This week, I would like to continue a brief re-visit of some of the hidden gems of Pope Francis' most recent encyclical, Laudato Si'. Again, I am offering this as a refresh before Pope Francis introduces his newest encyclical on October 3rd. Nevertheless, since Sacred Space Astronomy has also embraced reflections on Care for Creation, it never hurts to reacquaint ourselves with core principals as to why Catholicism has elevated the care of our common home to one of the core themes of Catholic Social Teaching. In that spirit, let's get into it!
65. Without repeating the entire theology of creation, we can ask what the great biblical narratives say about the relationship of human beings with the world. In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
The reason I highlighted the words "very good" is because they are unique in the first creation account. In the previous days of creation, God looks upon what was created as "good." To modern Christians, this affirmation might slip by with little thought or perhaps evoke a nostalgic moment of remembering the children's song "It was good, good, very, very good" some of us were taught to remember this passage. However, when studying world religions, this affirmation of the goodness of creation is actually a bit counter cultural. Outside of the biblical worldview, it was far more common to see the material world in a negative light, even to the point of being evil, and something to be liberated from. Simply affirming that the created world is good would have been quite troubling to some of the ancient views of creation.
As I've shared with you in the past, one of the greatest threats to early Christianity was the Gnostic movement, which emphasized this radical detachment between humanity and the material world. The affirmation that creation is "good" points out a fundamental difference of worldview between Christianity and the Gnostics. Further, to identify the entirety of creation as "very good," or in the Hebrew "Good, Good," provides us, as Christians, with an interesting narrative: It is only when God beholds the entirety of creation that the strongest affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation is uttered.
Why is this important? An anthropocentric reading of Genesis might presume that God would save the highest praise for the human person. However, that is not the case. It is only when all of creation is beheld that the highest praise of creation is offered. Therefore, it reminds us that the biblical place for humanity is as a part of creation and not something that is removed from creation. This is very important in order to understand why an authentic reading of Genesis leads us to stewardship of creation. In order for us to protect human dignity, that dignity needs to be found through the broader context of caring for the totality of creation. To find our dignity apart from creation risks recreating the very mindset of the Gnostic worldview that seriously threatened early Christianity.
The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person, “who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons”. Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being “confers upon him or her an infinite dignity”. Those who are committed to defending human dignity can find in the Christian faith the deepest reasons for this commitment. How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.
This section addresses the logical question that arises from my first reflection on our place in creation, "If we are to see ourselves as a part of creation in contrast to apart from creation, are we as 'unique' as we think?" The answer is that, yes, we still are seen as having a unique relationship with God in contrast to the rest of creation. St. Bonaventure reflects beautifully on this distinction in his classic The Mind's Road to God. In this work, Bonaventure explains that all of creation is made in God's image. However, it is only the human person that is made in God's image and likeness. Some may argue that, in light of this distinction, that God is setting humanity apart from creation instead of being a part of creation. This is not true. It is important to remember that the uniqueness of the human person is not affirmed apart from creation, but only when it is examined and beheld as a part of creation. For a deeper dive, here's a video I put together on Bonaventure.
This will be a good place for us to stop for this week. We will pick up the second half of Pope Francis' reflection on "The Wisdom of the Biblical Accounts of Creation" next week.
For today, I want you to reflection this question: How do you see yourself in relation to creation?
Do you see yourself as a part of creation in contrast to being apart from creation? Do you see the world as fundamentally good or fundamentally bad? Do you see yourself as fundamentally good or fundamentally bad? Pray this week to find your dignity in relationship to the goodness of creation. And if you have lost that sense of dignity during this international pandemic, remember that this momentary struggle for humanity does not redefine creation and humanity in a negative light. More on that next week! In the mean time, stay safe, stay close to the Lord, and trust in these difficult times that the Lord is close to us, even when we are socially distant from each other.
It has been announced that Pope Francis will sign a new encyclical on human fraternity on October 3rd of this year. I cannot speak for other countries, but, as a United States citizen, I couldn't think of a more timely theme to reflect upon. The hyper polarized nature of the United States has become rather worrisome. The co-mingling of an international pandemic and political aspirations has placed my beloved home atop a powder keg that feels ready to explode. I hope and pray that our Holy Father will provide insight and guidance during these difficult times. And if there is anything I think would be a good fit for Sacred Space Astronomy, I'll be happy to comment on it!
As we await the words of our Pontiff, the announcement drew me back to the Pope's last encyclical, Laudato Si'. It seems like eons ago since Laudato Si' was a hot topic. Though seldom mentioned now, it's safe to say that this first papal encyclical on Care for Creation has had a significant legacy on the global front. As I reflected on in the past, Laudato Si' helped influence the Paris Climate Accord (COP21) to develop a global response to our rising ecological crisis. In regard to its impact on people's daily lives, the encyclical, sadly, has been widely ignored in my home country. Therefore, before we shift our focus to Pope Francis' new encyclical, I simply want to share some of what I think are the hidden gems of Laudato Si'. For this post, I wish to share Pope Francis' Biblical vision of the mystery of the universe.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature”, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion. (Laudato Si', 76)
Reading this paragraph reminds of studying Scripture in seminary and how the Greek word for "mystery" (mysterion) is the foundation for the latin "sacramentum" (sacrament). Therefore, to begin this section on the Mystery of the Universe with a reflection on the universe as a gift from God harkens to the sacramental worldview at the heart of viewing creation with the eyes of Christ. For more on this, feel free to explore my piece "When the Heavens and Earth Were Sacred."
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice. The universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wis 11:24). Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection. Saint Basil the Great described the Creator as “goodness without measure”, while Dante Alighieri spoke of “the love which moves the sun and the stars”. Consequently, we can ascend from created things “to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy”.
At the same time, Judaeo-Christian thought demythologized nature. While continuing to admire its grandeur and immensity, it no longer saw nature as divine. In doing so, it emphasizes all the more our human responsibility for nature. This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of the freedom and responsibility of human beings who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect it and develop its potential. If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power. (Laudato Si' 77-78)
In short, it comes down to relationship. How do we relate with God? How do we relate with our neighbor? How do we relate with the created world around us? Simple questions with potentially explosive and life changing answers. At the same time, in order to answer these questions properly, we need to understand the essence of each relationship. God is my source and summit. If l reduce God to a mere abstraction, a theoretical "it," then I cannot grow in proper relationship with God. If I fail to see my neighbor as an essential expression of God's love and mercy in the world, I cannot develop a healthy relationship with that person. And if I lose the sense of creation as gift and the insight that I am part of that creation, I risk reducing creation to mere material I can use for selfish motivations with no concern of its impact on the world around me and my neighbor. Again, it all comes down to relationship!
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation. This leads us to think of the whole as open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops. Faith allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding. We are free to apply our intelligence towards things evolving positively, or towards adding new ills, new causes of suffering and real setbacks. This is what makes for the excitement and drama of human history, in which freedom, growth, salvation and love can blossom, or lead towards decadence and mutual destruction. The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time “she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction”. (Laudato Si' 79)
All I can say of this is welcome to our current situation!
Yet God, who wishes to work with us and who counts on our cooperation, can also bring good out of the evil we have done. “The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, including the most complex and inscrutable”. Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator. God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs. His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation”. The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship”.
Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object. (Laudato Si', 80-81)
These paragraphs speak to me of the theological buzz word these days that is used among theologians who reflect upon St. John Paul II Theology of the Body: Objectification. Often times, the focus of the word objectification in the theological context is to not turn a person into a mere sexual object. However, the broader context of objectification not only speaks to human sexuality, but reminds us that whenever we reduce something or someone to a "thing" and lose the sense of something as being a gift from God, we have objectified the person or thing. Can we objectify our common home? Absolutely! Some of my favorite ecological writings come from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he writes about a "forward looking solidarity" in which we need to make environmental decisions that not only benefit the human person now, but to allow creation to support future generations as well. If we objectify creation into a thing to possess and control, we can lose this forward looking solidarity, creating a future crisis for humanity by our lack of action today. For more about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's vision, I invite you to read my post titled, Problems at the Poles.
Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:25-26).
The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things.
Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator. (Laudato Si' 82-83)
This final section on the mystery of the universe reawakens an old question: Is there a purpose, direction, and end to life? Even if I were not a priest, I would be equally shocked at how many people question whether or not life has a purpose or ultimate end. Does not evolution point to a direction of self-preservation as adaptations help species survive into the future? What about Victor Frankl's insight in his classic work, Man's Search for Meaning, that while being detained in a Nazi concentration camp he observed a common trait of survivors of the horror of the holocaust was not losing a sense of hope and purpose? Can I empathize with someone who went through these horrors that now questions God's existence and wonder where God was during the insanity of the concentration camps? Absolutely. I have no idea how such an experience would impact me personally and spiritually. Still, there is so much in our world, both inside of faith and outside of faith, that points to a destination for life's journey that it is hard for me to wrap my head around seeing life without a direction or teleology. Perhaps your comments below can continue the discussion and help me understand better!
In the weeks to come, I will continue these snippets from Laudato Si' to explore Pope Francis' spiritual vision. Until then, stay safe, practice care for creation, and pray for peace in our troubled world.
The readiness is all. This famous quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet can be spun in many ways. Ironically, the times I've heard this quote used most, directly and indirectly, is in the context of sports. Having worked in education environments as a major part of my ministry, I often hear student athletes share with me the importance of off season programs and how games are not won or lost on the field of play, but in the weight room, the video room, and the daily 5 mile run.
A good friend of mine, Kendra Pagel, is a wonderful school counselor and a successful women's volleyball coach I had the honor to work with while I was chaplain at Regis High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In 2013, she coached the Regis Ramblers volleyball team to a Division 3 State Championship in the state of Wisconsin. When I left Regis, Kendra always invited me to her volleyball games when Regis was playing a match close to my new assignment. One time, while sitting behind the team bench, I listened to how Kendra coached her team. There was a point during the match I could feel the team was losing focus and Kendra, predictably, called a timeout. I was curious what she was going to say to her student athletes. I was stunned when all she said was, "Settle down.... figure it out... figure it out... okay?... let's go!" The team then went on to win the match. I was a bit stunned. I was waiting for the dry-erase board to come out with quick sketches of formations trying to "coach them up."
Kendra and I went out to dinner shortly after that game and when I mentioned what I observed I asked her, "Why was your simple encouragement so effective?" Kendra explained that the players already knew what they were doing wrong because they knew the game plan through and through from practice. All Kendra was doing was calming them down to help them remember the game plan. "Father, if I have to coach them during the game, it isn't the players who fail, but I who failed because I didn't give them the tools they needed to win during practice." The readiness is all! I was happy to hear upon my return to Eau Claire that Kendra was hired to the high school in my parish boundaries, allowing me to cheer for my friend again!
I was reminded of this story while watching the latest updates on the OSIRIS-REx mission. As you know, I've been following this mission ever since we visited the mission center at the University of Arizona as part of the first Faith and Astronomy Workshop. It has been exciting to watch the slow process on this ground breaking... or should I say "dust sucking" event! At the same time, I would also empathize with those who feel "Come on already, drop the asteroid vacuum cleaner, suck up the dust and come home.... What's taking so long?!" The simple answer: The readiness is all! Similar to my friend Kendra, NASA is taking the approach that if the mission fails, it wont be because of a lack of readiness. When NASA released the below video equating the OSIRIS-REx mission to preparation for a professional basketball season, the connection of Shakespeare's oft used quote came to mind. To put it another way, perfect practice makes for the best possible outcome for a game... and space missions!
(To read my previous posts on ISIRIS-REx, you can follow the hyper links to these articles: (Infancy and Urgency: What Can We Learn From ISIRIS-REx and God, Goddard, and Asteroid Dust: An Update On OSIRIS-REx and the Parker Solar Probe. Also check out these wonderful pieces by Bob Trembly, OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission Arrives at Bennu, Dr. Brenda Frye's piece, The Symphony Recored OSIRIS-REx, and Br. Guy's piece, Relics of Space to name a few. Just type OSIRIS-REx in our search engine for even more! )
A brief video explaining how the OSIRIS-REx mission team is preparing for the extraction of dust from the surfaced of asteroid Bennu
A brief video of NASA practicing their "touch and go" mission on Bennu. The mission equivalent of shooting free throws!
The quote, The readiness is all, not only is applicable to sports and NASA missions. In many ways, this timeless quote is deeply embedded in the practice of authentic faith. As I shared with my students and now share with my parishioners, Christian faith in not an "all-nighter" reality. We don't see faith as something we do in brief moments, but is a slow, daily process of taking what we have learned and then put that knowledge into practice. This is why Catholics so emphasize daily prayer, reception of the Sacraments, and a commitment to weekly attendance of Mass. In many ways, prayer, study, and the Sacraments are our version of "shooting free throws," preparing our hearts to live our faith in the world around us.
Similar to my friend Kendra wanting to instill in her players the tools they need to be successful on the court, so, too, we can infer that if we don't commit to the formation needed to live our faith, our ability to make the right decisions in the "game" of life will be limited. Instead, we need to be intimately aware of God's love and presence, allowing our hearts to be formed to understand what that relationship means for how we live our lives. Yes, we need to have people walk with us in faith to help us refocus and "figure it out" when we forget the "game plan." Yet, much of our ability to be faithful is found not in the fire of the world's moments in front of us, but in the calm waters of when we are alone or in community, placing ourselves in God's presence. Whether it be Kendra's volleyball team, OSIRIS-REx's mission objectives, or living authentic faith, The readiness IS all!
Spiritual Exercise: What is the "readiness" you know you need to do today to live your life of faith? Have you prayed today? Have you taken some time for sacred reading? Take these questions to prayer and let us be inspired by athletics and scientists to embrace one of the most fundamental lessons of living a good life - Ready your heart for the Lord through a daily commitment to the "practice" of your faith!
Here's a wonderful interview conducted by Michelle Thaller going over the basics of the OSIRIS-REx Mission.
When Pope Francis put forward two new Works of Mercy that pertain to Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation, the response was underwhelming. I wish the reason was because people realized these Works of Mercy have already been a long part of our spiritual tradition. Whether it be Maximus the Confessor's understand of Cosmic Liturgy, St. Bonaventure's classic the Mind's Journey to God, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's theology of Human Ecology, or Pope Francis' expansion of his predecessor's work into Integral Ecology, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of expounding upon the Biblical theme of Care for and Contemplation of Creation.
In regard to Contemplation of Creation, I think it's important for us to remember that the first call to practice this spiritual Work of Mercy was presented when God makes a sacred promise with Abram (soon to be Abraham) in the book of Genesis. How beautiful for a blog dedicated to faith and astronomy that one of the first symbols of God's promise to humanity is the night sky. All of these examples from Scripture and Tradition must be why Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation is taken so for granted... right? Well...
Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a servant of my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: No, that one will not be your heir; your own offspring will be your heir. He took him outside and said: Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be. Abram put his faith in the LORD, who attributed it to him as an act of righteousness. (Genesis 15:3-6)
Not only has Catholicism had a "Green Theology" but, in many ways, the strongest Christian voice of ecology comes from the Orthodox. If Pope Benedict XVI was the "Green Pope," then Patriarch Bartholomew is the "Green Patriarch." His practical, hands on trips with faith leaders, scientists, and theologians as part of the Religion, Science, and Environment Symposia was one of the most creative, forward thinking approach to Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation I have come across in my years a priest. Sadly, it is also one of the most under appreciated and forgotten efforts to address environmental concerns from a Christian perspective. Why did we not study these symposia in seminary? Why did I not see any reference to these symposia in the curriculum for Catholic Social Teaching when I taught Care for Creation at Regis High School? And why has its legacy among other Christians been so muted? Here are a series of links to articles I put together on the symposia.
One of the great contributions of these Symposia in regard to Care for and Contemplation of Creation is not only providing intellectual reflection on our environment, but to bring scientists and theologians out to these locations to experience them first hand. I think this twofold process of intellectual reflection and practical experience of creation points to one of the main reasons Care for Creation has been received in an underwhelming manor: In order to appreciate a healthy environment, one must experience both a healthy environment and a degraded environment.
For example, a true blessing of my priesthood has been to lead mission trips to our Diocesan Orphanage in Lurin, Peru, Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II. Of the many eye opening experiences youth and adults I've taken on these mission trips have had, one of the first pungent experiences of a less than ideal environment occurs when we cross the bridge that leads to the orphanage's front gate. The "stream" we cross quickly greets the noses of our mission group with the reality that it is basically an open sewer that is a dump point for everything from human feces to dead animals.
In subsequent trips, it is clear the city of Lurin is making efforts to address this issue, but that rude greeting often would lead members of our group to instinctually comment, "How can this be allowed?" Good question not only for the city of Lurin, but for all of us, regardless of where we live, wondering why we allow our environment to suffer so much when we instinctually understand environmental injustice when it stares us in the face... or our nose!
Another reason I fear that calls to Care for Creation specifically are met with an attitude of apathy is because of how it challenges our lifestyle. For example, one of the big stumbling blocks I see in the United States when it comes to Care for Creation is the cultural debate on fossil fuels.
The argument ultimately becomes about production and consumption: Given the growing population of our country we will need more energy to provide for the needs of people in the future.
The debate then begins by asking, "Do we approach this problem by producing more fossil fuels or by developing green energy sources?" Absent from this debate is a mentality of simplicity and conservation. The irony for me is that when I talk with people and get them out of their political mindset, most people will acknowledge that we as a people are too depend upon fossil fuels and need to develop new energy sources. However, the bigger challenge is to develop a mentality where we use less, save more, and refine what we already have. Consumption has become an addiction and our addiction culture is refusing to detach from this dysfunctional mindset.
In regard to Contemplation of Creation, there is an understandable fear that calls to contemplate creation will slip into nature worship. Christianity, after all, has defined Pantheism (a belief that the world and God are one and the same) as a heresy. Wouldn't the Contemplation of Creation do precisely what the faithful have defined as a fundamental error? The answer is that there is a clear difference between seeing creation as God vs. seeing God's "finger prints" in creation. A great role model for us on how to make this distinction is Jesus himself. When we look at the parables, Jesus is practicing the Contemplation of Creation all the time throughout Scripture.
“Hear then the parable of the sower. The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy. But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit. But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”
He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” (Matthew 13:18-33)
There are more examples I could give, but they would all come to the same conclusion: Jesus teaches us, time and time again, that if you want to understand the Kingdom of God, practice the Contemplation of Creation. Do we think of the parables in this way? To be honest, I think we already do. Sadly, I think our culture of suspicion and distrust toward things pertaining to both caring for our common home and praying in a way that engages creation has created an acidic spirituality of unhealthy detachment from the natural world. We need to rediscover the beauty of this relationship that has been a part of our heritage from Genesis.
Let us remember, one of the first threats to the early Church was the Gnostic movement. And what was the mentality of the Gnostics in relation of creation? The material world was corrupt, evil, and an illusion with the goal of the spiritual life being to liberate yourself from the material world and ascend to The One. Let us not implicitly recreate one of the most fundamental errors in the history of Christian thought by rejecting Care for Creation and Contemplation of Creation. Let us see these Works of Mercy as an antidote for struggles we face when it comes to understanding our relationship with each other and our common home.
Spiritual Exercise: How can you practice the Works of Mercy of Caring for Creation and Contemplating Creation today? How can you deepen your understanding of these Works of Mercy? Both of them require us to get out and engage creation, both in its pristine form and in its denigrated state. Whether you perform a Corporal Work of Mercy with your hands, a Spiritual Work of Mercy with your mind and heart, or both, do them for the Lord as an expression of your love of God. Let us be good stewards of God's creation. And may that creation both provide us with our daily bread and lead us to long to embrace God's Kingdom now and in the New Creation of the Resurrection.
I wish to conclude this posts with Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew's joint statement on the World Day of Prayer for Creation. May we embrace these words as challenge to embrace our responsibility for caring for our common home.
The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (2:5). The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.
However, “in the meantime”, the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.
The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.
Therefore, united by the same concern for God’s creation and acknowledging the earth as a shared good, we fervently invite all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1 September. On this occasion, we wish to offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and to pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labour in vain if the Lord is not by our side (cf. Ps 126-127), if prayer is not at the centre of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. The goal of our promise is to be courageous in embracing greater simplicity and solidarity in our lives.
We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.
It's embarrassing for me to admit, but I didn't know what the Templeton Foundation was before Br. Guy invited me to write for Sacred Space Astronomy. Since then, not only have I been thankful the Foundation offered the Vatican Observatory a grant to help make this blog possible, but exploring the mission of the Foundation and learning about those who have received the prestigious Templeton Prize has helped me grow as a priest, a theologian, and a person. Here is a brief video explaining the mission of the Templeton Foundation.
Recently, a good friend sent me a link from Word of Fire Ministries announcing they have received a major grant from the Templeton Foundation to create programs in faith and science. Of the many wonderful reasons for me to follow Word on Fire's work in this area, the ultimate reason is rather personal: Bishop Robert Barron was one of my professors when I was in seminary. Bishop Barron, then Fr. Barron when I was in seminary, was always regarded as one of the most engaging professors amid a stacked academic faculty. Looking back, I am humbled to have been taught by intellects of the highest caliber such as Bishop Barron, the late Fr. Edward T. Oakes, Dr. David Fagerberg, Dr. C. Colt Anderson, Sr. Sara Butler, Deacon Owen Cummings, and many more. Combine this with the pride I feel for friends who are doing great things in the Church, such as Fr. John Kartje (aka "astro-priest") who also received a Templeton Grant to help develop Science courses for seminaries, and it becomes obvious that I have little to complain about and much to give thanks for in my life.
These amazing women and men have helped me become the man and priest I am today. In that spirit, I wanted to thank all the mentioned people along with those unnamed that have helped shape my life. And thank you to Br. Guy and the Templeton Foundation for making the gift of writing for Sacred Space Astronomy possible!
Some of you may think, "So, do you have an inside scoop as to what Word on Fire is going to produce?" Nope, not a clue. The last time I had a long conversation with Bishop Barron was a few years back when I flew to California to make some videos for the Vatican Observatory Foundation as part of Sacred Space Astronomy's grant from the Templeton Foundation. I am, however, very excited to see the summary of projects coming in faith and science that Word on Fire is going to produce. Here is an excerpt from their press release.
