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. Since this 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.
Amid the stresses of returning from sabbatical, Covid-19, the culture of protest that is emerging in the United States, and preparing the parish I serve to reopen for Mass this past weekend, I felt a clear need in my life - Find a way to give my brain a mental break! There are many things I enjoy that allow for such a break ranging from music, art, and star gazing. This time around, however, I had the wonderful opportunity to virtually attend OPTIC 2020. OPTIC is an annual photography conference, typically held in New York City, but this year, in light of Covid-19, the conference was held virtually and was made free to the public.
The conference was impactful, exposing me to some of the most talented modern professional photographers. I was drawn into wonder by the beautiful, ethereal landscape/self portraits of Elizabeth Gadd. Her photography took my mind and heart away from the stress of the world and created a peaceful disposition of heart.
Listening to Lizzy discuss her photography, it became clear that the heart of her imaging is to tell a story of healing, capturing some of the most beautiful places in creation while also sharing her life story through landscape portraits. In short, Lizzy is looking to "frame life" in a way that is peaceful, loving, beautiful, and accepting. For examples of Lizzy Gadd's images, click here. Here is a brief video of Lizzy explaining her photography.
Another photographer that inspired me was Lisa Langell. Given my growing love of bird photography, I was hoping to simply learn how to better capture some of my favorite feathered raptors. What I received were insightful tips on editing images to be turned into large prints for someone's home. Lisa challenged us to think outside of the box, editing images that were less focused on a realistic depiction of our favorite feathered friends and encouraged us to ask, "Where will this image live?"
From that starting point, I quickly saw how Lisa is looking to "frame life" from the perspective of how images create not only a sense of style in our living rooms, but contributes to our sense of home. For examples of Lisa Langell's photography, click here. Here is a brief video of Lisa explaining how to approach editing nature photography with the walls of your home in mind.
The ethereal mysticism of Lizzy Gadd and the interior design influenced edits of Lisa Langell made me start to think - How am I to "frame life" and tell my story through images? I immediately thought of my love of astronomy and what I write for all of you. I grabbed my camera and departed for the the parking lot of St. Raymond's Church in Brackett, Wisconsin.
This parish is one of my favorite to image, first, because it provides me fairly dark skies for imaging the heavens. Second, this was my first parish assignment after a long stint of being a classroom teacher. The joys and challenges of my time at St. Raymond's returns every time I drive past this Church. And with the galactic core of the Milky Way rising right over the Church, I tried to "frame life" from the perspective of the things I love: My faith and my love of the night sky. It is nowhere near as impactful as the visual stories of Lizzy Gadd and Lisa Langell, but it is my story. A story of my need to step away from the stress of life and find peace and joy.
A third photographer that left a deep impact on me from the conference was Pete McBride. Pete focused primarily on how he strives to tell the story of what is happening to our environment. He demonstrated this by sharing images he has captured for National Geographic of damage done to our common home.
There were two images that grabbed me the most. The first was a cow that was looking for food amid a garbage heap that was on fire (click here to see the image) and the second was an image of what once was the watery delta between the Colorado River and the Gulf of California (click here to see the image). Now, this delta has become a natural etching in dry soil of a past reality that no longer exists.
These images enflamed my heart with passion to "frame life" in terms of our need to care for our common home. It's not a pleasant experience to view images of how we lay waste to creation. However, we need to revisit these visual memoirs of our past mistakes in the hopes of avoiding them in the future. Below is a brief video of Pete McBride describing his experience at an historic event that occurred in 2014 where water was released to mimic the Colorado River Delta's watery past.
The ethereal mysticism of Elizabeth Gadd, the creation of a sense of home with Lisa Langell, and the hard truth of the damage to our common home told in the images of Pete McBride. I couldn't imagine a better mix of examples of how to "frame life" that impacted me during OPTIC and inspire me to do my own framing of the world I live.
As I've shared with you in the past, I am a big fan of George Lindbeck's post-liberal, cultural linguistic approach to theology. When exploring faith traditions as different language systems, striving to express eternal truths that constantly escape the grasp of the human tongue, we discover a theological density of truth found in the differences and complexities of faith traditions in contrast to simply reducing all expressions of faith to a refined and sanitized common denominator.
When Br. Guy shared with me that "science is a language," that, too, resonated deep within me, seeing that science tells its own type of story of the physical world we live. The stories faith and science tell are quite different from one another. Both can look at the same object, say, my picture of St. Raymond's Church with the Milky Way in the background, and focus on very different aspects of the image. However, both are necessary to tell the story of the world we live. We need, in this day and age, to discover the ability to reverence the density of our differences instead of letting those differences drive wedges between us as a people, society, and world. We need to reverence the multiplicity of ways people choose to "frame life" as their authentic self, encouraging us to do the same.
As an example, let's say Lizzy Gadd, Lisa Langell, and Pete McBride got together one day at a beautiful vista for a photo shoot. They all are gazing into the same vista, but the stories they would capture with their cameras would be very different. Lizzy would look to capture the ethereal essence of the composition while connecting the image to her life experience. Lisa would ask "where will this vista live," conceptualizing what the composition will be like in someone's home. Pete McBride would look for signs of a forgotten past and potential injustice done to the vista, seeking to share the blunt truth the land tells. Same vista, three very different approaches to tell its story.
Which story is true? Which story is the best way to "frame the life" of the vista? Which story is best connected to the human experience? From a cultural linguistic standpoint, all three images are necessary. All three interpretations are essential to fully appreciate the vista. To exclude one would be to mute an essential voice in the language of existence. Therefore, it is best to let all three tell their own story in their own way, making it easier for their stories to speak to the depths of our hearts.
In short, OPTIC gave me exactly what I needed. It helped me "reframe my life" through a rare opportunity to step away from the work and stress I feel and find peace doing something I love. In a real way, OPTIC helped me to find peace of mind and heart so I can share those gifts with my parish, assisting them to understand how to frame their lives in a way that brings joy and peace into their lives.
