About a year ago I was getting ready to head for Tuscon, Arizona for the Vatican Observatory Foundation's Faith and Astronomy Workshop. This bi-annual trip is always one that I look forward to so I can get away from the cold of Wisconsin and have a week of astronomy immersion. Last year, however, I was feeling a little different about the trip. I still looked forward to being a part of this wonderful event, but internally I was starting to feel and see the signs of burnout. Before I left, I had a conversation with our Vicar of Clergy (It's the title given to the priest responsible for overseeing the well being of our Diocesan clergy). I was joking with him about a good friend of mine who was on sabbatical by saying, "Why is he on sabbatical, I should go on sabbatical!" What started as a playful poke at a good friend became a serious conversion. "James, if you want to go, I have an opening in the spring of 2020... You're overdue for a sabbatical."
Every ten years, our Diocese encourages us priests to go on sabbatical. I really didn't know much about sabbatical other than some guys would take one to write their book or take some classes for ongoing education. Since I've written a book and feel more than satisfied with the ongoing education I indirectly receive writing for Sacred Space Astronomy, I rushed to the presumption that I didn't need a sabbatical. After the door had been flung wide open for this opportunity, I did the "priest nerd" thing and looked up the etymology of the word sabbatical. What I found was a word whose Greek origins mean, "Of the sabbath."
I started to pray with this and asked, "If God is inviting me to a ten week Sabbath, how am I to embrace this sacred rest?" The answer came immediately, "Deepen my prayer and address my weight issues." It was right at this time that I arrives at the Redemptorist Renewal Center for the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. In addition to being the home for the workshop, I had noticed in the past pamphlets at their help desk for sabbaticals. Since the staff has gotten to know me well over the years, I felt an immediate comfort with the idea of going on sabbatical at the center. Still, I wanted to make sure the program supported my goals of deepening my prayer and improving my health. When sitting with the director of the program, it became clear that all my goals for a sabbath rest of prayer and health would be well within the scope of this sabbatical program.
The program is rooted in desert spirituality. There is a long, ancient tradition in the Church of going out to the desert to detach oneself from the things of this world to listen intently for God's voice. As I learned about the sabbatical program, I felt a deep peace about what I would call "detachment Wednesdays." Wednesday will be a day of silence, encouraging us to not speak verbally, unplug from anything that could distract us, and take a day of restful prayer.
Two weeks age, I gave a presentation about my sabbatical to St. Olaf's youth in our Faith Formation Program. When I got to the part of explaining Wednesday Unplugged, I told them, "Don't bother trying to get a hold of me on Wednesday, but do know each one of you will be prayed for that day as I prayerfully take St. Olaf Parish with me into the desert."
A part of the sabbatical that has been both exciting, but also is feeling a bit odd is not having a parish assignment on the weekends. The idea of having weekends to travel, seeing places I've long wanted to see, and not be responsible for at least three Masses on a weekend feels strange. After 17 years of priesthood, the only time I have "free weekends" is when I go on vacation. Even then, I usually plan my trip so I still celebrate Mass at the parish and then fly out immediately after my weekend Masses are done. Only being "on" for one Sunday Mass for 10 weeks will feel odd to me, but it also gives me the chance to deepen my love for my newfound hobby: Mirrorless camera astrophotography!
While on sabbatical, I want to take the opportunity to capture night images in one of the greatest places in the world do stargazing. As I've committed to learning the art of astrophotography, I've grown in my knowledge of cameras, lenses, telescopes, and how to do all this on a budget. I'm starting to get my imaging "travel bag" together and am hoping that I can share the weekend trips of my sabbatical with you. Now, as the Vicar of Clergy has already warned me, "Remember, you're going there to rest!" Therefore, I need to remain realistic about these weekend trips. Still, since the Redptorist Renewal Center shares a boarder with the Saguaro National Park West, I think it's safe to say I wont have to travel that far to do some stunning photography! In short, March thru May will be a beautiful time for sabbath rest and capturing the beauty of God's creation... night and day... and maybe catch some spring training baseball games too... go Brewers!
Share Your Voice: As I prep for sabbatical, where in Arizona should I go to do some astrophotography? What images would you like to see pop up on Sacred Space Astronomy from my visual sabbatical journal? Leave your answer below. Pray for me as I prepare for 10 weeks of sabbath. And know that you, the readers of Sacred Space Astronomy, its authors, and all involved with maintaining this wonderful blog will be in my daily prayers! Just don't expect any posts from me on Wednesday!
This past year has been an important one for me in regard to astronomy and faith. Though I have dabbled with simple forms of astrophotography in the past, I decided to take the plunge and learn how to take high quality images of the night sky instead of just using online services to image the heavens. As is the case for many, I always felt intimidated when trying to do astrophotography. If you do a quick Google search on the subject, you will be introduced to many confusing articles and videos with equipment that can approach the price of a small car. Since my first attempts at astrophotography were in the film days, the expense combined with past failure seemed too risky.
