slideshow of observatories from the people who read Sacred Space Astronomy - Observatories both professional and personal.
Have a great Monday!
What was your experience of Apollo 11?
A few weeks back, I was honored to be interviewed by Dennis Sadowski for a piece he was writing about the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11. For those who would like to read the article, you can either click here or on the image of Buzz Aldrin next to the flag of the United States.
Dennis and I had a wonderful conversation about my "memory" of Apollo 11... even though I was born 4 years after it happened. At first, you may think that I have little to offer in answering the question, "What was your experience of Apollo 11?" However, knowing that Dennis was going to explore this question with me, I started to reflect on how Apollo 11 was presented to me as a youth after the fact in contrast that to my parishioners at St. Olaf who did experience the Apollo 11 landing.
The first insight that surprised me was how few people I talked with actually saw the landing on television. The parishioners I spoke with knew of the landing, were excited about it, and understood the political implications of the landing. However, since televisions were still new, especially color televisions, most parishioners I spoke with experienced Apollo 11 as I did: After the fact.
These conversations helped me understand just how rapidly technology has advanced. In regard to Apollo 11, we have more computing power in our cell phones than did the computers on Apollo 11. The way the technology is explained, I oftentimes feel like Apollo 11 put humans on the moon flying a supercharged Coke can and a tricked out Commodore VIC - 20 (the first computer I ever owned). In many ways, our technology boon shows us just how miraculous the Apollo landing actually was!
This reflection made me wonder, If Apollo 11 happened in 2019, how would our perception of the landing changed? Presuming that Apollo 11 would have been received with the same freshness and historical significance as it did in 1969, I imagine that the coverage would be a data overload as hundreds of cameras from hundreds of angles would broadcast on millions of televisions. The technology we have today (which was made in large part through the advancement of the space programs since Apollo 11) may have made Apollo 11 more personal, more accessible, and something that would have been as common as the roses growing in my backyard instead of a distant adventure that we hear about after the fact. Would this have heightened our sense of wonder of Apollo 11 or would the multimedia overload actually demystified the journey? We may never know.
When I think of Apollo 11, it often evokes other significant moments of American culture such as the Challenger explosion and the terror attacks of 9/11. The reason for this is the association of Apollo 11 as an Earth shattering moment in human history. When I spoke with parishioners at St. Olaf, they didn't quite think of Apollo 11 with this same gravitas and significance. One parishioner explained this in a way that was very clarifying to me: "Father, I don't remember where I was for the landing of Apollo 11, but I remember exactly where I was when JFK was assassinated."
In defense of my parishioners, my examples of Challenger and 9/11 are tragedies, much more akin to the assassination of JFK. Nevertheless, these responses have helped me gain insight into why it felt odd in my youth that very little attention was given to things like the landing of Pathfinder on Mars, but the Oklahoma City Bombing and other tragic events gripped Americans souls.
About a week ago, one of my relatives who lives in Eau Claire invited me over to watch a television special of declassified video of the Apollo 11 landing. The special simply called "Apollo 11" gave me a taste of what wall to wall coverage of Apollo 11 would have felt like. Below are videos from NASA and the Smithsonian Institute of the lunar landing. Enjoy these videos and, as we approach the anniversary of Apollo 11, let us pray that the spirit of exploration and wonderment we have as a human race will continue to inspire us to explore the God we love and the universe God created.
Reflection Question: What was your experience of Apollo 11?
What do you do when your LEM decides to land in a crater instead of your landing site?
A three hour video of the lunar mission
Follow-Up: I want to thank Steven Lanoux for these pictures he took of his 25inch Sylvania TV the night of the lunar landing. Neat, homespun piece of history!
One of the understandable occupational hazard that can greatly increase the stress of a Catholic priest is Easter. Amid the culmination of Lent, the spiritual and emotional power of Holy Week, the joy of Easter Sunday, First Communion, Confirmation, and St. Olaf's parish festival, my time has been rather crunched, but in a good, fruitful way!
Many approach Easter as a day and for understandable reasons. Between Easter sales in stores, Easter Egg Hunts, and grown adults who dress up in a bunny costume (kindof odd when you think about it), Easter is a feast that the broader culture has turned into a day of chocolate, chocolate... and a lot more chocolate!