Spiritual Exercise: How do you "frame life" these days? Is it a frame of beauty, ugliness, joy, struggle, happiness, grief, or a mix of everything? Regardless of what that answer is, let us ask God to present us with creative imagination to conceptualize a world that is far from the struggles we face. And then may we have the wisdom, knowledge, and fortitude to pursue that world and bring that concept to reality.
Two weeks have passed since my travels home and I have crossed a very important finish line - I didn't get sick! Sadly, that small accomplishment is muted in light of the many struggles and trials our world is facing. And, sadly, many of these struggles can do severe damage to our hope as a culture.
When I wrote you last, I posed the question, "What world am I walking into?" As with most reflective questions, the answer transcended what I hoped would be a simple answer. The question I should have asked is, "What 'worlds' will I be walking into?"
While driving home through New Mexico, I listened to their Governor's press conference, updating citizens on the state of Covid-19. She shared guidelines for reopening the state and provisions people should follow. With a medical expert present to clarify the science of Covid-19, the plan presented was cautious and slow. When I arrived at my hotel in Santa Fe, I read the news that the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Governor Ever's safer at home order for the Badger State with no restrictions maintained. At that moment, I sat in my hotel room stunned, trying to understand the two Covid-19 realities or "worlds" I was in: New Mexico and Wisconsin.
This "two Covid-19 worlds" approach revealed itself to be, again, rather naive. Upon returning to Wisconsin, I learned that social distancing restrictions would be determined by individual counties. At first, I feared this would create the potential of 72 radically different interpretations of what should be done in light of the science of Covid-19. Thankfully, it seems that there is a continued air of consistent caution in the state. I have yet to hear of radically different approaches to Covid-19 from county to county, but the state is starting to see increases in Covid-19 cases. Still, this time of quiet observation did awake another level of trying to understand the Covid-19 worlds: The personal.
Looking back, it should not have surprised me that, in a country that is growing increasingly distrusting of civic and religious authority, people's understanding of Covid-19 is all over the board. As a priest, it's disheartening to see both lay people and clergy who have publicly criticized our Bishop (and by extension the Bishops of at least the United States if not the world) for shutting down public Masses. Often citing religious freedom as the grounds for this criticism, absent is any sober reflections of when the Church closed public Mass in the past out of concern for the welfare of people of God.
When watching the news and trying to understand people's opposition to stay at home orders and the closing of public celebrations of Mass, I am stunned to hear comments such as, This disease only kills the weak who have pre-existing health conditions, It only kills the homeless because they don't take care of themselves, and Its only the elderly in nursing homes that are dying from Covid-19. There are more statements I could quote, but they have all led me, from the perspective of a Catholic Priest, to be concerned that many are inadvertently rejecting the Church's teaching on the dignity of the human person, calling us to protect the most vulnerable in society. When reflecting upon these concerns as a citizen, I am also concerned that we are inadvertently creating legislation that is turning natural selection into a social theory by arguing that the weak can be allowed to die for the health of the economy and the free movement of "healthy" peoples.
If these were not enough worlds to navigate, we then witnessed the tragic death of George Floyd. The commingling of legitimate anger and calls for justice, the criminal acts of arsonists and looters who simply seek to use this tragedy for personal gain, and the grinding mental stress we all feel from Covid-19 has created a cultural powder keg. Every time I listen to a commentator try to explain the origins of these social ills, I always come away thinking, "It's not that simple." When trying to wade through this in a meaningful way on a blog on faith and science, what emerges is a complicated web of questions that touch medical science, social science, and faith.
Medical Science - What do we know about Covid-19 and what does that science tell us about treating this illness?
Social Sciences - What impact is Covid-19 having upon the psyche of global citizens and how do we best maintain physical, psychological, spiritual, and societal health amid this pandemic?
More Social Sciences - In light of the death of George Floyd, what are we learning about the current state of racism and race relations in the United States and its impact on society? What needs to be done to improve these relations?
And More Social Science - What is motivating the violence we see by looters and arsonists? Are these opportunistic crimes, grief in the form of violence, or is it a culmination of many things that are sadly converging at one of the most stressful time periods in modern global history?
Faith - Where is God in all of this?
Reflecting on these questions creates stress inside of me. They also remind me of the heart of this past Sunday's first reading for the feast of Pentecost. Our reading from Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus' followers as tongues of fire. These tongues were then uttered in languages that were clear, discernible, and unifying for the people who heard them. This contrasts the story of the Tower of Babel in which the tongues spoke were not unifying, but divisive, thinking that greatness was achievable upon human strength alone.
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.” (Acts 2:1-11)The whole world had the same language and the same words. When they were migrating from the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built.Then the LORD said:
while they are one people and all have the same language,
they have started to do this,
nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach.
let us go down and there confuse their language,
so that no one will understand the speech of another.
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth,
and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel,
because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world.
From there the LORD scattered them over all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)
How does this apply to the "multiverse" of stress we are living through? We are Babel, the confused tongues of a people who are divided and struggling to understand how to move forward both individually and communally. We are in need of a Pentecost moment. We are in need of a Spirit driven, unifying voice that is not merely an ideology or a placard, but a unifying voice of peace to help us navigate this broken world.
We need inspired wisdom to help us see clearly the many worlds we live in. We need the gift to understand the medical, social, psychological, and spiritual challenges we face as a global community. We need good counsel from experts and people who live with these difficult situations to deepen that understanding and grasp the full breadth of these struggles. We need knowledge and fortitude to both know the best path forward and then have the resolve to stay the course. And we need prayer, not in a way that is bargaining, manipulative, or reduces God to a magician who can magically make all our issues go away. Rather, we need prayer that allows us to be changed to our core in a way that brings calm, peacefulness, and clarity to our thoughts and actions as we navigate this difficult time. In short, we need the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
I have heard some use the phrase "history repeats itself" in rather discouraging tones these days, pointing to the complex web of social issues we face and how best to address them. To conclude this reflection, I want to pray that history does repeat itself again, but not with a history of violence and division. Rather, I pray that history repeats itself with the sweet renewal of heart that comes with a renaissance of authentic faith. In that Spirit, to express my faith at this time of pandemic and social struggle I offer this well known prayer.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
I will never forget my first impression of the Sonoran desert, "I've never experienced anything like this!" Br. Guy, in his usual quick witted fashion retorted, "No, you haven't experienced anything like this because there is no other place in the world like this." Many times I have spoken of entering "a new world" when I travel to a foreign land for the first time. When it came to the desert of Arizona, this "new world" sentiment took on a new depth of meaning - And I loved it!
