In 1990, I was Junior at Amherst High School. I remember the buzz about a new telescope, a space telescope, that promised the deepest, clearest view of the universe. The telescope's name was the Hubble Telescope and was touted as the 90's equivalent of Apollo 11 in terms of historical relevance. Such bravado created high expectations about what the Hubble would see and discover!
Though Hubble was ready to launch before 1990, the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger not only pushed Hubble's timeline back, but called into question (for some) the future of space exploration.
I was twelve years old when Challenger exploded. One of my teaches, Mrs. Marilyn Baker, was a college friend of Sharon Christa McAuliffe. As a sixth grade student at Amherst Elementary, I remember the feelings of confusion over what had happened and concern seeing one of my favorite teachers weep as this tragedy unfolded. The school had rolled out a large television in the hallway to watch the launch and celebrate Mrs. Baker's friend, the first teacher in space! Nobody expected our public celebration would turn into an impromptu vigil for Christa.
I vaguely recall talking with my parents about the day's events when I got home from school. Of the thoughts I remember of that day, I remember wondering, "Perhaps God doesn't want us to explore space?" Thankfully, time revealed this thought to be nothing more than an understandable, adolescent reflexive fear, trying to make sense of the emotions I felt on that horrible day.
Though I can dismiss my childhood fears as a normal pattern of grief, I seem to recall that the Challenger tragedy did create societal worries about launching Hubble. Thankfully, the answers to Challenger's disaster led to clear solutions, resurrecting the space program. Hubble was finally launched, with high expectations, promises of a historic shift in astronomy, answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, and when it was in space and took it's first image... it didn't work properly. In a moment that seemed to be right out of Star Wars when Han Solo tried to engage the hyper-drive, the first image from Hubble was... well... pretty bad!
The presumption of the Hubble was that once we would get outside of our atmosphere, we would have incredible images of space that were not only beautiful, but would unlock the mysteries of our universe. In the spirit of the theme of this series of reflections, it was presumed that astronomy from "down here" was limited and astronomy from "up there" would be nearly unlimited, giving us ultimate answers to ultimate questions. Thankfully, the Hubble's optics issues were resolved and it more than delivered on its expectation of giving us stunning, never before seen views of the universe. Yet, these stunning images created a new problem: All these questions we thought we were going to resolve simply led to new, better, and deeper questions.
As I reflect on this part of astronomy's history, I am reminded of a question I once ask Br. Guy, wondering if all of these advancements pointed to a "Golden Age" of astronomy? His answer was simple and profound, "As long as the human person is willing to look up and ask 'What's out there,' we'll always be in a 'Golden Age' of astronomy!"
A faith connection I see with the Hubble Space Telescope is that in order to get a better understand of our universe, we needed to get "outside of ourselves" to see things more clearly. Since the Earth's atmosphere, the Sun, and other factors impede our ability to gaze upon the universe in a deeper way, getting outside of these limitations is key. Isn't this need for an "outside/in" view true of the human person as well and is core to our spiritual and emotional growth? In order to really understand what it means to be human we need to get outside of ourselves, put ourselves in a place that is unknown to us, and view our lives from a different perspective? When we get this new perspective, it leads to new, better questions about who we are and who God made us to be. Just as astronomy finds itself in a Golden Age when we ask, What is out there, can we also see a Golden Age of faith as long as we continue to ask the question, What is 'In here?' When we get outside of ourselves to reflect from a new perspective, the irony is that it ultimately helps us understand the depths of who we are more clearly and in a deeper, more interesting way.
Since the human person has not ceased to ask the question, What's out there, astronomy has continued to advance. The next big thing in space telescopes to continue the search for what is out there will be the anticipated 2021 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. I think it inappropriate to say the James Webb Space Telescope will make Hubble obsolete. If it does, I'd be happy to request NASA for training in the event it ever ends up on a NASA surplus auction with a chance for me to purchase it! (Sometime tells me there would be a long list of interested buyers that would bid me out rather quickly.) Still, with a life expectancy for Hubble that presumes a retirement sometime between 2030 and 2040, the James Webb Space Telescope truly is the next big thing!