First, the Word on Fire Institute will offer a series of video courses from prestigious physicists, astrophysicists, biologists, and theologians to establish a Faith/Science educational track for the 15,000 members of the Institute. The courses will be supplemented by a highly publicized digital summit.
Second, the Institute will host a formal colloquium featuring top scientists, theologians, philosophers, and popular-culture influencers to discuss various aspects of faith and science. This colloquium will draw thousands of attendees and feature live-streamed keynote addresses and breakout sessions.
Finally, Word on Fire will create a series of original videos to highlight and address the most common misconceptions about the incompatibility of faith and science. These will be freely accessed and publicly shared. (Click here for the full press release)
In light of this, I would like to congratulate Bishop Barron and the Word of Fire Institute for receiving this grant from the Templeton Foundation. I can't wait to see and share what will come from this blessing!
As a review, here are some pieces I have written in the past in regard to the Templeton Foundation, resources from other groups that the Foundation has supported, and some past Templeton Prize winners. Enjoy and happy Monday!
Rabbi Sacks - Embracing the need for faith and science: How not to read the story of the “Doubting Thomas” (This link contains a MUST SEE documentary of Rabbi Sacks that includes a fascinating interview with Richard Dawkins)
Some outlines I put togethers with resources from the AAAS and Fr. Kartje
In past posts, I shared with you the wonderful work the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has done to bring science into seminaries of all denominations. Last year, I had the honor of speaking at an AAAS sponsored program at Sacred Heart Seminary in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. Currently, as a pastor who needs to make important and stressful decisions in regard to whether or not we should have in-class religious education/formation or home-based education and formation during this pandemic, I have come to appreciate the work of the AAAS even more!
Today's post is not going to be a commentary on pieces by the AAAS, but simply a sharing of their resources for the readers of Sacred Space Astronomy. At this important time in our global history, may we walk with each other as one human community, despite our individual differences, to choose the best possible good for humanity. And let us pray that God will give us a super abundance of wisdom, understanding, the ability to seek out good counsel, grow in knowledge of the dangers we face, and find the fortitude to walk the best path for the common good.
AAAS Covid-19 Resources: https://www.aaas.org/covid-19-resources-researchers
AAAS Collection of Professional Articles on Covid-19 from Science: https://www.sciencemag.org/collections/coronavirus?intcmp=sci_cov&_ga=2.120772360.1699174149.1597062060-108354240.1597062060
The impact of Covid-19 on inflammation issues in the elderly: https://www.aaas.org/news/age-related-inflammation-may-worsen-covid-19-outcomes-older-individuals
Risks to Pregnant Women from Covid-19: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/why-pregnant-women-face-special-risks-covid-19
The rising concern about brain and heart issues from Covid-19: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/07/brain-fog-heart-damage-covid-19-s-lingering-problems-alarm-scientists
Mental Health and Covid-19: https://www.aaas.org/news/sciline-briefing-explores-mental-health-social-isolation-and-covid-19
Covid-19 testing in relation to schools and businesses: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/radical-shift-testing-strategy-needed-reopen-schools-and-businesses-researchers-say
Other Resources for the best science on Covid-19
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/
World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus#tab=tab_1
American Society for Microbiology: https://asm.org/Press-Releases/2020/COVID-19-Resources?et_rid=644027183&et_cid=3250646
Association of Science and Technology Centers: https://www.astc.org/coronavirus/
Have a safe and healthy Monday!
One of the challenges of writing for Sacred Space Astronomy is we write for an international audience. Yes, when looking at our little readership globe, the majority of hits do come from the United States. However, Br. Guy emphasizes that we are writing to a global audience and to keep this fact in mind when posting. This creates some challenges, especially when I write of my life in Wisconsin, but, sadly, Covid-19 has made writing with a global mindset a bit easier.
We, as a global community, are going through this pandemic together. Covid-19 has created much frustration and pain for many regardless of race, gender, country of origin, and/or state of life. Obviously, I would prefer that an historic moment of global unification would come through something positive. Still, this is our reality, this is our present, and this is our immediate future. This reality begs the question: What are we going to do about it?
In my home state of Wisconsin, our Governor has ordered a mandatory mask order. I support the order and sadly see it as a necessary means to try and stop the rapid increase of Covid-19 cases in my home state. In the United States, a pandemic that should be the most apolitical topic of society has sadly become nothing but politics. The political rifts on the subject of Covid-19 has made civil discussion of this pandemic impossible at times. This communication breakdown causes two huge problems. First, how does one communicate essential health information in a cultural whirlwind of distrust? Second, how do we explore healthy outlets needed as a member of the human race to help take the edge off of the stress and pressure we all feel?
For the best information on the science of Covid-19, we need to look to groups like the World Health Organization. Regardless of which country you live in, the basic recommendations for all people are the same: Social distance, soap wash/sanitize your hands, and wear masks when social distancing becomes compromised. This, however, creates a tension with the fact we are wired to be a social species. Therefore, one of the core attributes of the human race now contributes to the contracting and passing on of this virus. This begs the question: What should we do to maintain both our physical health and our emotional health while being socially distant?
At the heart of this balance will always be rest, exercise, spirituality, and acts of recreation or "re-creation." Personally, I tend to be an introvert so, by nature, I gravitate toward doing things to re-create on on my own. As you have seen in the past weeks, astrophotography has become central to my "staying sane" plan during this pandemic. However, I've also found that photography in general has been a great way for me to get out of the house, but still maintain social distancing, simply looking for interesting subjects to photograph in the world around me.
This process of looking for inspiration for photography has also fed my desire to practice contemplation of creation. At this time of year, sunflowers are on full display in Wisconsin. Their stunning beauty and ability to transform a landscape visually are unparalleled. These past few days, I have been exploring different fields of sunflowers to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I find it fascinating that sunflowers have such a universal appeal. Wherever I go, there are at least four or five cars parked alongside the road of these fields. Some people are there to take professional portraits while others, like me, just find them beautiful. Here are some of the images I've captured of local sunflower fields.
For residents of western Wisconsin, sunflowers have taken on a unique, local symbol. If you were driving with someone from Eau Claire, Wisconsin and saw a field of sunflowers, it wouldn't surprise of me if you would immediately hear, "Are those sunflowers from Seeds of Hope?" One of the more successful charitable movements locally has been the selling of sunflower seeds to support researchers, hospitals, and families who deal with and are touched by cancer. It started when a family lost their loving mother who also loved sunflowers. Now, the tragedy of her death has become a thriving family business and charity to the point that sunflowers have become a symbol for support of cancer victims and their families.
For those of you who read Sacred Space Astronomy, a sunflower might evoke the powerful image of the sunflower galaxy. Obviously, the stately flower inspired scientists when naming the galaxy. It is a powerful reminder that in this world of wonders, there are some that stand out among others in a way that can become a powerful symbol both locally and universally. Add this to Pope Francis' call in Laudato Si' to practice the contemplation of creation and we find a powerful backdrop of something profoundly positive amid the stress we all live with during this national pandemic.
Spiritual Exercise: What are the healthy outlets you have discovered to emotionally and spiritually get away from the stress of Covid-19? Leave your socially distant stress relievers below in the comments. Together, let us ask God to walk with us in these difficult times and give us the daily manna we need to be fed in this desert of wandering due to the Coronavirus.
This discourse... might have happened.
Frustrated first-time stargazer: "Fr. James, where's this comet you're talking about?"