My sabbatical has been rich with "new world" experiences. The program offered by the Redemptorists is in desert spirituality in the contemplative tradition. With my head, I re-entered the world of the Desert Fathers with the guidance of Thomas Merton - A world I know rather well. In my my heart, however, I truly entered a new world of trying to live my faith less in my head and more at the core of who I am. A central theme for me to take from sabbatical is this: How does the world that is my flesh and bone connect with the world that is the Sonoran desert?
After 10 weeks, my prayer has become very physical, meaning paying close attention to both the movements of God in my prayer and the warning signs that the physical waters of my body were getting dry. Am I inserting wry humor at this point? Partially. I am also making a point of one of the greatest gifts this sabbatical has given to me - Prayer is a lot easier when you are well hydrated... or better put, my physical health is intimately and inseparably tied to my spiritual health.
This insight shouldn't be terribly shocking to the Christian. We often speak of total participation in the celebration of the Eucharist in which every aspect of who we are is brought to prayer. We speak of this odd co-mingling of two different worlds, The Earthly Liturgy and the Heavenly Liturgy, happening simultaneously. This is all well and good and should be at the tip of every Christian's worshiping tongue.
I thought I understood total participation in the liturgy before sabbatical, but when I began to pay closer attention to every fiber of my being in my personal prayer and then brought that to the liturgy, I began to see the liturgy anew. No longer was it something that I simply attended to kneel down, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!!! (A little American football humor for those who know the cheer). Rather, the idea of participation in liturgy was made new as I deepened the question I shared with you about connectedness between the world and my being in prayer, "How does the creation that I am participate in both the created world I am a part of and the re-created world slowly unfolding that is God's Kingdom?"
Again, nothing new to the old noggin on my shoulders. However, when we begin to be aware of how our bodies are connecting us to liturgy, this awareness can help us have a "new world" experience of faith. The comingling of the earthly and heavenly liturgies becomes a little less abstract and more concrete. It also gave me new appreciation for Pope Francis' writings on Integral Ecology and his reflection on St. Francis of Assisi.
I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Francis (of Assisi) helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (Laudato Si' 10-11)
New worlds. It's an interesting phrase when you think about it. I remember the first time I saw images of Io, Jupiter's little tortured moon. This floating sulfur volcano is constantly turning itself inside out. It is constantly active.
Even though I didn't literally visit this "new world," the fascination I felt studying Io for the first time made me question something I never questioned before, "What does it mean for something to be 'alive?'" Before this, I always thought of "alive" in organic terms: Plants, Animals, Humans, etc. I started to realize the "Bio-centric" bias I was imposing on the term "alive" and that my concept of life was not making room for Io. "This little moon IS alive with activity!" I remember that realization from my college self as if it were yesterday. That's one of the things I love about astronomy - It constantly pushes me to question that which I presumed was in no need of being questioned. In other words, it helps me grow!
The funny thing about finding news worlds is that they are never really new. They have always been there and hopefully will be with us through our lifetime. Whether it being my sabbatical move from head to heart in prayer or my fascination with supposedly "lifeless" worlds like Io, they always help me better understand who I am as an expression of God's love. Its a lesson that sabbatical, faith, and science teaches us: The more we can connect ourselves with the world of wonders we live in, the more we discover the wonder of who we are.
I am in the midst of packing to enter a new world. No, I am not getting a new assignment. I am happily returning to my duties as pastor of Saint Olaf Parish in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The new world I speak of is the Covid-19 world. Our sabbatical group has been discussing what should be a simple question, but is getting very complicated for some of us, "How do we get home?" I must admit, the joy I feel of returning to family, friends, and a parish I love is colored with the unknown journey ahead into a disease we still don't understand. We are in the midst of a new world. It is a world that makes us attuned to our bodies in new ways. It is a world that is constantly active and needs to be vigilantly observed. It is a world that brings us to the hard reality of life and death, survival and living. In many ways, I am going from one sabbatical journey to another. My first sabbatical was filled with beauty and self-awareness. What will this new sabbatical journey bring?
The hard answer - I don't know. However, it will be my honor to share what that journey will be with you. Stay safe. Stay calm. Be vigilant. Be at peace.
Some of you may have wondered why I haven't written on the topic of care for creation for some time. The decision was intentional, not because I have lost interest in the topic or have had a change of heart. Rather, I've been taking a step back from the topic to see how I could approach it anew. I know people appreciate my pieces on the subject of care for creation, but I could also tell they weren't gaining much traction in terms of a real change of heart. Something happened, however, that has rekindled the flame.
Last week, I was watching the evening news from a national outlet that will remain nameless. After an update on infection numbers and death, the show host said, "Coming up after the break, will Covid-19 be the new tactic for the radical, environmental left?" I was stunned at the mere insinuation that people who care about creation might be somehow rejoicing that we are living under fear. Before this well crafted tease was aired, I simply wondered why pieces I wrote for you on the environment were not gaining traction on our blog. Now I wondered if people saw me as a priest who is trying to embrace an important aspect of Catholic Social Doctrine or an eco-terrorist? Needless to say, to use an image from Scripture, I felt like the scales fell from my eyes in that moment.