Then a friend of mine who lives in Arizona, Ken Walsh, introduced me to a "fund me" campaign for a "point and shoot" astronomy camera called the Nano 1. The promise of doing astrophotography in a point and shoot manner was very appealing. When I got the camera, I was both pleased and slightly disappointed with the results. It wasn't quite point and shoot and the image quality wasn't the best, but what the camera did provide was a "go-pro" style of camera that stripped out all the settings except for the those that related to astrophotography. From this standpoint, the camera was exactly what I needed! Looking back at the first images I took with this little astro-cam, I had a few moments of thinking, "Wow, why did I think these were good?" The answer to this question always came quickly, "Because it is where I started the journey."
Despite my mixed feelings about the results, the itch was scratched. I experienced something I had seldom felt with astrophotography - Confidence! Even though I hardly ever use the Nano1 anymore, I still contend it was the best investment I ever made. It not only helped me take pictures of the stars, it turned something I love, images of the night sky, from a feeling of failure to achievement.
Having learned the basics of astrophotography through the Nano1, I then decided to venture into the mirrorless camera world to get better images of the night sky. I went on an auction website and found a Canon M Series camera and kit lens for far less than what I paid for the Nano1. It's 18 Megapixel sensor was the largest I had ever worked with, not realizing that it was actually rather small in comparison to today's DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Nevertheless, I was delighted with the results, prompting me to buy my first real camera lens: A Rokinon 10mm f/2.8. It was at this moment astrophotography (and photography in general) took hold of me.
I'm now to the point to take the next step: Shooting images through a telescope. This will be the far more challenging phase of this journey, but one I'm ready to make... I just wish January in Wisconsin was a bit warmer. Looking at the type of images I take now not only shows me my improvement as a photographer, but also gives me sacred reminders of the year that was 2019.
Pictures can tell powerful stories. I have a shoe box of old family pictures that I like to go through periodically. It's a reminder of my past and the past of my family - both the good and the difficult. Looking at images can reveal how we have grown not only in our physical appearance, but also spiritually as a child of God. As we come to the completion of the Christmas season, we have been reflecting on a lot of "family pictures" of the Holy Family. The pastoral images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are common to us, evoking Christmas wonder. What is always important for us to remember is that the infancy narratives not only ask us to look to the creche asking, "Who will this child be," but it also gazes upon a sacred past revealing who we were and where this journey has been.
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham became the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez became the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab became the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz,
whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz became the father of Obed,
whose mother was Ruth.
Obed became the father of Jesse,
Jesse the father of David the king.
David became the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
Solomon became the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asaph.
Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Joram,
Joram the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah became the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.
Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amos,
Amos the father of Josiah.
Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers
at the time of the Babylonian exile.
After the Babylonian exile,
Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
Zerubbabel the father of Abiud.
Abiud became the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
Azor the father of Zadok.
Zadok became the father of Achim,
Achim the father of Eliud,
Eliud the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar became the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ. (Matthew 1: 1-16)
Spiritual Exercise: What is the "spiritual photo album" of your life? What and who are the people, places, and events that have shaped who you are for better or worse? Are there images that speak more deeply to you than others? And what do you learn about yourself as you gaze upon the icons of your past? Pray with these questions, pull out some old pictures, and, if you have the courage, grab your camera that is collecting dust, get out, and try to image the heavens. If your first pictures leave you wanting, fear not. The more you shoot the better images you will take. And as you keep track of the images from past to present, you might see improvement in what you shoot, growth as a photographer, growth as a person, and develop a beautiful reminder of the depths of God's love for us through the beauty of the created world around us.
As we prepare to celebrate the baptism of the Lord, may the light of Christ shine brightly as a star of hope in these times that present to us a foreboding darkness of global instability. Pray for mercy. Pray for forgiveness. Pray for healing. Pray for peace. Pray for nothing but peace.
This week, I offer you a new form of contribution to Sacred Space Astronomy. I have decided as part of my "From The Backyard" series to put together some YouTube videos that summarize some of the main themes that I have focused on in my writing. In that spirit, here is my first video on the connection between Advent and Astronomy. It isn't the best of videos (a little dark and the sound needs a little work), but, in time, it will improve and be a nice addition to our blog. Enjoy!
What does it really mean to see God as Creator? One of the most foundational statements about God is that God is Creator, bringing all things into being from nothing. This is well and good, but it leads to another question: How does God create?