For Christians who observe a liturgical calendar, Easter is not only a day of celebration but a season. The lead-up to Easter is the 40 day period (give or take a couple days) of Lent. The symbolic understanding of this time is multilayered, symbolizing the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the desert, the 40 years the Children of Israel wondered in the desert, and other calls for a time of penance and purification like the 40 days of sackcloth and ashes called for by Jonah to the town of Nineveh. The purpose of this time is to detach our hearts from those things that lead us away from God so that we can allow for a deeper indwelling of God's love and grace in our lives.
This then moves to a very intentional time called Holy Week, punctuated by the three day period called the Triduum, (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). What is unique about the Triduum is that it does not represent three, separate celebrations. Rather, they are one, continual liturgical rite that spans a three day period. An interesting way to signify this unity is through the use of bells.
On Holy Thursday, a communal hymn called the Gloria is sung toward the beginning of Mass. During the song, servers ring hand bells that are typically used during the consecration of bread and wine. After the song is done, the bells are not rung again until the Gloria is sung again at the Easter Vigil. At one of my previous assignments, the bell tower that tolled every hour was turned off during this period of time as well, signaling to the entire community that time was "standing still."
After the celebration of Easter Sunday, the celebration continues through what is called the Octave of Easter - an eight day period in which our liturgical celebration is seen as one, constant Easter Sunday. This Octave beings the 50 day season of Easter. The reason it is 50 days is to remember the time after Jesus' resurrection when he appeared to many, entered into eternal glory, and then sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to guide the Church, which we celebrated last weekend.
As you can see, these celebrations contain a very fluid sense of time. Days are elongated, such as the Triduum, seeking to evoke a timelessness of the heart to embrace the mystery of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Periods of time such as 40 days and 50 days are used to draw our minds and hearts into reflection on some of the greatest events and mysteries of the Christian faith. It would not be a stretch to say that, for Catholics, our liturgical time is most definitely relative!
As odd as this may sound, these reflections on time came up while I was doing some post-Easter Sunday decompression watching Avengers - End Game. Since the movie has been out for some time, I presume that a few spoilers are tolerable. For example, the film contains an interesting question with scientific, philosophical, and theological dimensions: Could Quantum Physics be a pathway to finding a way to go back in time?
The first thoughts I had while watching End Game was, "That would presume that time actually exists." As I shared with you in the past, Bob Berman from Slooh and Astronomy Magazine once shared with me in an interview that the best science of the day points to time being a type of illusion, more rightly understood as an observation of change through decay.
From the Catholic intellectual tradition, St. Augustine speculated that time might not be what we perceive it to be, but might be more of an observation of change as we become the people God calls us to be. Though these are obviously two different ways of approaching the question of time, one material and the other spiritual/moral/emotional, it does beg the question, "Do we really understand time as well as we think we do?"
These reflections on time awoke every time the characters in End Game discussed how they could undo the devastation that the main villain, Thanos, brought upon the universe by killing half of all living things. The ultimate solution was to "go back in time" and find the magical stones called "infinity stones" that Thanos used to bring about such destruction, trying to keep him from possessing the stones in the first place.
As the characters tried to grasp this "Quantum Theory" about time travel, they argued about what it meant to go back in time. The cyclical argument that emerged was when you travel back in time, the past becomes our future and our previous future from that moment becomes our past. It was a bit funny when some of them were horrified that some of the classic science fiction "ethics of time travel" were shown in that moment not to be true - rules like not talking with anyone from the past, not visiting yourself in the past, and being careful to not change too much in the historical timeline. As one of the characters asserted, so much for the movie Back to the Future! (Major disclaimer: Though I am not a scientist and can't speak to the complexity of Quantum Theory, my gut tells me that I should deeply question how true End Game was to the science of Quantum Theory - I'll leave that to our professionals to comment on below.)
I do find it interesting in this year of epic science fiction movies that trying to incorporate modern scientific understandings of time and existence seem to be at the forefront of many plot lines. One only needs to look at the recent release of the Star Wars -The Rise of Skywalker teaser-trailer to see how one laugh has spawned a social media firestorm of speculation on how Emperor Palpatine will return after his death in Return of the Jedi.
The cyber theories are wide and wild from thoughts that The Rise of Skywalker might revert back to George Lucas' original idea of the Emperor creating clones that his spirit would enter, a "ghost Emperor" that has possessed the old Darth Vader helmet that Kylo Ren has in his possession, or simply a holographic message found on the destroyed remains of the old Death Star (first or second). Might there be another trip into Quantum Theory in The Rise of Skywalker where the new characters will need to go back in time to confront the Emperor in some way? Might "the Force" make it possible to transfer one's essence to another time in history, similar to how Luke transferred his younger self to the battle of Crait to dupe his nephew in The Last Jedi? As a fan of these movies from my youth, I sure hope not! Then again, I'm not the one writing the movies - just enjoying the journey these brilliant directors have taken us on!