In light of this bone chilling revelation, I've decided to jump back into the fray. A dear friend of mine once told me, "Father, the blessing of a crisis situation is that when we are put under pressure we discover what's inside of us." Covid-19 has put this axiom on full display, not only through the evening news tease on Covid-19 and environmental activism, but in me too. This past week, a letter was circulated to clergy from western Wisconsin wanting to make a statement against protestors who were making audacious claims about Covid-19 as some type of government conspiracy and insisting the entire state be opened immediately. Though I agreed with the spirit of the statement and detest the protests, I disagreed with the approach, fearing that anything good we could say would immediately get turned against us and simply contribute to the polemics that are ripping at our world. This would have been well and fine, but then something happened: I started to lash out against my colleagues and friends in frustration.
I took this moment to spiritual direction and began to see what pressure was revealing about my heart. In short, I've been hurting. I've lost a friend and feared losing my father. I had the bone chilling conversation with my mother, "If Dad goes to the hospital, should I even come home - I wouldn't be allowed to see him anyway." I pray this conversation never passes between my mother and I ever again, but it is a conversation that is happening daily in the lives of many around the world. I've listened to parishioners from nurses to protest empathizers as they grieve and try to find voice for their hurt. Amid this sea of emotions and bizarre life decisions, I realized I had not allowed my heart the space to grieve. I had simply been trying to survive and avoid infection. I was losing the sense of what it means to live.
Survival vs. living - A theme I referenced last week, but still a powerful place to start a piece on what Covid-19 has taught me about care for creation. The Sonora desert is a fascinating place to be living when a reflection is done on the tension between survival and living. At one level, the desert is full of vibrancy and beauty as saguaro cacti are beginning to bloom and I've been able to experience the unique beauty that is the desert spring.
At the same time, I've also seen the more stark reality of the desert, summarized in the statement from one of the Tucson locals, "Father, nothing gets wasted in the desert." What Tuck was referencing was the tendency of how when something dies, whether it be a cactus or an animal, it doesn't last long in the desert - It's "utilized" by all the creatures around it.
The transcendental beauty of a desert bloom and the common sense sentiment, "Watch your step." I think this is the perfect starting point for care for creation and Covid-19.
This past Saturday, as restrictions on visiting National Parks is starting to ease in Arizona, a fellow sabbatical participant and I decided to drive Mount Lemmon. We took all the precautions needed to make sure we were safe and agreed we'd only go where it seemed safe. I'd also be lying if I didn't admit that, since both of us are from the Midwest, after a third day in a row of a weather forecast of 103 degrees the forecast of 71 degrees atop Mount Lemmon sounded like a blessed relief.
As we began to drive the mountain, I started to feel a twinge of fear that perhaps this road trip was a mistake. Survival - There's a lot of people out here! Many places we simply drove past due to the sheer number of cars with the implicit thought, "If I don't want to talk with my Mom about my Dad's hospitalization, I want to do everything I can to avoid having them talk about mine!"
We finally found a place to get out and walk around. I then began to move from "survival brain" to "living brain." Yes, the beauty was magnificent and the mountain view made me realize once again why so many religions presumed that mountain tops were the places where deities dwelt. However, what struck me most were the people that were walking around at mile marker 14. You could tell that social distancing was being embraced by all, but they also were doing it in a way that was looking for normality and peace.
A group approached me, since I had my camera with me, and asked if I could take a picture of their group. I agreed, but then asked them if I could take their picture with my camera. This happened a couple more times on our trip and a realization started to set in: Everyone was looking for a simple, safe, and special day when the last words anyone wanted to utter were "national pandemic," but the awareness of the pandemic clearly governed everyone's actions. Put another way, the people on Mount Lemmon were not treating this situation as the polemic of, "I'm going to live and die young" versus "I'm going to disappear from the world to elongate my life." Rather, there was a clear tension in which "being healthy" has taken on a whole new dimension, but to "live life" was also being explored and tested, realizing that mere survival is only one part of life.
We survive not only to continue our species, but live and embrace something intuitive in us that speaks to our transcendent source and summit.
How does this pertain to a discussion on care for creation? It applies to the topic on many levels. Can care for creation be approached from more of a "survivalist" mentality of keeping a species alive and living in fear of anything that can harm us? Yes, it clearly can. And I think anyone who is honest with themselves has had a taste of this disposition of heart through the Covid-19 epidemic - Even those who now protest stay at home orders. However, we also know that to merely survive is not enough. Its analogous to visiting the Saguaro National Park and only looking for the "dead things" and trying to make sure you don't become one of them.
On the other end of the spectrum, the undiscerning life of "live free and die young" also stings with the error of irresponsibility and disregard for keeping one's self and others safe. It's like wondering around the Redemptorist Renewal Center with your eyes fixed on the beauty of a desert bloom while ignoring the rattle snake at your feet. Covid-19 has taught us that an aloof life is not sustainable. There needs to be a vigilance to protect one's self. It's an odd juxtaposition of symbols, isn't it? A desert bloom atop a cactus and a venomous snake - symbols of living and surviving. Do we live understanding these symbols in a polemical way as things that are against each other? Are we willing to explore a more nuanced approach that, as we reflect on what the post Covid-19 world will look like, somehow these symbols must find a symbiotic peace? The snake and the bloom as neither friend nor enemy, but essential symbols of survival and living.
Care for creation is not a part of Catholic Social Doctrine that breeds extremist ideology. For anyone who has actually read this body of literature, it becomes clear that care for creation is more about common sense. As I've shared in the past, much of care for creation can be summarized in the old Wisconsin fishing axiom, "If you pollute the lake you fish in you can't eat the fish you take out - Don't pollute the lake." However, care for creation also contains beautiful sections about being "alive," and how the forward looking solidarity that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of so frequently pulls us out of the selfishness of seeing the environment as something for me to use right now to satisfy my personal wants so I can be happy. Instead, forward looking solidarity speaks to the Integral Ecology laid out by Pope Francis of reminding us that we are part of creation and as we delight in the fruits of creation we need to ensure those fruits remain for future generations so they, too, can delight in them. Put another way, Catholic Social Doctrine on care for creation is a commentary on living in the tension between surviving and living as a community of faith. It isn't a body of work that simply tries to elongate a life through less pollution, but calls us to be alive in God's love and to care for the world around us so others can experience the love and presence of God in their lives too.