Me: It's right below the bowl of the Big Dipper. Take your hand and place it over the bowl of the Big Dipper. Turn your palm toward you and move your hand straight down to the horizon. Put the pinky side of your palm on the horizon and then look above your thumb for a fuzzy dot with a tail."
Frustrated first-time stargazer: "I don't see it. Are you sure there's a comet out there Father?"
Me: Yes, it's there. Look for a fuzzy dot with a fuzzy streaming tail going up."
Frustrated first-time stargazer: "You mean that little thing? Right there? That's the once in a lifetime comet you're talking about?"
Me: "Yes! Congratulations! You found it!"
Frustrated first-time stargazer: "Cool... but it doesn't look like your pictures. Are you sure you took those pictures? You Photoshopped a fake comet in didn't you?"
Me... feeling a little frustrated: "Yes, I took the picture and no it's not Photoshopped. I don't even own Photoshop."
Frustrated first-time stargazer: "Are you sure?"
Me.. trying not to slap my forehead with the palm of my hand: "Yes... Yes I am sure I took the picture."
Frustrated first-time stargazer: "I think there's something wrong with your camera."
Me... right after fighting back the temptation to go full camera nerd on the person: "Yes, you're right. There's probably something wrong with my camera."
Did I slightly embellish this story? Yes, yes I did. In part, I constructed this hypothetical conversation to give you a little laugh. However, there are true elements in these exchanges that reflect conversations I've had with people trying to see comet Neowise. As I have tried to help people see this now fleeting comet, most of their reactions go back to the same question: Why don't we see the comet the way we can in pictures?
There are a lot of ways into answering this question, but the basic answer is that the gift of technology has given us the ability to see our world and our universe differently. For example, the image below was taken at a parishioner's home. They live a little ways outside of the city I live in and gave me permission to set up my gear in their backyard. They had been on a camping trip, incredibly tired, and decided to go bed, not joining me while imaging Neowise. Here is one of the images I captured.
When I shared this image with them the next day, they were stunned. "Wow, we should have stayed up! The sky looks like it was amazing last night!" And, truth be told, it was! However, it didn't really look like this. What I mean is, yes, the clouds were there, but they actually looked more gray and rusty versus the "fireball" in the sky you see. Yes, I "doctored" the image. I didn't put anything fake into the image, but simply took the information that was there and emphasized certain colors and de-emphasized others. The comet somewhat looked like it does in the image, but fainter and the tail wasn't as prominent. I pray this doesn't sound arrogant, but I think they enjoyed my picture more after a good night of sleep than if they had stayed up to see the real thing. To come at this from a different perspective, I edited this image with the thought, "What would look nice framed and on the wall in their home?" Since that was my approach, does the way I edited this image make it a "fake" image? Well, no, because its really the image I took and I didn't add anything to it that wasn't captured that evening. I just adjusted the ordinary colors to make them look more extraordinary.
Here's another example. I knew this past Friday was the last night I would be able to image comet Neowise. Since the comet has become very faint, I drove up north of Winter, Wisconsin to one of the darker skies in the state. Two friends of mine run a camp in northern Wisconsin (currently closed due to Covid-19) and were happy to have me come up to do some photography. It was a tricky night for weather. We had relatively high humidity with low, fast moving clouds. Every time there was a break in the clouds, I starting imaging comet Neowise. Now, when I started editing the comet, I was noticing some odd color artifacting. To try to deal with the artifacting, I cropped the image to do away with all the odd colors. The image on the right is what I ended up with. It's 9, one minute captures stacked.
After getting some "oohs" and "ahs" on social media, a good friend of mine asked, "Father, did you see the Northern Lights last night?" Northern Lights? I didn't know they were out. Between the clouds and the comet, I wasn't paying much attention to the rest of the sky. I went back to the original image with all the weird "artifacting" and reedited it to try and emphasize the colors of Northern Lights instead of a comet. This is what I ended up with.
Did I capture the faint presence of Northern Lights? My friend and I can't be sure, but we are sure this is a far more interesting image than my first edit. What do you think? Post your comments below! ( Just so you know before you post a comment, the dark splotch on the bottom is a cloud bank - Remember this represents about 10 minutes of exposure time.)
One of the things I so enjoy about star photography is that there's an odd intersection between what you think you're trying to capture, what you think you see captured when you look through the view finder of your camera, and what you actually captured when you blow it up to 1 to 1 size on your computer. Often times, it's the unexpected aspects of an image that become far more interesting and satisfying than the image you thought you were capturing.
It might be an unfair leap to make, but I wonder if the joy I felt imaging comet Neowise and some potential Northern Lights is a similar experience to what NASA and ESA imagers experience when they observe images of never before seen comets, the Sun, Asteroids, Dwarf Planets, Planets, and Moons other than our own? There's obviously a presumption of what will be seen before a prob with a camera is sent out into space. However, the joy they must feel when they see the image of a celestial body they have prepped years to image must be immense. Did they see what they thought they would see? My guess is that the answer is both yes and no. The images probably contain elements they anticipated along with beautiful surprises that surpass their presumptions.
As I shared with you in the past, a good friend of mine, Jason Bunn, was on the team that helped put together the navigation software for the New Horizon's prob that imaged Pluto and other objects it now passes. I thought of Jason a lot when I saw the NASA press conference of the first images of Pluto. Did it meet scientists expectations? From what I saw on the livestream, I would say they were more than happy with what they saw. Part of my joy watching this historic moment unfold was listening to the science team say numerous times, "We didn't expect to see (fill in the blank)."
"Father James, is that what Pluto 'really' looks like?" The answer I would give to my suspicious parishioner who is new to astronomy would be, "Yes, but, similar to my comet image, I'm sure there was some editing to emphasize certain aspects of Pluto and de-emphasize others." For some, I know this answer would be less than satisfying, arguing that any alterations to the image for scientific or artistic purposes would create a "fake" image. Now, can an image be edited in such a way that it becomes so divorced from the original capture that it would cease to be a fair depiction of an object? Absolutely! At the same time, we also need to be careful not to jump to too many presumptions about an image. We always need to keep in mind the intent of the person or people editing an image. For example, the image below might be considered "fake" to some given all its wild colors. At one level, that would make sense because I think it safe to say that nobody would think this is what Pluto actually looks like. However, to a scientist studying the surface features of Pluto who understands the editors intent to add theses colors to emphasize the different surface features of Pluto, this might be one of the truest images of Pluto to help them study this stunning Dwarf Planet.
Perspective and intent, key to understanding images of the night sky and key to understanding our faith. When I began to try and understand the Bible on a deeper level, I became frustrated with Scripture commentaries. I felt like I was spending more time reading about the Bible than actually reading the Bible.
Who cares who the audience was for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
Why worry about the dating of these books?
Does it really matter to identify the different ways God is named in the book of Genesis?
What do you mean I should learn some Greek and Hebrew, didn't the translators get the English translation right?
I just want to read the Bible!
Yes, these were true sentiments from my youth. So true, in fact, that I did ignore commentaries at first and just started to read the Bible. It was wonderful at first! Just letting the words of Scripture wash over me every day was a moment of true peace and joy. However, the more I read the more problems I saw.
Why is the Gospel of John so different from the other Gospels?
Why does Jesus die on two different days when looking at the four Gospels together?
Is there a difference between Matthew's "Blessed are the poor in spirit," versus Luke's "Blessed are you poor?"
Why are there four Gospels instead of one?
Why does God have so many different titles in the book of Genesis?