This question reemerged in my thoughts at our parish's Saint Nicholas Party. Every year, St. Olaf Parish holds a party for our youth around the date of St. Nicholas. We tell the story of this great saint, helping our youth understand the origins of what our culture presents as the celebration of Christmas. It acts as a fun evening celebration with stories, music, games, and activities.
Here is a summary of his life, including reference to the dowry he secretly gave to a poor family so their daughters could marry, which morphed into the gift giving we do in our modern celebration of Christmas.
My part of the evening is to provide an activity by teaching our young people how to paint. As a hobby artist, I greatly enjoy the art form called "Dirty Pour." It's basically a process of taking different colors of acrylic paint, introduce different additives to each paint, layer them in a cup, and then dump all the paint on a canvas. After that, you manipulate the canvas by tilting it, participating in a delicate artistic "dance" of trying to get the paint to do one thing, but realizing that, ultimately, the paint is going to do what the paint is going to do. It also doesn't hurt that it is a form of art that involves the use of a blowtorch! Put another way, Priest + Fire = Happy Priest!
After teaching the kids how to create, giving them the tools they needed to create, and then encouraged them to create, they did what kids do - They created. I was so proud of the canvases these kids did, many of them trying this art form for the first time. The older kids went first and so enjoyed it that they started to help our grade school kids do their paintings. The best part was I didn't have to ask them to help the younger kids. As I sat back with blowtorch in hand waiting for the request, "Father, I need some fire!" I reveled in the communal support I saw in our young people. It reminded me that we are creatures made in the image and likeness of the Creator whose creative, communal love of Father, Son, and Spirit loved us into existence. The canvases the kids made were like subtle fingerprints of the divine, realizing that carrying God's image and likeness also means we reflect certain traits of the Creator: A community that loves through a creative act.
Here are a few images of the kid's paintings. For those of you who are into psychology, you may find it interesting that I presented all the kids with the same six colors: White, Black, Blue, Aqua Blue, Yellow, and Burnt Umber. Despite this limited color spectrum, the kids presented wildly different canvases!
What do you see when you look at the canvases? Some of the parents watching their children create these canvases used words like "space, dreamy, galactic" to describe their child's art. Some spoke of how it reminded them of surface features of planets taken from outer space. Others gravitated to more simple explanations as "pretty" and "peaceful." What everyone is always amazed at when I do these demonstrations is that no brushes are used and I encourage no preconceived "this is what I want the canvas to look like" mentalities before starting. I encourage them to not think of color combinations, but simply let the paint and the canvas point them to the road of the final image. One of the peaceful parts of this art form is the attentiveness that emerges as you become attuned to ever aspect of the process of creating this art.
One time, I saw a demonstration video that claimed that dirty pour art was amazing because it "Lets science do the painting." Did science do the paintings you see above? No, the youth of Saint Olaf Parish did the paintings above. Science can be an interpretive language to describe the paintings, how the six colors I presented interacted with each other to create a far richer color pallet, how the inconsistencies of each canvas funneled the paint in different directions, how the kids movement of the canvas impacted the image, and so forth. Science can interpret these paintings through a certain set of eyes, but science, along with psychology, theology, and a various number of other -ologies, didn't "do" the paintings. Kids did the paintings. Kids made in God's image and likeness. Kids made by a Creator who loved them into existence. And kids who were given an opportunity to reflect that creative love in canvas and paint.
As someone who would consider himself to be "A Creative," to quote the oft used cultural cliche, I find that the act of creating is essential for my emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Whether it's a painting, a piece of music, a picture I take with my camera, or a dish of food I make for friends, the act of creating something gives me a deep peace and connection with the Creator. When I let those creative faculties go dormant, I begin to see struggles in my emotional, physical, and spiritual health.
Should this surprise us that in order to be a healthy creation we need to participate in God's creative act? Should it surprise us that we are a kind of "co-creator with God" that reflects the fecund vibrancy of God's love as we constantly seek to create new expressions of that love in the world around us? And should it surprise us that, over time, we have developed a myriad of interpretive lenses to help understand this creative act like science, psychology, philosophy, and theology? And should we also be weary of attempts to reduce the creative process to one interpretive lens, potentially stripping from it a dimension of its vibrancy and beauty, leaving nothing more than a uninteresting, monochrome view of our world? The rich tapestry of our created world and our inner desire to create implies that we need to let our interpretive lenses also be a delicately woven tapestry that doesn't reduce Creator and creation to mere categorical titles. Instead, we need to let the different languages of interpretation draw us into deeper wonder and awe at the beauty of God, God's creative act, and our longing to share in that creative love.