Spiritual Exercise: How have you been doing with the tension between surviving and living? Is the stress of Covid-19 "getting to you." If so, reach out to a friend, your pastor, or perhaps someone who has a bit more professional training to assist you with this crisis. This time of national pandemic is a time for us to care for the creation that is our physical health, but also our emotional and spiritual health. And just as this pandemic has taught us that to simply survive is not enough for humanity to flourish, may we also see that, as we begin to emerge from stay at home orders, we will always live in the tension between surviving and living - the snake and the bloom. In that spirit, whether it be you, your family, or the created world around you, take care of your environment today to avoid illness and survive well. At the same time, do something today that, within the boundaries of safety, can also help you feel alive spiritually - Alive with your family, friends, and the God who loves you.
It is very difficult to divorce my sabbatical experience from the looming cloud of Covid-19. Perhaps it has to do with how I'm wired when prepping homilies - If your people are thinking about it, preach about it. Perhaps its the psychological byproduct of trying to understand life in light of a national pandemic. Nevertheless, I have thought of about fifty reflections to offer you today, but none of them have made it from mind to megapixel save this one. Why, may you ask? Its hard to explain, but most of the reflections I thought of felt aloof and divorced from the reality we're dealing with as a global community, In light of this inner conflict, there is a growing intuition to repress the more idealistic part of who I am, feeling a need to give primary attention to our global pandemic.
For example, if all were normal, I would write to you about International Dark Sky Week, the importance of protecting the great natural treasure of our dark skies, and then share my star images with you. I would wax on about the need for naturalist visionaries to continue to establish "dark sky parks" along with our national parks, seeing in the stars the potential of a pristine experience of creation akin to the beautifully unique ecosystem of the Saguaro National Forest, which is my current next door neighbor. So, why don't I just write about starry skies and the need for lowering light pollution?
There's no need to further clarify the hesitation I feel to reflect on non-Covid-19 topics. The heart and thoughts of a stargazing dreamer Priest can seem misplaced and trivial in light of the attitude of survival that has gripped many. Idealism and optimism quickly wane under the weight of global financial crisis, fearing our neighbor is a potential disease carrier instead of an expression of God's love, and the hard reality of a disease that is indiscriminate in who it infects and kills. The situation has brought a question into prayer on a regular basis: What does it mean to live when so much that consumes our thoughts, conversations, media, and prayer is how do we survive?
Is there room in the post Covid-19 world for a dreamer? The truthful answer is "I don't know." We have yet to reach the post Covid-19 world. We are still trying to navigate the unknowns of what this disease is and what it is not.
My father, Jerry Kurzynski, became extremely ill and his doctor feared he had been infected by C-19. When my father recovered, the test results proved negative, and my mother and brother did not become ill, my heart found peace. However, just a couple days later, someone close to Sacred Space Astronomy shared that he lost a family member to this virus. This extreme of experience is creating a complex emotional landscape. "Why would God allow this?" It's a question many of us ask at times like this and if there is one consistency I've found in ministry, the only honest answer to this question is "I don't know."
I know of another man who felt that, after seeing symptoms of illness emerge, it would be easier for his family if he took his own life instead of having his family watch him die on a ventilator. His family felt profoundly different about his assessment, but, sadly, they never had a chance to share their protest with him. Some who read this may presume, "There must have been other underlying health issues that led to this." I don't disagree with you, but, again, as part of the complexity of the emotional tapestry I am in, neither I nor this man's wife and children are terribly interested in receiving distant psychological analysis of why we will be planning a funeral when I return from sabbatical. Anger, hurt, grief, all emotions that are normal, emerging at a point of human history that is anything but normal.
Dreams can die under the weight of this type of pain, hope can wither, and faith in God can range from difficult to next to impossible. These truly are difficult times we live in.
However, when things can appear so dark and grim, odd moments of grace begin to appear, shedding new light on what we are experiencing. At the beginning of sabbatical, I felt a hesitation about sharing pictures and stories of my experience on social media for my family, friends, and parishioners back home. Again, Covid-19 gave me pause. The fascinating thing is that the more I share these images, the more I am encouraged to do so. Whether it be pictures of flowers, stars, or honey bees, my parishioners tell me it brings joy to their day and hope in their hearts. They look forward to these moments as a bright spot in an otherwise stressful and difficult day.
One time, I live streamed a Mass for my parishioners, family, and friends back home. It was a simple Mass done in the quiet of my hermitage. No Church, no choir, no pre or post-Mass announcements. Many parishioners shared with me that it brought tears to their eyes and made them feel normal again.
Normal - A word I don't think will ever be understood in quite the same way again. What I find interesting is that "normal" to the people I serve and love has nothing to do shopping trips, work schedules, and consumption. Rather, normal is being defined to me as connection with nature, beauty, a sense of home that transcends a physical space that is rooted in relationship and their prayer life. Marx once claimed that religion was the opiate of the masses and Freud saw religion as enemy. What I am finding is that there is a "cultural opioid crisis" being unmasked, but it is far different from the one Marx and Freud identified. The true opiate of the masses is not faith, family, beauty, and nature, but the habitual fixation we have on consumption, technology, productivity, and success. Perhaps one of the graces of Covid-19 will be that the real opiate of the masses of ramped consumerism will be named, its effects be claimed, and, hopefully, our world will seek to tame this disease of the heart with what humanity truly needs and seeks: faith, hope, and love.
Ironic, isn't it. The very things that an epidemic can make us feel we must mute actually emerge as the things most essential for us to deal with the crisis. Whether those things be the beauty of a moonlight night, a call or facetime with someone we love, comforting those who are in fear of this disease, sharing our fears with someone who loves us, and/or to find a sense of solidarity in our prayer, in particular the communal celebration of Mass via social media, let us remember when crisis passes and the trappings of consumption return this revelation of what is emerging as most important in our lives.