Now, I could have taken the easy way out and simply answer these questions with, "There must be something wrong with the Bible." However, just as you need to understand what information a photographer or professional imaging specialist is trying to emphasis with astrophotography, so, too, do we need to understand authorship, audience, era, genre, and specific struggles an author of Sacred Scripture is trying to address. Does this make the Bible "fake" when understanding that certain aspects of Jesus' life were emphasized over others to speak truth to a particular community? Absolutely not! In fact, one of reasons I so believe that Scripture is the inspired Word of God is that even though it was written for a specific community it still has the ability to speak clearly to us today in new and fresh ways. However, if we don't take the time to understand the "author's edits" of these beautiful images of Jesus we call the Gospels, we risk a thin understanding of Christ that can become a false image of our Lord.
"Fr. James, doesn't this turn the Bible into a subjective text of people's opinions?" No, it doesn't. As I've shared with you in the past, one of the reasons I so love astronomy is that you always start with an objective source - the night sky. There are very different interpretations of that night sky, but we always go back to the source. Over time, certain interpretations of the sky have proven to be more accurate than others. This has created a body of science that needs to be understood to get an accurate understanding of our universal home before one becomes a professional astronomer. With Scripture, we always go back to a common source - The person of Jesus Christ. There have been a number of interpretations of that objective source, but some have emerged as more accurate than others. In fact, some of those interpretations have been shown to be so accurate we have named them divinely inspired. To become a professional theologian, these inspired texts need to be clearly understood and all future "imaging" of Jesus needs to reflect these texts. If they don't we then would have a "fake" interpretation of Jesus. However, to ensure a true representation of Christ, we need to understand how and why these four Gospels stood the test of time, even in their diversity of interpretation of the person of Jesus.
Spiritual Exercise: How do you approach the night sky? How do you approach the Bible? What interpretations of both do you gravitate toward? Are they true images? Pray with and wrestle with these questions both today and for the rest of your lives. The wonders of creation and the wonders of Christ have inspired me to embrace the life that I live as a priest. May they inspire you to become the person and the people God call us to be.
Happy Monday everyone!
Last week, I gave you some tips on how to image different objects in the night sky. This week, I'm going to give you a new tip, but first will force you to look at a slide show. Now, typically when "Father" tells you there's going to be a slide show, the eyes roll and mystery meetings emerge that call people away from the event. Thankfully, I find with my parishioners and friends, these slides are worth sticking around for instead of finding a spontaneous reason to leave the room... or read another post!
I'll start with my most recent images from last night! After a week of being sleepless in Wisconsin chasing down dark skies, I was tired. I was temped to drive way north into some super dark skies, but I wanted to get some sleep. So, I drove about 30 minutes to a small town with "okay" skies and captured these images.
Why did I choose these images? I chose them for a number of reasons. First, lets compare the quality. The very first image is a "stack" meaning that I took four images that were 2 minute exposures and used software to combine them. The idea is that stacking images gives you "more data" to play with when editing the image. The rest of the images are single exposures, ranging from 60 seconds to four minutes. Can you tell which is which?
Now, if I were to have you look at the original RAW images out of camera and zoom in at a pixel level, yes, you would clearly be able to see the differences from each image. However, how many people really look at images that way? If I were doing professional research on this comet, then, yes, I would want all the information I could get. For these images, I had two goals: One, relax after a busy weekend of Confirmations and First Communions and, two, see if I could capture the comet's contail. In short, mission accomplished! My point is don't feel pressured into doing really complex captures, simply because you saw an astro-photographer on YouTube say that this is how you get best results. You can get very nice shots with very simple tools without stacking images.
I also chose these images to expand my camera tips from last week by introducing you to star tracking. Star tracking is a great and easy way to improve your star photography. A star tracker is a tool that fits between your tripod and your camera and, once aligned to Polaris (North Star), it gives you dependable tracking of objects in the night sky. In order for me to pull out the contrails with the gear I have, I knew I needed exposures of about 60 seconds to 4 minutes. This would be impossible with just a camera and a tripod unless I took multiple images at about 20 seconds and stacked them all on my computer. Both approaches work, but, sometimes, its nice to just open up your camera shutter, let the camera do the work, and take a few minutes to just gaze into the night sky. It also helps give you time to enjoy the entire sky and not just the one object you're imaging.
The tracker I use for my camera is an Omegon Mini tracker LX2. The reason I prefer this tracker is, one, no batteries are required. The Omegon tracker is a "Swiss watch" design that winds like a pocket watch. It's gentle ticks let you know its working and tracks for up to an hour. However, I've found that, depending on how precise the alignment is, I usually can get good tracking for up to four minutes. The downside is that the payload is only about 4 to 6 pounds (error on the side of four pounds if you get this). Therefore, if you want to get a tracker for your small telescope, you'll need something more substantial and expensive. However, if what you are looking for is a tracking setup up for your camera and a small lens, I would highly recommend this type of tracker. A number of companies make these dial trackers, so don't feel like you have to buy an Omegon simply because that's what I use. We don't promote companies on this blog. It just happens this is the tracker I own, use, and. most importantly, love to use!
These next images are ones I took from my favorite place to do night photography in the city of Eau Claire: The Pablo Performing Arts Center.
I know, I know, some of you are screaming at the screen, "Why did you waste a night of comet imaging in a light polluted city?" Yes, I pray Eau Claire embraces dark sky practices in the future. However, my goal for these images was to present the city I love with a comet that is a once in a lifetime event. Best comet shot ever? Nope, not even close. But, for me, one of these is going to get printed and put up on my wall. Why? Because this image was for me and speaks to me in ways it wont speak to others.
What is the point of this? If you get into astrophotography, don't do so in the hopes of getting published, do NASA quality imaging, or any of the other traps that are so easy to fall into. Take these images for you, first and foremost. Take them to satisfy something in you that longs to have a visual catalog of memories from you life. Now, along the way, if you decide to "up your game" and get more professional gear, that's fine if that's what brings you joy. What brings me joy? A quiet night, looking at beautiful scenery, and a picture to remember that evening in the future. Simple, simple, simple!
Lastly, here is my favorite image!
I love pictures that use water as a reflector. I found this canoe landing outside of town and knew when I found it that this was going to be one of the locations for a comet capture. 16mm lens, 25 second exposure, and, most importantly, the most peaceful sleepless night I've had all year! All I can add to this image is a simple request: Enjoy!
Have you captured comet Neowise? If not, you still have a few days to capture this beautiful celestial visitor. Between this and last week's post, you should have enough information to take some nice images. The important thing, regardless of how you image this comet, do it in a way that brings you joy. Do it for you! Do it for the Lord.
Two weeks ago, I reflected with you on the mysticism of two of my favorite authors: John Muir and Pope Francis. Since then, I've been trying to practice what I preach. Whether it be an evening walk along a lake or a late night chasing a comet, I've been attentively observing the glory of God through the Book of Nature.
So, what I have learned through this practice? Well, not much really. What is so edifying about the Book of Nature is that when I "read it" or "pray with it," the process doesn't teach me something "new," but reminds of timeless truths that have slipped from my sacred memory. Things like the importance to taking time away from work, stress, concern, and the frustration I feel with Covid-19. It reminds me of the importance of contemplative silence, attentiveness to my surroundings, and simply being instead of constantly trying to become something or do something. And it reminds me of the most powerful title given to God I encountered in seminary: Pure Simplicity. This title is a gentle reminder that God is not complex or confusing. Rather, I'm the one who complicates God by imposing my wants, desires, and agenda upon the Divine. The Book of Nature reminds me that when I am quiet, clear minded, and open, the simplicity and constancy of God's love is palpable and near. When I embrace my fallen human nature, God becomes a distant "it" that is confusing, complex, and a contradiction. It is humbling to be reminded that I am the contradiction, not God.