How does God create? God creates through love, a Communion of Love that loved us into existence. It is a love that is continual and ongoing. And it is a love that is so deeply ingrained in us that we intuitively desire to share in that creative love. Do I see that creative love in each canvas our St. Olaf youth created last week? Yes, I do. However, I saw it even more present when, after experiencing the joy of doing good art, our high school and middle school students wanted to help our grade school students discover that same joy. It was this communal act of love that made me very proud to be their Pastor. The paintings are simply icons to remind me of that moment.
Spiritual Exercise: How is God calling you to love today? Pray with this and find a healthy way to share in God's creative act of love. Do not let that act be stifled by categories that can make you feel inadequate or hesitant to share your creativity. Rather, allow the creative genius we all possess both express itself and connect itself with the Source of that creative desire: The Creator who loved you and me into existence.
Making the commitment to become good at astrophotography has become more life giving than I could have imagined. At the beginning, I thought I could just specialize in star photography and that would be that. However, I began to realize that in order to take good pictures of the Milky Way, I must first understand the difference between a good and bad picture. A constant theme I encounter when reading professional photographers is the necessity to take pictures that tell stories.
At first, the necessity to tell stories through images felt a little awkward, thinking that all I wanted to do is take "pretty pictures." However, the more I thought about it the more I realized the difference between taking a picture and capturing a moment. Any picture can tell you a story as long as you know how to "read" the image. The key to good story telling through photography is that there needs to be a universally understood realism for an image to pop.
For example, the football team for the high school I was once the chaplain for advanced to "level 4 playoffs." What that meant is that if they won the game, they would play for the Wisconsin state championship in football for Division 6 (smaller schools). I took my camera with me to try and capture the story of the game. Regis won the game 36-6 playing a style of football that is easily summarized as "ground and pound." In other words, they ran the football all night and played amazing defense. Below is the "story" of the game in images.
Another opportunity to try and capture a story was when the contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Aly Aliegha gave a concert at Regis and my parish of St. Olaf. Again, I pulled out my camera to try to capture the story of her concert. Her music spoke to me of authenticity, humility, honesty in our brokenness, and openness to God's grace to heal that brokenness. Again, here is the story of her two concerts that day through images.
Just as we can find stories in our everyday lives with the people and events of our week, so, too, can we find stories in the created world around us. As I have been trying to develop a "style" of astrophotography, I've started by looking for "stories in the sky." The "easiest" way to do this is to put something in the foreground of the image and use the stars as a backdrop. At the same time, I didn't want to reduce our galactic home to artsy wallpaper. I wanted to have the foreground image tell a story of how humanity, regardless of culture and era, has sought to connect our daily lives with the stars above.
One of the ways I attempted to connect our lives on earth with the stars above was to take images of a windmill with the stars in the background. There are multiple stories to be told when capturing these images - The rotation of the stars and the rotation of the blades of the windmill, the stillness of the windmill in contrast to the motion of the heavens, and so forth. This exercise reaffirms that we live in a creation of stories that are constantly around us and want to be told. The key in our story telling creation is to ask if we are attentive to the stories around us and are we open to the possibility that if there is a story to be told then there must be a "Story Teller."
Not only do photojournalists and hobby photographer priests look to tell the stories of creation. Scientists are storytellers too. They tell the story of a perspective of creation that is one part historical (where did this stuff come from, how did it get here, and what happens to it in different circumstances), medicinal (certain things in creation lead us to live while other things lead us to death), and prophetic (this is where things are going and certain choices made in our environment will have future consequences).
In many ways, I see a parallel between the type of information that scientific stories tell and the ministry of Jesus. Christ came to proclaim the Good News (this is where your life is now and this is where it is going), medicinal (the healing ministry of Jesus, both physical and spiritual), and prophetic (this is where our future is headed). Again, all of these stories presume there is a story to be told. And where there is a story to be told, there is a Story Teller not only in the interpretation of the data before us, but in the fact that there is data to interpret in the first place.
Spiritual Exercise: Go and find a story in the created world today. Whether that be your child's soccer match or gazing into the heavens, ask yourself, "What is the story being told?" And when you find your story, ask the Master Story Teller to illumine your heart with the deeper meaning of the story before you. A story that includes you. A story that includes me. A story that has been told since the beginning of time. The story of our universe. The story of God's creation.
As I write this post, we are only minutes away from the transit of Mercury across the Sun (click this link from EarthSky for a little more information). It was my hope to do my first LiveStream on Sacred Space Astronomy, talking with you live about the transit from my rectory office, showing real time video from my small h-alpha telescope, and give you a presentation about the connection between this transit and the Catholic Priest, Pierre Gassendi. The reason I didn't promote this little event was because Wisconsin is notorious for cloud cover at this time of year. And, as fate may have it, even though the Weather Channel claims the skies over my house are clear - It's cloudy.