With that in mind, my fellow dreamers, I think its time to do something silly in light of Covid-19. As this week has passed, let us remember International Dark Sky Week not just as a times for us astro-geeks to enjoy the night sky and find our annual platform to speak of the need for dark sky protection amid a national pandemic. Let us see this week as a reminder that fighting back the stifling effects of a pandemic on the mind and heart is done through embracing the things we need as a human species to find meaning and peace. International Dark Sky Week teaches us that we need to gaze into the night sky. We need to gaze upon the beauty of creation around us. We need the love of family, friends, and community. And we need to stand in awe and wonder of the Creator who brought all of this into existence. A Creator we also cry out to in need, asking for a re-creation to occur at this time of crisis.
In that spirit, who of you reading this post has the heart to fight for the next generation of national parks that seek to protect the night skies? Who knows, it might be the ability to gaze into those skies that will help people face the next pandemic, hopefully far off in the future, and remind humanity of what is most important in life.
If you live in the Tucson area, did you notice something odd in the sky about 4:00am? This morning, as prep for my forthcoming post on International Dark Sky Week, I was walking the grounds of the Redemptorist Renewal Center, capturing Milky Way images. In fact, I've been doing photography every morning for two reasons. One, its getting hot for my Wisconsin blood and doing my daily walks before sunrise is more comfortable. Two, the skies have been absolutely gorgeous this week!
The image above is the Milky Way over the outdoor Chapel at the Redemptorist Renewal Center. This Chapel has a special place in my heart. It is here that I celebrated the closing Mass for the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. It is a place that is peaceful and prayerful, but also a place that has become a deep part of my spiritual journey.
This morning, I was back at the chapel playing with my fisheye lens. I wanted to see if I could get a full-sky image of the Milky Way. It's an 8mm lens, so I was taking 30 second exposures on my full frame camera. After one of the captures was done, I was walking toward the camera to see if I needed to reposition it for the next image. As I was looking down, it felt as though someone flashed a bright LED light from behind me. I was a little startled at first and looked behind me, thinking that someone might be joining me at the chapel. Well, nobody was there. Confused, I looked up and saw a glistening vapor trail in the sky. "Something blew up... but there wasn't a boom!" Frustrated at first that I missed the picture of a lifetime by seconds, I then took another 30 second exposure to capture the vapor trail, lest I be treated like the fisherman who brags about "the one that got away" while nobody in the bar believes a word he says.
Here's the image of the aftermath of "the big one."
This fishhook shaped object is the vapor trail. I decided to e-mail this image to Br. Guy. Later this morning, I received an e-mail chain between him and Vatican Observatory scientist Fr. Jean-Baptiste Kikwaya. The correspondence confirmed what I indirectly saw. Remember, I didn't see the boom-less boom, I only saw the effects of it as I was looking down, trying not step on my camera in the dark.
The next question that was explored was, "What was that thing?" Since the Leonid meteor showers are occurring, the first thought was that it might be part of the shower. After Fr. Kikwaya pulled up the data, it turned out not be a Leonid meteor. It did not have comet origin, but an asteroid origin. Below is a brief video of the event along with the summary data. For more information on this and other fireball events, you can explore NASA's All-sky Fireball Network.
Needless to say, this has been an exciting morning on many fronts! One, to feel like I contributed something to the study of the heavens is always enriching. Thankfully, nothing "Earth shattering," either figuratively or literally, happened today. At the same time, to have the simple experience of, "Hey, something weird just happened," and then to share that with professional scientists to clarify what it was gave me a momentary glimpse into how observational science works. For that, I want the thank both Br. Guy and Fr. Jean-Baptiste Kikwaya for not only clarifying the bright light I experienced, but allowing it to become a very memorable part of my sabbatical.
This event also was healing on a personal level. Our sabbatical group was supposed to visit Kitt Peak. I have been there once, but the other times I have been in Arizona, the trip has been canceled for one reason or another. The night we were supposed to go was this week. Sadly, Covid-19 scuttled those plans. Now, I can't complain about anything really. Even in a stay at home order, I am "trapped" in one of the most beautiful places in the United States if not in the world. As many have suffered from the Coronavirus pandemic, I have been struggling with feeling guilt because I am safe and very well taken care of by the staff at the Renewal Center. Still, there was a little part of me that grieved when Kitt Peak got canceled, "This was one of the reasons I came," has been the quiet, internal mantra. Some may laugh and scoff at me seeing spiritual significance in the events of this morning, but it really was a moment of grace. I've always wanted to loss myself in the night sky. And for a brief moment, I did.
Now, where was this asteroid from, what was its chemical make-up, did we know about this or not, all of these questions are good to ask and I have no answers to any of them. One answer I do have is that something memorable happened today. Yes, an asteroid exploded over my head. However, something more significant happened today. Through this experience and support of the Vatican Observatory to explore this event, I feel more connected to God's creation. In that spirit, keep Kitt Peak for another trip. I'll take my fireball over the outdoor chapel at the Redemptorist Renewal Center... which I never, really saw to begin with. Funny how God works.
Happy Saturday everyone!
I wish to begin by extending a sincere word of support for any readers of Sacred Space Astronomy that have been impacted by Coronavirus or has a loved one who is suffering with or has died from this virus. I know that Sacred Space Astronomy is read by people that are Catholic, Non-Catholic, and those whose life journey has led them to question God. As a Catholic Priest, I feel inclined to focus this post with a prayer.
The Redemporist Order, the Order that runs the center where I am on sabbatical, has a unique devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The Catholic tradition of asking the Saints for prayers evokes the intuitive act many of us have of asking good friends and family to pray for us in our need. We don't pray to Mary as a deity, but ask that her motherly love wrap us with her prayers as any loving mother would. In that spirit:
You were called to protect Jesus during the most vulnerable years of his life.
You loved him, nurtured him,
taught him to walk, speak, and pray.
You laughed with him in times of joy,
cried with him in times of distress,
ministered to him when he was sick,
and consoled him when rejected.
You were mother to him and needed to be his mother,
assisting Jesus to grow and embrace his earthly mission.
Mary, we call upon your loving presence in this time of crisis.