Spiritual Exercise: Read the Book of Nature today, whether it be by looking into the stars at night, comet Neowise in the morning (or evening come this Saturday), or gazing upon the flowers of the field. Let the simplicity of God invade and quiet your heart through the Book of Nature. Read it well and find your chapter in its sacred writ.
As an addendum, many people have been asking me camera questions these days, especially with comet Neowise presenting so beautifully. I'll do a video on this topic in the future, but for now, here are some images I took with a brief explanation of how I captured them. Hopefully this will help you take your camera out and try to capture the Book of Nature for yourself!
Summer is often called "Milky Way Season." To capture this type of image, you will need a camera that allows you to manually control three aspects of image taking: Your shutter speed (how long you expose the camera sensor to light), your lens aperture (how much light you let into the lens - you should use a lens rated at an f/2.8. 4.0 is the darkest you can get away with for good stars), and your ISO (The level of sensitivity the sensor has when process the light you capture). Again, I will make a video in the future to explain this, but this image was taken with my Fujifilm x-t2 and a Laowa 9mm lens. My camera has a "mid sized" sensor (there are three primary sensors for photography, full frame - big, aps-c - mid sized, and micro four-thirds - the smallest.. until you get to cellphones). Most people who own cameras have a "mid sized" sensor. Why is it important to know what kind of sensor your camera has? You need to know so you can figure out how much light you can let into your camera before the stars begin to trail.
Here's a mathematical equation most astrophotographers use to gather as much light as possible before they experience star trialing.
The rule of 500: You take 500 and divide it by the size of your camera lens in millimeters (Laowa 9mm lens). 500/9 = 55.5555... If I were using a full frame sensor, that means I could leave my shutter open for 55 seconds before I see star trailing. However, an aps-c sensor crops the image in comparison to a full frame sensor (which is why aps-c sensors are often called crop sensors). Therefore, I need to multiply the millimeters of my lens by a factor of 1.5. 9x1.5 = 13.5. 500/13.5 = 37.037037... This mean my camera shutter can stay open for 37 seconds before star trailing begins with this lens. Therefore, full frame cameras have a clear advantage because they can gather more light than a crop sensor camera. If you have micro four-thirds, the crop factor is x2. Now, before you run off and drop a couple thousand dollars on a full frame camera, I've come to find that, as good as modern cameras are with low light photography, I usually only open the aperture of my camera for between 15-25 seconds - well within the safety zone for either type of sensor. So, if you are trying to find a camera on a budget that works well with stars, focus more on getting a digital camera from a reputable company that has been made in the last few years that has at least an 18 megapixel to 30 megapixel sensor. Ironically, cameras with high megapixel sensors like 50mp or higher often don't perform as well with astrophotography (unless you get into medium format - Completely different beast - And very expensive). More on that in the future. To help brighten the image, I set the ISO to between 800-6400 depending on how dark the sky is and how much light pollution I'm dealing with. Again, more on that in my future video! (Some prefer the rule of 300... Same method, just insert 300 instead of 500.)
Another aspect of Milky Way photography is editing - If you want to have images like you see above, you don't get them straight out of your camera. You will need to get some type of editing software. Again, something I'll explain in my future video!
I was blown away when I saw comet Neowise for the first time. These type of comets that tail so beautifully are truly once in a life time events. The image above was take with a 150mm lens, ISO 1600, and I opened the aperture for 1.5 seconds. I then took 10 images of the comet and stacked them in a free software program called Sequator. Again I did some editing, but this comet jumped out of the sky so much, it didn't need much work!
All of this said, I have seen impressive cellphone images of this comet too! If you can mount your phone on a tripod, set the aperture to 1 second and point it at the comet. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you capture!
My last thought for today: Get out and capture the Book of Nature! A trap that's easy to fall into with photography is, ironically, the same trap I can fall into with prayer: Do I spend more time studying how to do photography or do I get out and do photography? Applying this to prayer - Do I spend more time reading about different types of prayer or do I simply pray? In short, get out, experience the Book of Nature, and after doing so, capture a chapter of that book to remind you of the moment. It wouldn't surprise me if you start to see a depth to your pictures you haven't seen before. Depth that isn't just getting better at composing an image, but depth that speaks to how God touched you and has touched me through the oft forgotten text of the Book of Nature.
Happy Monday everyone!
Two weeks ago, a small group of my friends decided to explore the writings of the famous naturalist John Muir. Though born in Scotland and known most for his writings about conserving the Yosemite, his family immigrated to Wisconsin, giving us Wisconsinites a good enough reason to explore Muir's thought. Raised in a stern (abusive by today's standards), Calvinist farm family, it's clear that Muir lived in tension between strict discipline, hard work, and a longing for the natural world. Though Muir's zeal for the redwoods in the everglades is common knowledge, his memoir reveals that every aspect of creation fascinated him. For obvious reasons, I found great joy reading Muir's recollection of Wisconsin's starry nights and northern lights.
The winter stars far surpassed those of our stormy Scotland in brightness, and we gazed and gazed as though we had never seen stars before. Oftentimes the heavens were made still more glorious by auroras, the long lance rays, called "Merry Dancers" in Scotland, streaming with startling tremulous motion to the zenith. Usually the electric auroral light is white or pale yellow, but in the third or fourth of our Wisconsin winters there was a magnificently colored aurora that was seen and admired over nearly all the continent. The whole sky was draped in gracious purple and crimson folds glorious beyond description. Father called us out into the yard in front of the house where he had a wide view, crying, "Come! Come, mother! Come, bairns! and see the glory of God. All the sky is clad in a robe of red light. Look straight up to the crown where the folds are gathered. Hush and wonder and adore, for surely this is the clothing of the Lord Himself, and perhaps He will even now appear looking down from his high heaven." This celestial show was far more glorious than anything we had ever yet beheld, and throughout that wonderful winter hardly anything else was spoken of. (John Muir: Natural Writings. Edited by William Cronon. p.99-100)
A child who was encouraged by his father to look into the night sky and see in the natural world beauty that reflected the glory of God. In many ways, I find this moment to be very telling of why John Muir resonates so deeply in my spiritual life. As I shared with you in my sabbatical reflections, one of the great gifts of exploring contemplative prayer in the desert tradition was that mysticism was not something "other-worldly," radically detaching me from the natural world. Rather, it was through being profoundly attentive to the natural world that I was able to reconnect with God. Mysticism suddenly became "not-so-otherworldly" and far more accessible than how I approached the topic before sabbatical.
Stepping away from my sabbatical experience and analyzing it theologically, the not-so-otherworldly mysticism of John Muir is actually far more consistent with a Catholic worldview that some may think. One of the earliest threats to Christianity was the gnostic movement, which approached spirituality as an escapism from the natural world, deeming the physical world as corrupt and sinful. It was through affirming the fundamental goodness of creation by early Christians that, in part, was key to refuting this heresy. This fundamental goodness also is echoed in our Sacramental life, seeing in the material substance of water, oil, bread, and wine the necessary means for God's presence to be made manifest to us. Of course, we need to avoid the pantheist over correction of falsely seeing the world as God, which contains its own set of spiritual issues. Still, I can't help but be humbled by the fact that, in my own spiritual life, I realized I was slipping into one of the most foundational errors in the Church's history: Detaching the wonder of the created world from my experience of God in prayer.