Nevertheless, Sacred Space Astronomy has wonderful resources about Pierre Gassendi. Christopher Graney wrote a marvelous post about the rare books collection at the University of Louisville that includes Pierre Gassendi’s work, Institutio Astronomica juxta Hypotheses tam Veterum quàm Recentiorum. It was penned by Gassendi to be an introduction to science. I wrote a post on Gassendi the last time there was a transit of Mercury focused on how Gassendi was the first person to record the data of the transit. Click here to take a peak on my past reflection on Gassendi. Though Gassendi's observation may not hold the historical significance of Monsignor Georges Lemaitre's "Cosmic Egg," later dubbed The Big Bang, it is a reminder that Catholicism has had a history of engagement in the sciences, especially astronomy.
Below are two videos. The first is Christopher Graney discussing the rare books library I mentioned earlier and provides some insight into Gassendi along with other Catholic Priest scientists. The second is a YouTube live stream of the transit of Mercury from NASA TV. You can also take a look at real time images of the transit and construct your own "movie" from these images by clicking this link to NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory. You can also see NASA's SDO real time solar images by clicking on this link for The Sun Now. If the clouds clear, I might jump online later this morning, but, if not, enjoy these resources and have a wonderful Monday!
Live Stream of Mercury Transit
It's my birthday this week. As more moons pass in my life, I feel less and less like celebrating this day. However, since my mother, brother and I have our birthdays three days apart from each other, I went home for a modest birthday party with family.
After a nice dinner, time to catch up with my family, and a "geek-out" session with my nephew about his honors Jazz concert, I walked outside and saw pristine skies! Autumn in Wisconsin can be very cruel to a hobby astronomer. The lower humidity teases the possibility of clearer skies for observation, free of the distortion of August's moisture. The drawback is that the transition from summer to autumn to winter means many cloudy days - and I mean many! That being said, when you get those rare nights when the skies clear, the viewing is clear and crisp!
Last night was a beautiful night for stargazing in central Wisconsin! Not only did I decide to set up my camera for some star photography, but I also broke out a simple, wind-up clock tracker that is designed to help my camera follow the movement of the night sky. The results were stunning! Below is a six image panorama stack of the Milky Way. Each image is a fifteen second exposure at ISO 1250 f/2.8.
To the left of the image is my parents house where I grew up and to the right is the horizon of our cow pasture. On the horizon to the right, you can see a really bright light peaking through a tree. That bright light is the bell tower of my home parish, St. Maximillian Kolbe. When I stitched this image together, the title of the image became clear, "Coming Home." Whether it be the house I grew up in, the spiritual house where I found my faith in God, or our galactic home, this image encompasses who I am as a child of God. I so like this picture that I think I'm going to enter it into a photo competition!
The rest of the night was both joyful, but also a little frustrating. I tried my first six minute tracked exposure of the Milky Way and my clock tracker worked like a dream! Too bad I forgot to lower my ISO from 1250... darn! Thankfully, I was still was able to pull back a nice image with some creative editing. I also broke out my fisheye lens, thinking I would do some neat distorted images of the farm. Right after setting things up, clouds rolled in... foiled again! Still, a clear night of imaging stars, even if it only be for a couple hours, was a gift indeed!
Autumn can be a powerful time of reflection about life, transition, change, death, and what comes after the winter snows of our Earthly journey's end. As I stood in my parents backyard, I was able to see how I have changed, grown, and developed. I also reflected on how, despite the change, I still remain fundamentally James Kurzynski from central Wisconsin. It was a powerful moment of trying to better understand who I am, who God is in my life, and who God made me to be.
Spiritual Exercise: How have you grown this past year? What transition is God placing in your life? How can the changing of the seasons (if you live somewhere that has season changes) be seen as a metaphor for change in your life? How do you want to change? How do you need to change? Pray with these questions, get out and enjoy some clear skies, and, together, let us know thyself better through the wonderment and beauty of God's creation.
Do you enjoy the endless wonder of God's handiwork that is your backyard? Whether your backyard is a back forty or forty feet of enclosed concrete, I assure you there is something worth discovering just outside your door. Some may dismiss this idealistic, romantic notion as merely the whimsical musings of an aloof theologian priest who tries way too hard to see God in all things. Others may want to believe that signs of God's handiwork can be this close to them, but hesitate due to years of feeling estranged from the divine. And those who daily practice divine attentiveness might simply smile at my question and affirm, "Of course I live in wonder!"
I can see all three responses to the question of wonderment present in my life and ministry. When I'm at my best, I find a deep connection with God that allows me to see every moment as an encounter with the Lord. There are times, sadly, when work consumes me, placing my mind and heart in a "get it done" mentality, sacrificing my time with the Lord in favor of worshiping the false god of productivity. It is then when I can feel a disconnect between the work I do as a priest and the God who called me to this blessed ministry. If not addressed, this disconnect can bleed into bitterness to the point of questioning the backyard mysticism I have asked you to reflect upon. At these moments, I find it helpful to slow down, take a deep breath, and do something that pulls my mind and heart away from the workaholic life. For example, watching the birds that visit my backyard feeder as they fight with one another over seeds.