Whether it be the Catholic liturgical calendar, the Easter Triduum, Avengers, or Star Wars, time has been a constant theme that humanity still struggles to understand. One thing I feel fairly certain of is that the advancements of science will further change our understanding of time. As the concept of time deepens, so will theological reflection on how we live our lives in chronos (the daily passing of time) and kairos (timeless moments of great significance). And as science, philosophy, and theology wrestle with time, so, too, will the modern cinema of the future seek to incorporate these understandings of time into meaningful plot lines that are both engaging to the audience and at least in the ballpark of modern scholarship. (Most of the time, it needs to be a very big ballpark!)
Something I find interesting is that, whether it be ancient Greek Theatre or End Game, there always is room for one of the most timeless themes of human history: An ultimate sacrifice to set the world aright. Welcome to the intersection I see between Easter and End Game: Regardless of how our understanding of time and reality changes, there is at the heart of the most meaningful stories of life a true narrative of giving one's self for the good of all.
This theme of a sacred sacrifice emerges throughout human history. In the Jewish tradition, we encounter grain, birds, lambs, and bulls as burnt offerings to God for the forgiveness of sin, restoring us to right relationship with God. In many ancient cultures, human sacrifice was often used as an offering the appease the gods. In End Game, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), the one character that did not lose any of his family when Thanos destroyed half of all living things, offered his life so that all who were destroyed would be restored. At the end of the movie, it was a powerful moment when Stark, having used the same method of destroying all the bad guys in the movie as Thanos used to destroy half of all living things, lay dying from the physical aftermath of using the infinity stones. Stark, knowing what would happen to him if he were to use the infinity stones, had to step out in faith that his self-sacrifice would establish peace - even though that sacrifice meant his death and separation form those he loved.
Some have argued that this timeless take of sacrifice to keep the gods happy is no different from what Jesus did on the cross on Good Friday. If Jesus were merely a human being, there would be merit for this argument. However, Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity meaning that Jesus is God. Therefore, what subverts the classic, timeless narrative of sacrifice by humans to appease the gods is that God offered God's-self as the sacrifice. In Jesus Christ, God takes our place and embraces our death, breaking the cycle of sin and offers us the opportunity for salvation. To put it in movie terms, it was the greatest "plot twist" in human history.
The ever-changing understanding of the physical world and the timeless themes that have endured the test of time have been at the heart of modern cinema, literature, and faith. It is a beautiful narrative of how two intuitive truths drive the best narratives of human history: We have a natural desire to understand how our world works that is ever changing and peace in this world comes when we give of ourselves in an act of radical selflessness in imitation of the radical, timeless gift Jesus made of himself.
Spiritual Exercise: How do you see this timeless narrative present in your life? How does the changing nature of science and the timeless themes of human experience influence you on a daily basis? Whether it be the father who begs God to allow him to take on his child's cancer, the mother who rejoices that modern science has given her daughter hope in the face of a life threatening disease, or the avid movie goer trying to find an $8, two hour experience that makes them feel as though their life is better for having watching a movie, let us embrace this tension of an evolving understanding of how our world operates and the timeless narratives of how to set that world aright spiritually.
Below is an interview with the late Catholic philosopher Rene Girad discussing "Scapegoat Theory." It is one of his greatest contributions to the intellectual tradition and at the heart of my reflection on sacrifice in this post. Enjoy!
Later this week, I will have the honor of being one of the presenters at Vision 20/20 in Davenport, Iowa. This event is three days and has as its theme "From Pentecost to Pentecost." The heart of this event is to explore the New Evangelization through the eyes of Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. When looking at the list of speakers, it becomes clear that this will be a wonderful event for the people of Davenport!
Below are some examples of presentations that will happen at 20/20: From Pentecost to Pentecost. I would have shared all the presentations, but to do so would have meant nine pages of presenters! Please pray for the success of 20/20!
As you can see in the summary notes, my presentation will be offering an image of peace between faith and science, especially with our youth. The starting point of my presentation will be a recent pastoral experience that is not only fueling this upcoming presentation, but has made me take to prayer the possibility of writing an open letter to any science teacher who will read it.