Under the title of "Our Lady of Perpetual Help,"
we are reminded of a gentle embrace between a mother and her child,
the embrace you shared with Jesus.
May this image of maternal care become reality for those who are in isolation,
whether they are ill or experience fear of illness.
For those who will see the veil fall between time and eternity through death,
may your prayers comfort and encourage them,
discovering new life with your Son, Jesus Christ,
just as an infant finds its family for the first time through birth.
Mary, though many will parish today
without the loving touch of family or friends to comfort them,
fill the hospital rooms, nursing homes, and beds that hold the sick and dying
with the warmth of your maternal embrace.
Where hands are reaching for someone to love them in their suffering,
grasp that hand and wrap them in your mantle of love and protection.
Be with them in their solitude now and at the hour of their death,
placing their hand in the hand of Jesus.
Give them courage to walk with him from time to eternity.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help - Pray for Us... Pray for all who suffer and will die today.
I am struggling with guilt, guilt that while many suffer and are in isolation, I am able to be on sabbatical to address my prayer life, physical health, emotional health, and have space to embrace my hobbies of astronomy and photography. There have been times I have wanted to avoid sharing the beauty of the Redemptorist Renewal Center through pictures out of fear of seeming unfeeling and distant from the problems the world faces. What I am finding instead is profound gratitude every time I post a story or a picture I have taken. I never thought that social media would become such a powerful ministerial tool, but many of my friends and family say that what I post gives them a "sabbatical moment" to be able to experience relief from what our world is enduring.
In that spirit, below is a summary of my sabbatical through images I have captured these past weeks. May they give you a moment of diversion from the difficulties we face. And may we experience true solidarity as members of the human family. Let us not let a virus define who we are. Let us be defined as we should as expressions of love in this world - both expressions to give love and receive love in return. We are expressions of love who are living through a pandemic that science is racing to understand and faith is praying for those scientists to find the remedy that is, from a Christian perspective, a participation in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.
Pray for those who suffer, pray for their care givers, pray for scientists who are working for a vaccine, and pray for our world. Let us not live in fear. Let us live in attentive love. The attentive love that is modeled in the relationship between a mother and her child. The attentive love between Mary and Jesus.
Last week I reflected on the unthinkable becoming reality. It turns out there were more unthinkable moments ahead. It truly shows how serious this crisis is when my post last week is woefully out of date. This week, I want to share with you what I shared with my parish. This is a Pastor's response to his people. Parishioners of mine have lost their jobs, fear how they are going to feed their children, and today it was announced the state of Wisconsin is moving to home confinement to flatten the curve of the spread of this virus. I wish I could wax eloquently today with you on the questions of faith and astronomy. Instead, I simply offer the following resources and message I have shared with my parishioners: God will see us through this crisis.
Just to clarify, the resources below in no way reflect anything official from the Vatican. Writing for Sacred Space Astronomy, people sometimes presume that every pixel I publish comes with a Vatican seal of approval. I'm sure that, in time, there will be, if there hasn't been already, official resources of home prayer in the absence of Mass from the Vatican. I simply share with you what I have provided for my parish of St. Olaf Parish in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. If you find these resources helpful, by all means, use them!
Let us support one another. We will get through this. And may we take this time to see God's love and presence in the small things in life. Christ is with us in this spiritual desert. As I have had the good fortune of watching a mother hummingbird build a nest for her future youth, let us delight in the smallness of God's creation around us, finding time to take a mental break from this pandemic. As we strive to be as safe as possible, let us also seek simple ways to smile, find peace, and love one another.
My Facebook post from Yesterday:
After silencing my heart today, I asked: Lord, are we, amid this crisis, entering a new era of mission?
In silence, the Lord wrote on my heart: You are my mission. You have been my mission. You will always be my mission.
Lord, break into our seclusion. Meet us with your love. May it fill us with the fervor of 1,000 missionaries. Make the desert of our fears bloom with the flowers of hope, peace of heart, joy, and love.
A family prayer when Mass is not possible.
Guide for Home Prayer – St. Olaf Parish
Prepare a small altar someplace in your home where your family can be comfortably seated. Find a white cloth that can cover the table. If you have a cross or a crucifix, place it in a central location on the table. Take a Bible and place it before the cross. Find one candle and place it by the cross.
Begin your prayer with the following blessing as you light the candle on your table:
This candle reminds us of the light of Christ’s love that burns in our hearts.
Amid these dark days, come as light into our home, our family, and our hearts.
Chase away the darkness of fear and lighten our hearts with love, joy, and peace.
We ask this through Christ our Lord
Leader or other family member:
Let us pray.
Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the
human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to
take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross,
giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant
that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share
in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
First Reading from the Prophet Ezekiel
Thus says the Lord GOD:
O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.
The Word of the Lord
All: Thanks be to God
Reflection: At times of crisis, we can begin to lose hope, feeling like our heart is in a type of spiritual tomb. In that darkness and cold, God reminds us that He will break through this “entombment of the heart” and allow the warmth and light of his love to penetrate our hearts.
As a family, reflect on this question: Do you feel your heart is entombed or bathed in the light of Christ? Regardless of how we feel, where do we see signs of hope that God is breaking into the darkness of our times?
- (7) With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn,
let Israel wait for the LORD.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
For with the LORD is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel
from all their iniquities.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
Reflection: Have we felt a desire to cry out to the Lord? Have you allowed your heart to do so? I challenge your family, whether now or after the prayer service, share the fears and tears that are hidden in your hearts, not simply for the sake of grieving, but allowing us to get the venom we taste out of our mouths so we can instead taste the sweetness of Christ’s healing and mercy.
Gospel John 11:1-45
The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus, saying,
“Master, the one you love is ill.”
When Jesus heard this he said,
“This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
So when he heard that he was ill,
he remained for two days in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to his disciples,
+Let us go back to Judea.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus
had already been in the tomb for four days.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming,
she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever you ask of God,
God will give you.”
Jesus said to her,
Your brother will rise.”