For those of us who live in areas of the world that are experiencing the beauty of autumn leaves, slowing down and detaching from the "productivity machine" may be going to a local park with a pair of binoculars and be taken by the endless beauty that a few trees can provide - Even in a light rain that forces us to observe from the dry safety of a pavilion.
And when frustration runs deep and it seems as though I can't see God present in my life, I can take out my camera, even in the light pollution of the city of Eau Claire, and be reminded that just as my physical eyes are hindered by many things that prevent me from seeing the night sky in its full beauty, so, too, is my very being hindered from seeing the full presence of God in the world around me. Just as beginner astrophotography is teaching me how to "change the way my camera sees" to make more stars visible, so, too, do I need to change the way I approach priesthood to detach from the noise and heart of productivity that can alienate me from God.
In order to see with the eyes of faith, we need to slow down, take time, and be attentive to prayer and God's presence in the world. So, too, does embracing a heart of backyard wonderment call us to slow down, take time, and be attentive to the beauty creation presents to us. This reflection on backyard attentiveness reminds me of the short fairytale by G.K. Chesterton called Tremendous Trifles. I have referenced this short work before, but as a refresher, it's the story of two young boys who are given a wish by a passerby. One asks to become a giant so he can see all the wonders of the world in a single day. Sadly, being out of proportion to the world he lives, he becomes bored, ceasing to see the wonderment of God's creation to the point of his demise. The other boy seeks to be made tiny, only a couple inches tall. This request brings him great joy, spending an eternity of wonderment at the blades of grass in the backyard.
This tension is at the heart of all of our spiritual lives, is it not? We experience the temptation to see the world with the eyes of the giant, out of proportion with creation, and try to dominate the natural world we live in. It is those moments when we need to make ourselves small, humble, and realize that the place that God asks us to embrace in this world is well summarized in the words of Carl Sagan, "A mote of dust on a sunbeam." The great saint of The Little Way, St. Therese of Lisieux, shared this disposition of heart. Here is a quote from this small Doctor of the Church that fits nicely with this reflection on backyard holiness.
Jesus has been gracious enough to teach me a lesson about the mystery of the differences in souls, simply by holding up to my eyes, the book of nature. I understood how all the flowers God created are beautiful - how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away from the perfume of the violet or the simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wildflower.
And so it is in the world of souls… Jesus’ garden. He willed to create great souls comparable to lilies and roses, but he created small ones as well… and theses must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances, when he looks down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing God’s will… in being what He would have us be. (Quote from St. Therese was taken from the Society of Little Flower homepage.)
Spiritual Exercise: Spend some time in backyard wonderment today. Be attentive to the simplicity of beauty that surrounds you - a beauty that, perhaps, you have become desensitized too. If you live in a concrete jungle and find this exercise difficult to complete, go to a local park or someplace that contains the beauty of nature. Slow down, remove yourself from the trappings of mere productivity, and revel in the wonderment of God's handwork - a handwork that includes the wonder that is you.
As you well know, I have made the commitment to become good at night and star photography. It has been a fun journey that is feeding my artistic, scientific, and faith interests. As I have been sharing images on social media, good friends have invited me to do some imaging on their property. Not only has this created some beautiful images, but has given me an idea for a fall/winter set of reflections titled - From The Back Yard.
When looking at the upcoming star charts and the beautiful changes that have begun this Fall, I will be offering faith reflections supported by images I take locally. These reflections will draw upon my interests in astronomy and care for creation. As an open invitation, I would ask you, the readers of Sacred Space Astronomy, to suggest topics you would like me to not only reflect upon, but image as well. I would simply ask that they fit between the themes of astronomy and care fore creation.
Below are some images of star photography I did at the Geisert Farm in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. It was a beautiful night of imaging and friendship. The nature images without stars are from my parent's farm in Central Wisconsin. These images have sparked some future ideas for pieces on care for creation.
Enjoy! Leave your suggestions in the comments below. I look forward to sharing my star journal with you and invite you into my backyard (and the backyard of others I know).
Happy Monday and Clear Skies.
As I continue to learn the art of night photography, I'm exploring the technique called light painting. Light painting is when you introduce artificial light to illuminate the foreground of an image. The trick is to not introduce this light into the sky, otherwise you wash out your stars.