Another aspect of Muir's life that caught my attention was his inner struggle between the modernist, industrial movement of his time and an inner calling to conserve the natural treasures of our world. Though finding both of great interest, Muir chose the path of conservation. While describing his time as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Muir explained the inventions he made and how he greatly enjoyed using his love and curiosity of the sciences to build machines. Yet, what spoke most deeply to Muir was the conservation of the natural world. This tension and calling was beautifully depicted by Muir when he explained his decision to leave the University.
Although I was four years at the University, I did not take regular course of studies, but instead picked out what I thought would be most useful to me, particularly chemistry, which opened a new world, and mathematics and physics, a little Greek and Latin, botany and geology. I was far from satisfied with what I have learned, and should have stayed longer. Anyhow I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or the making of a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring, Godful beauty.
From the top of a hill on the north side of Lake Mendota I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the beautiful University grounds and buildings where I had spent so many hungry and happy and hopeful days. There with streaming eyes I bade my blessed Alma Mater farewell. But I was only leaving one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness. (Ibid. 141-142)
When reading these words, I couldn't help but think of Pope Francis' Encyclical Laudato Si'. Yes, there is much to be said about the environment and ecology in the encyclical, but at the heart of his work is the ongoing reflection Catholic Social Teaching provides us in regard to the Industrial Revolution. For example, Rerum Novarum, the encyclical penned by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is rightly heralded as one of the most forward looking documents of its time to support workers rights. What is often lost in those reflections is the main reason Leo needed to call for these rights. The run away nature of the Industrial Revolution at that time in history was creating a cultural obsession with productivity. This obsession led emerging industries to demand so much time and effort from workers that is was becoming toxic for family life and human dignity. Humanity was becoming a cog in the machine, prompting the Church to make one of its boldest refections on the relationship between people and emerging economies: The human person is not meant to serve the economy, but the economy is meant to serve the person.
Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers - that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages axe fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this - that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one's profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. "Behold, the hire of the laborers... which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth." Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen's earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes? (Rerum Novarum, Paragraph 20)
Laudato Si' becomes an extension of this insight, seeing that the runaway consumption and consumerism of our day has not only done damage to human dignity, but now threatens the stability of our natural world. The "production-lust" that has overtaken many modern societies comes with a price: The denigration of the created world around us for the purpose of financial gain. Pope Francis reflects eloquently on this subject when reflecting on what he identifies as "The technocratic paradigm."
The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy. They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. At the same time, we have “a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation”, while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth. (Laudato Si'. 32-33)
Similar to Muir, Pope Francis calls for a heart that first seeks to conserve, protecting the treasure of God's creation. This call to a more simple, basic lifestyle seems so similar to the depiction of John Muir gazing at the University of Wisconsin before his departure, seeking to resolve an inner tension: Do you I embrace the technocratic paradigm or do I embrace conservation? When seeing these clear connections between Muir and Catholic Social Teaching, it has sparked many moments of, "John Muir was Catholic in his thought and didn't realize it!" Sadly, we live in a world that seeks to embrace the technocratic paradigm blindly and without reasonable modification, rejecting not only Muir, but Pope Francis' call for a more simple lifestyle. Let us pray that all of us experience, one day, the ecological conversion of heart that grasped John Muir and Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si'.
“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”. For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. (Laudato Si'. 217)
This ecological change of heart called for by Pope Francis takes us back to the beginning of this post: Seeing in John Muir's writing An odd co-mingling of God, nature, and humanity's longing to understand both through encountering the world around us. Put more simply, life gains far more richness when we embrace the jumbled mess that is the human person, the created world around us, and God's presence shining through both.
Spiritual Exercise: Amid this pandemic in which time is in abundance (for some), what can you do to safely go out into the natural world and engage in some "not-so-otherworldly" mystical prayer? How can you find a sense of connection with our natural world that doesn't replace God, but draws us into God's love and mercy through beholding the beauty of creation? And do we need to take some time to reflect on how we've damaged our common home, denigrating the gift God has given to us? Pray with that today and, in the spirit of John Muir and Pope Francis, lose yourself in the jumbled mess that is creation and God's presence to us through this wondrous gift of our common home.
When was the last time you gave thanks to God for the blessings of your life? Amid a deeply stressful time in modern history, to take time to simply be thankful for the good things in our lives is essential. Part of my week of gratitude was to check in with some NASA missions I've had the privilege of visiting.
At the first Faith and Astronomy Workshop in 2015, our group toured the OSIRIS-REx mission headquarters at the University of Arizona. This ambitious mission to return a pristine sample of asteroid Bennu is progressing as planned! In March of this year, OSIRIS-REx imaged one of the potential "bounce sites" where the probe will attempt a "touch, vacuum, and go" maneuver, gently landing on the surface of Bennu just long enough to capture a small amount of the asteroid's surface before returning home to Earth.
If successful, the sample returned will be analyzed and compared with existing samples of Bennu that have fallen to the Earth. As pieces of "space stuff" fall through Earth's atmosphere, contamination occurs. Insights gained from the Bennu sample study will help us understand just how much contamination occurs when "space stuff" falls to Earth. Below is Bennu's image of one of the bounce sites and a video of the OSIRIS-REx mission.
Personally, this was my first time visiting an active NASA mission site. At the time (2015), OSIRIS-REx had yet to launch. Now, five years removed from this visit, its equally exciting to see the images of Bennu's surface, prepping for one of the most key moments of the mission.
Another mission I had the privilege of visiting was the Parker Solar Probe. Through a generous invitation by Sacred Space Astronomy reader Leonard Garcia, I had a hands on look at the NASA Goddard campus. The reason I was able to visit Goddard was because I was in Baltimore to offer a presentation at the American Visionary Museum. When Leonard read my post about my upcoming visit, he reached out to me and offered to provide a tour.
Leonard did a beautiful job explaining the work of NASA Goddard, sharing his joy and energy for the groundbreaking work that is done at this facility. Toward the end of the tour, Leonard walked me past a pressure chamber in use that was testing the resilience of the Parker Solar Probe. Just before leaving for Baltimore, a good friend of mine talked with me about going to see the probe's launch. Sadly, that trip never occurred, but simply being present as this probe was being prepped for launch gave me a deep feeling of connection with the mission. Below are images of Leonard and I as we toured NASA Goddard and a video from NASA, updating the probe's progress and findings.
Reviewing these updates humbles me, reminding me of the many graces God has placed in my life. Amid the reality we all face in the Covid-19 world, it is easy to loss sight of the many blessings God has given to us. Part of that frustration is the understandable fear that such experiences are impossible now and might not be possible in the future.
At the same time, just as it has taken OSIRIX-REx five years to start prepping for its intended mission objective, we are reminded that some things in life require patience and time. We long for immediacy, but Covid-19 is forcing us to think in terms of months and years instead of days and hours. Since we are not in a position that allows us to easily move in the present, perhaps we can take this time to reflect upon our past, seeing where God has most significantly impacted our lives for the better. Once gaining that sense of past gratitude, we can then look for small moments of grace in our present, preparing us to appreciate anew the graces of our future.
Reviewing the status of OSIRIS-REx and the Parker Solar Probe has helped renew my sense of wonder for our universe. It reminds me of the great lesson pursuing advanced degrees in theology has taught me: The more I learn, the more I am aware of just how little I actually know. I would encourage you to spend time reflecting upon the graces of your life. What are the blessings God has given to you that evoke great joy? How can this joy help us to face the struggles we endure today? And how can these graces also inform where we are going, asking us to look at what type of world we wish to become when we finally come out of this global pandemic?
Hang in there everyone! We're going to make it through this. Let us make sure that we make it through together with hearts full of gratitude and hope for where we have been and where we are going.