“I know he will rise,
in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”
He became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said,
“Where have you laid him?”
They said to him, “Sir, come and see.”
And Jesus wept.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”
But some of them said,
“Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man
have done something so that this man would not have died?”
So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb.
It was a cave, and a stone lay across it.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him,
“Lord, by now there will be a stench;
he has been dead for four days.”
Jesus said to her,
“Did I not tell you that if you believe
you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone.
And Jesus raised his eyes and said,
“Father, I thank you for hearing me.
I know that you always hear me;
but because of the crowd here I have said this,
that they may believe that you sent me.”
And when he had said this,
He cried out in a loud voice,
“Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out,
tied hand and foot with burial bands,
and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
So Jesus said to them,
“Untie him and let him go.”
Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary
and seen what he had done began to believe in him.
The Gospel of the Lord
All: Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ
A Word from Fr. James: As the fears of pandemic are reaching deeper and deeper, it wouldn’t surprise me if you feel a little like Lazarus. We can see in our world death and fears of what the future holds. The hard truth is that we don’t know what the future holds. All I know is this: God is God of the living and he wishes to bring his light and life to crisis we face. Do not give into the temptation to feel that all is lost. Take one another’s hand. Express your love for each other. And know that God’s light of hope will shine brightly through these times. Your Pastor loves you. God loves you. And, together, let us allow the Love of Christ to see us through these times.
At this time, share your petitions as a family to God. I would personally ask you to continue your prayers for Brett Kleinke as he prepares to become Catholic and join St. Olaf Parish with his fiancé Lydia LaBudda.
In the spirit of the upcoming Easter Vigil, let us renew our baptismal promises.
Leader: Do you believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth?
All: I do.
Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered death and was buried,
rose again from the dead
and is seated at the right hand of the Father?
All: I do.
Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting?
All: I do.
Pray together an Our Father
An Act of Spiritual Communion
My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come spiritually into my heart. I embrace You, Lord, embrace me in your love and mercy. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
If your family is so bold, sing a closing hymn… don’t be afraid to share a laugh with each other if it sounds… creative! 😉
I am not an expert on the Corona Virus. I have tried to keep up with developments while on sabbatical and learn what I can. The only thing I have learned is that once I think I understand what is happening, things change rapidly. At the Redemptorist Renewal Center, our group has felt as if we have been living in a bubble, distant from Corona hysteria. That ended this morning when, during the petitions at Mass, it was made known that a parishioner's brother died from complications of this virus. Even in the safety of the Saguaro Desert, this pandemic continues to be indiscriminate in its impact.
At my home Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, measures are being taken to limit the spread of this virus. All programming and events have been canceled. The obligation to attend Sunday Mass has been lifted. To put it another way, what was once unthinkable just weeks ago is now our reality.
The sober mind tells me this will be a short lived reality - Let the virus run its course and, in a few weeks, we'll start complaining about politicians, arguing over who's going to win the World Series this year, and becoming consumed with our work once again. However, the heart inebriated with concern for my parish, family, and loved ones also acknowledges that we really don't know where this is going. When will we see "life as usual" again? In a different direction, that same heart that is on sabbatical to remove myself from "life as usual" makes me wonder, "Do we want to go back to 'life as usual?'" As we pray for the victims of this disease and all who will be called home by God with life threatening illnesses, let us ask God to teach us what we are to learn through this crisis and who we are to become when it ends.
When I have gone through the loss of a loved one, I often feel like "time stands still" in a not good sense, almost getting angry at the world as it continues to wiz by while my heart aches. I often wonder if a similar moment happened to Mary as her son hung on the cross on Good Friday. Did the world simply pass Jesus by in his suffering as the business that comes just before Sabbath was going on? Did anyone even stop and simply say, "That is some mother's child on that cross."
We live in that stillness and awareness as schools, business, and parishes are shutting down. Now... What will we do with the communal pause? Is it simply a pregnant pause before we begin our cultural sprint of meaningless productivity or in the Good Friday we are living will we see in the victims of this and many other diseases a call to allow time to stop more frequently out of love of those who suffer, of our friends, the stranger, and even those we hold grudges toward? Are we simply waiting for the light to turn from red to green so we can begin our mindless sprinting once again, worshiping the false god of productivity and objectifying those around us as mere speed bumps toward our consumerist goals?
I am not an expert on the Corona Virus. I don't know where this is going. And I don't know how you are receiving this reflection. All I know is I am living in an odd tension of wanting to end my sabbatical to try and "do something" about this crisis. In that moment, I enter prayer and the only answer that emerges is to stay in sabbatical. To borrow an oft used phrase, these are strange times we live to see. Will they be the best of times? Will they be the worst of times? Only time will tell.
What does this have to do with a Faith and Astronomy blog? Not much other than the fact that this crisis is on the minds and hearts of every person these days. I could talk to you about how I have learned Corona Virus is part of the SARS family of viruses and is considered "mild" in that family. At the same time, I don't know what that means and I don't know what to say about the science or the faith of this virus. All I know is that last night I went for a walk in the wash of Picture Rocks Canyon. Camera in hand, I was taking astrophotography and praying for my parishioners at St. Olaf, wondering if Holy Week was going to be canceled. As I was imaging the heavens, the exsultet, the chanted Easter proclamation that is sung on Holy Saturday, began to echo in my heart. In particular, I was moved to pray with the sections that spoke of the paradox of night that was as bright as day. Let us pray that the cultural night we have entered gives way to the light of new hope this coming Easter. And may all who die this day from Corona Virus, Flu, various forms of Cancer, War, and acts of terrorism be remembered with more than just a passing glance as we sprint between appointments. May we have a moment of reverential silence and prayer for those who have died. May God bring healing and calm to our world.
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel's children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
Lord, Bless those you will call home today through serious illness. Bless all those who suffer greatly whether it be illness, persecution, age, loneliness, and any other affliction. Thank you for loving us through these difficulties. And thank you for the dawn we await and will receive from your loving kindness. Dispel the night of our fear. Turn our night into day. Amen.