Part of me bristles when doing light painting. From an astronomy standpoint, it violates one of the most basic rules of stargazing: Don't turn on white light! So irksome has this feeling become, I decided to try a different angle on light painting. Instead of a flashlight, I decided to try and use the Moon to light paint my images. What was the result? The images below and a moment of joy when I opened them in my computer. Dare I say, it became a moment of prayer as the images called to mind the words of the Exsultet from the Easter Vigil.
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, astrophotography has given me a visual language to share my inner experience of faith. When I sing the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil, my heart is often filled with a quiet peace. It is this quiet peace I experience every time I look up into the night sky. In short, Thank you, God, for the gift of this world, the gift of a clear night, and the gift of your love from all of us.
Enjoy the pics and Happy Monday!
Why is it a challenge to convince people that light pollution is a problem? For example, St. Olaf Catholic Church is the parish I currently serve, located on the north side of the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The combined population of Eau Claire and the surrounding cities of Altoona, Lake Hallie, and Chippewa Falls exceeds 100,000. What does this mean to the city dwelling astronomer? A lot of light pollution and not that many stars in the night sky to gaze upon. Here is a visual example of what I see when I look up while standing in our parish parking lot.
Let's compare the night skies over St. Olaf with those over another parish I once served - St. Raymond of Penafort in Brackett, Wisconsin. This rural parish is situated about twenty minutes east of Eau Claire. When the security lights turn off for the evening, the night sky reveals a far more starry reality from their parking lot. Here is another visual example of what can be seen when looking up in St. Raymond's parking lot. (Incidentally, I took these images at St. Olaf and St. Raymond on the same night with the same camera setup.)
When looking at the difference between these skies, the call to reduce light pollution should be "case closed." Right? Just look at the radical difference in our ability to see stars in both image sets. The question that begins this piece then reemerges: Why is it a challenge to convince people that light pollution is a problem?
To answer this question, we only need to ask, Where are these pictures being taken? The answer - In the parking lot of two Catholic Churches. Though the stargazing priest who has served at both parishes may enjoy a dark Church parking lot for stargazing purposes, the parishioners who would be coming to a Mass after dark, along with the Diocesan lawyer and said Pastor, would also appreciate parking lot lighting that made visibility clear and consistent. Whether it be for reasons of protecting people from those who may be hiding in the shadows or simply being able to negotiate the slight elevation of the curb between the parking lot and the sidewalk, the desires of a stargazing priest will always be trumped by the necessary concerns of public safety. Still, when you see what can be done from those same parking lots with images of the night sky stretching over these sacred spaces like a banner, one might also ask, Is there a way we can have both a dark sky and a safe parking lot?
The below pictures are the above pictures greatly enhanced and rotated with the visible stars eroded to make them look more like other images of edge on galaxies.
In addition to practical concerns that would make people believe that light pollution is a regrettable, but necessary reality, many see light pollution as a means of making the night more beautiful. I was confronted with this challenge while doing some astrophotography at the farm of a good friend that lives about 10-15 minutes outside of Eau Claire. Some very low, fast moving clouds rolled in, leading me to think, "Ah, here's a perfect way to show how light pollution impacts the night sky!" However, when I showed these pictures to some friends and staff members, the first reaction was, Wow! I never realized light pollution was that beautiful! Now, in their defense, most of them knew that I was writing a piece on light pollution, so the comment was often given as a playful jab. At the same time, I know that I would have gotten similar responses from others I knew who were not astronomy enthusiasts or knew I was putting this piece together. In short, strike two in making my argument against light pollution. (I didn't even want to show them pictures I took of the Pablo Center, the new performing arts center in the heart of downtown.)
Is trying to fight light pollution a lost cause? Do safety concerns deem light pollution a regrettable necessity? And does artistic lighting actually bring more beauty to the night than do the stars above? Is there a way we can have the light we need, enhance the appearance of our downtowns, and protect the night sky? I would argue that there is a way to accomplish all three goals (and many more not mentioned).
Three of the first four Faith and Astronomy Workshops, hosted by the Vatican Observatory Foundation, contained presentations from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). They are an organization that not only promotes the protection of dark sky areas, but provides scientific research into the impact of light pollution on the health of humans and wildlife, the dangers that using to much light can create for public and personal safety, and how dark sky approaches can actually save communities a great deal of money in electricity usage while achieving better, more consistent lighting for safety concerns. Every time I heard their presentation, I thought, "Why don't people know how much benefit there could be from using lighting that is dark-sky friendly?" I would highly recommend you dig around on their webpage to learn how you and your community can protect the skies above while also protecting the people who look up from below.
Spiritual Exercise: When was the last time you were able to go out and enjoy the beauty of a dark sky? Do you live somewhere that allows for easy access to a starry night? Does where you live make gazing upon the stars next to impossible? Are there simple, yet impactful ways that you can promote dark sky practices in your community? Pray with these questions. Learn about the IDA. And, together, let us protect one of the most beautiful treasures God has given us: The ability to gaze upon creation itself.