One of James Webb's goals is to try and answer the new questions that have risen due to Hubble's research. Will the James Webb Space Telescope finally help us understand "everything about everything?" My gut, as a non-scientist, is to think that James Webb will do what Hubble did: Give us better, deeper questions, pointing us to a more fascinating understanding of the universe!
Of the many advancements James Webb has that allow it to see deeper into space than the Hubble, two advancements are basic enough for the astronomy novice to understand: The size of the primary mirror and it's distance from the Sun. This mirror size is simple enough to explain. The James Webb Telescope's mirror is bigger than the Hubble's mirror. Telescopes are like "light buckets" and the bigger the "bucket" the more light you can collect. Since James Webb will be looking at incredibly faint objects, the bigger the light bucket the better!
The distance might be a little more confusing for people to understand. The James Webb Space Telescope will orbit the Sun at a distance that is beyond the moon's furthest distance from the Sun. Why is this so? Doesn't that make it impossible to repair if something goes wrong on the telescope as did the Hubble? What's the reward for this risk and why is it being done?
The reason for this distance is rather simple: Heat and light. Since the James Webb is looking at some of the faintest objects in the night sky, heat and light can create big problems in imaging these objects. Therefore, the telescope needs to be far away from the Sun, Earth, and Moon, not allowing their light and heat to impede James Webb's ability to image our universe. For example, I have been toying with the idea of making a small, hobby observatory. If there is one, clear suggestion I see with every home spun observatory, the primary concern is always the same: Make the observatory out of a material that doesn't trap heat that will later be released at night. Just as rising heat can distort the images of my backyard telescope, so, too, does unwanted sunlight distort the faint objects that James Webb will be looking for. I find it interesting how some of the astronomy basics on Earth still have strong foundation with astronomy done in space.
The payoff for this attention given to heat and light will be that the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to look deeper than any other telescope in use. Therefore, the continuation of the environment of this Golden Age of astronomy will continue to scratch the cultural itch with the question, What is out there?
Spiritual Exercise: Do you find that the more you get "outside of yourself" the better you understand what is within you? Do you find this inner exploration leads to ultimate answers to ultimate questions or do you develop new, better questions about who you are in God's eyes? Pray with these questions this week and, as we continue to ask, What is out there, may this childlike wonderment continue to forward a true Golden Age of faith and science by exploring both the questions of What is down here? and What do I discover in my innermost being?
Happy Monday everyone!
What is astronomy? I've been playing with this question as I prayerfully prepare for FAW2019. (Reminder, if you want to attend this year's Faith and Astronomy Workshop, click here or on the advertisement to register!)
The professional astronomers who write for The Catholic Astronomer could provide you with a much better definition of astronomy than I. If I asked one of my non-scientist parishioners to answer this question, the response would probably begin with, "Astrology is the... (fill in blank)." After a frustrating moment of clarifying that my love of astronomy is understanding things like why stars explode and has nothing to do with reading palms, the follow-up answer would be some variation of, "Astronomy is that thing you do when you take your telescope outside and look 'up there' from 'down here.'"
At one level, this definition is well and good for the non-scientist, but my pursuit of astronomy has taught me that this definition contains a geocentric bias. If astronomy is only done "down here" on Earth, are we not implying that the only perspective of the universe that matters is from our common home? Though we know the Earth is not the center of the universe, are we not implicitly contributing to a false vision of creation?
Now, in fairness, the vast majority of our ability to do astronomy forces us to look up from down here. Therefore, the "geocentric bias" I reference may be a bit overstated since it's the only perspective we really have at this point. Nevertheless, we have come to see that being able to view the Earth from "up there to down here" has transformed how we see ourselves and our common home. Whether it be the iconic images of the Pale Blue Dot or the Apollo 8 picture of Earth-rise from the Moon, simply changing from where we do astronomy can give us new insight into creation and our place in creation.
When looking at the contributions astronomy has provided for us in 2018, two areas of research have been of greatest interest to me that are "from up there to down here" approaches to astronomy.