One of the youth from Saint Olaf Parish, the parish I serve as Pastor, asked if I would be willing to be interviewed for a project in her middle school science class. The project was on how Christians view evolution. The teacher asked the middle school students to write a paper on the question, "Why does Christianity reject evolution?" As part of the project, the teacher asked the students to interview someone other than their parents to get their opinion on the matter.
The school has a very good reputation, as does the education culture in Eau Claire, Wisconsin as a whole. Many of the teachers and administrators at this school are some of the most dedicated and active parishioners at St. Olaf. Therefore, I see no need to "declare war" on this school or out the teacher by creating an emotionally driven caricature of them that would undoubtedly misrepresent and dehumanize them. It is a good school, with good teachers, and I have no reason to think that this project was given in any other spirit than as a means to get the students to think about faith and science.
Sadly, as those of you who follow my writing can guess, the very premise of the assignment reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas' famous quote, "An error in the beginning is an error indeed!" Are there Christian denominations that reject evolution? Absolutely! And for those denominations, this is a valid question to be asked and explored. However, to stereotype all Christians as rejecting evolution is a misrepresentation of the diverse tapestry that is Christianity. Instead, it would have been far more fruitful for the teacher to ask:
"How do you understand evolution in light of the faith tradition you belong to? As part of your answer, interview someone from your Church/Synagogue/Temple/Mosque or place of worship who can give you an educated answer to this question. If you are not a part of a faith tradition, how do you view the question of religion and evolution?"
Why did I frame the question as I did? For one, the school I speak of is a public school. In my sixteen years of priesthood, I have seen two models emerge on how the separation of Church and state in United States is observed in public schools. One is that faith is not to be discussed in any way as part of classroom projects. The other is that faith can be mentioned, but must allow for the full expanse of faith traditions represented in the school to have a voice. My reworking of the project question obviously seeks to embrace approach two.
The second reason I re-framed the question as I did was to display the inadequacy of the original question. Some may argue from the outset that a faith question should never be asked in a science class whether it's a public or private school. I think there is foundation, at least in a narrowly focused course, for such an approach. I don't mind that faith questions are asked in a science class, but if they are, I beg any science teacher who is reading my blog post to take seriously my main point - Present a question of faith with the same level of clarity, intellectual integrity, and fidelity to the truth as you do your science lessons!
Sadly, as a priest who has been blessed with intentional ministry to middle school, high school, and university students, I see a growing trend of class projects on faith and science in education environments that are laced with false presumptions, grossly misrepresenting people of faith, and, unlike the situation I mentioned above that was presented respectfully, can be downright insulting to Christians.
At the university level, I have counseled students who have been called Monkey Haters (presuming they deny evolution from apes since they are Catholic), Flat Earthers, Woman Haters (used against those who oppose abortion on genetic grounds), and a plethora of other spiteful labels that do nothing but fuel hate. Now, I also need to share that I have counseled an equal number students (at times the same ones I referenced in the previous sentence) who have used, as Christians, derogatory, spiteful, and hateful misrepresentations of people who reject Christianity. This ministerial background leads me to two conclusions: 1. Anyone who thinks that a parish priest doesn't know what parents go through might be rushing to a false presumption; and, 2. We all need to take a deep breath, step away from the emotional fire of cultural spitefulness, and let the healing flames of the Holy Spirit assist us to embrace a sober respect and intellectual honesty for questions of faith and science.
So, what answer did I give to my middle school student? As a Catholic Priest, I shared our belief on evolution based on Scripture and Tradition.
Scripture - Genesis 2:7 ...then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Point being - The notion that humans came from preexisting matter is not contrary to Scripture.
Tradition: Papal teachings on matters of evolution have clearly displayed not only an openness to the subject, but a call to embrace the best science of the day.
Pope Pius XII: ..the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. (Humani Generis. 36)
Saint John Paul II: Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.
In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution. 4)
Pope Benedict XVI: Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such.(Question and Answer with Clergy on July 24, 2007. Response to Question 6)
Pope Francis: When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which He assured them of his continual presence, giving life to every reality. And thus Creation has been progressing for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until becoming as we know it today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives life to all beings. The beginning of the world was not a work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big Bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve. (Address to the pontifical Academy of Sciences. October 27, 2014)
Intellectual overkill for a middle school thought project? Absolutely! Speaking as a former teacher, kids know how to feel - let's teach them how to use the gray matter between their ears a little more!
There is more that I could say, but, for now, these are the initial musings I'm playing with for my presentation in Davenport. What are your thoughts? Share your reflections below. Who knows? I might just quote you in Davenport, Iowa later this week!