Below is a video put together by National Geographic that emphasizes what I find to be the most compelling argument to protect the night sky - Giving people of all ages the opportunity to experience Awe and Wonder gazing at God's creation, while also realizing we are a part of God's creation.
To follow up on last week's post, a big part of my vacation was to explore the capabilities of a new camera. Looking back, I can't remember how I stumbled upon the TinyMOS Kickstarter for the Nano1. I wasn't a frequent flyer on "fund-me" pages and really had no interest in donating toward new technological gadgets. Nevertheless, when I saw the advertisement for an astronomy camera for the beginner, I felt a tug. Ever since my youth, I wanted to do serious astrophotography, but after a few failed attempts in the film era and limited funds, I figured it was a lost cause. The promise of a user friendly camera to enter into astrophotography was quite alluring.
After receiving the camera, I was impressed with how easy it was to use (after finding the power button of course). Now, truth be told, I don't know if I would call it a completely "point and shoot" astronomy camera. In order to take good night photos, you still need to understand things like ISO, exposure times, "f" stops, and so forth. Still, all the presets on the camera are geared toward astrophotography. When using it for the first time, I had a lot of, "So that's the settings you should use for star photography!" Therefore, the first lesson was that not only was this "GoPro of Astronomy" giving me nice pictures, but it was also teaching me how to use the cameras I already own better! Even before I tried to develop any images, these insights made the camera well worth the investment!
So, this is all well and good, but I would understand if some of you are thinking, "Blah, blah, blah, get to the pictures. The proof is in the pixels... Let's see what you got!" Again, I am a beginner in the astrophotography world, so these represent my first attempts. For many, these pictures might evoke a "meh" moment accompanied by a shoulder shrug. However, for someone who's always struggled to take good night photography and has little time to commit to learning the art, these initial images took my breath away! The images below are straight out of the camera with no digital post-processing. Keep in mind, for those of you who know cameras, these images are from a 12 megapixel cmos sensor (basically a variation on the GoPro line). The wide angle exposures ranged from 20 second to 60 seconds! Typically, a camera can only take about 20-30 second exposures (depending on lens size and type of imaging sensor) before you get star trails. When you have a 3mm wide angle fish eye lens, that exposure time can increase. The moon photos are a little out of focus. The out of focus isn't the camera's fault, but mine. This is a completely manual camera and given the small margin of error when focusing a small camera through a Celestron C6 telescope pointed at a quickly moving moon... you get the point.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one of the greatest gifts this camera has given me is not only beautiful pictures, but an intuitive lesson in how to better use the cameras I already own. I own two older digital cameras: A Pentax Q that's about seven years old (12 megapixels) and a Canon EOS-M that's a little newer (16 megapixels). I bought both of them used for about $100 each (minus the lens for the Canon). A few posts back, I posted some pictures with my Pentax. I think it's pretty safe to say that the Nano1 well out performed my Pentax. In regard to my Canon, at first the Nano1 outperformed it. However, when I took what I learned from the Nano1 and applied it to my Canon, I began to see how I could use the Canon to its maximum capacity. So, can my Canon take better night pictures than the Nano1? Yes. At the same time, I don't mention this to say one camera is better than the other. The difference in sensor size alone should clue you into the fact that this wasn't a "fair fight." I mention it because I'm pretty convinced I would not have learned how to use my Canon the way I do now without the Nano1 giving me a hands on crash course in night photography settings.
So, what faith lessons have l learned from this? The more I have been doing astrophotography, the more attentive I have been not only to the night sky, but the world around me. I find myself looking at things like flowers, trees, and buildings with new eyes. My sense of Awe and Wonder has been renewed through this journey as those same flowers, trees, and buildings are no longer just the visual background noise I pass to get from point A to point B. Instead, this form of photography has given me the opportunity to encounter God's creation in new, exciting, and fresh ways. And then, when the encounter is done, I get to sit in front of a computer and painstakingly edit these images so to reveal how God inspires me to view creation. Purchasing this little (and I mean little) astronomy camera was not just an investment, but a tool that has helped me grow in my attentiveness to God's creation.
As I mentioned last week, this review is not meant to be an endorsement or a critical rejection of the Nano1. Rather, I seek to answer a simple question, "Does the Nano1 allow me to purse my love of astronomy in a way that is meaningful and life-giving?" The answer was a resounding yes! In that spirit, the below images are from the three cameras mentioned above. These are heavily edited images and definitely fit more the genre I dubbed "Astronomical Impressionism" from last week. Some of them will appear in my piece for next week on light pollution.
Enjoy and happy Monday!