- The imaging and forecasting of wildfires in Canada and the West Coast of the United States.
- The monitoring of sea ice levels at the North and South Poles.
Living in the state of Wisconsin, we have been dealing all summer with the wildfires from the West Coast of the United States and western Canada. Whether it be tracking the drift of Carbon Monoxide, studying the impact of wildfires on ecosystems from space, or a global look at the spread of dust and smoke, one can clearly see not only that the Earth is on fire, but also the range of impact these events have on our common home. One only needs to look at the satellite images of these fires to understand the importance of astronomy done from a different perspective.
Though a wild range of interpretation can be found online about the status of global sea ice, the best science of the day points to a gradual decline. What will the long-range impact of this decline be upon our common home? What will happen to global temperatures as sea ice decreases? Since the answers to these questions can often be summarizes in the sentiment, "We're not exactly sure, but we do have some well founded ideas," many use this latitude to platitude political and religious opinions that have very little to do with actual science and more to do with pushing agendas. For others, this gap in what we observe and the interpretation of what this observation means for our future becomes the template for research that is both exciting and concerning.
The excitement comes from the very nature of science to poke and prod at the unanswered questions that arise from human curiosity.
Concern emerges when we realize that some frightening possibilities emerge for our future based on the data.
Though it is true science doesn't have all the answers of where our climate future is going, to use that in a post-modern interpretive frame of "every interpretation of the data is just as legitimate as another regardless of how wildly speculative the interpretation is" simply doesn't hold water. Put another way, a connection I see between faith and science is that the more we grow in legitimate knowledge of our climate, the more we realize how little we know about our climate, just as how growing in knowledge of God points to how ignorant we are in our understand of God.
Nevertheless, the humility we experience in science and theology doesn't mean we know nothing about God and creation. Quite the contrary. It is precisely the knowledge we grow in that makes us more conscience how careful we must be not to participate in inflammatory rhetoric espousing a false certitude of who is God and how creation works.
Next week I'll continue my reflection on "astronomy from out there" versus "astronomy from down here." In the meantime, I would like to get your feedback.
Question: What are the scientific discoveries that have moved you this past year? How have these discoveries shaped how you see the world you live in and how you live in that world? Pray with these questions. Together, may we find through the legitimate exploration of faith and science a deeper understanding of God and the world, even if that understanding teaches us more about what we don't know than what we do know.
Perhaps Catholicism's love of tradition has rubbed off on my family. Maybe it's because we're packrats who refuse to throw much of anything away that attaches us to a past memory. Whatever the reason, my family has a history of patiently wading through hundreds of old family photographs, trying to preserve every memory of our lives by carefully archiving them in three ring bound scrapbooks.
Some of the pictures in these family archives bring about great joy, like family trips to Illinois to visit our favorite cousins. Other images evoke deep emotion, like the sense of adventure I feel every time I look at the picture of my grandmother trying to imitate Emilia Earhart, leaning against my childhood pastor's airplane. Scrapbooks provide us with a clear, visual history of our lives. Yet, they also inspire our future as we prayerfully reflect on who we are by gazing upon images of who we have been.
Yesterday, Br. Guy posted a quick announcement that registration has opened for FAW2019! The Faith and Astronomy Workshop is a wonderful and unique opportunity for those who love their faith and love astronomy to explore these two passions as a part of a community of non-scientist clergy, laypeople, educators, and catechists. Since I have had the privilege of being involved with FAW from the beginning, it feels rewarding that we have enough history to do some FAW scrapbooking of our own, similar to how my family carefully catalogues our past!
The origins of FAW were simple. When I was ordained a priest back in 2003, I felt an inadequacy in my formation on issues of faith and science. Since I loved astronomy and knew of the Vatican Observatory, I contacted Fr. Coyne, then Director of the Observatory, to see if the VO offered any programs for the non-scientist? The answer was a polite no, emphasizing how the VO works primarily in post-doctoral astrophysics, but my idea was good and invited me to check back at a later date to see if anything new had arisen.
Ten years later, I finally got around to writing the follow-up e-mail. Fr. Coyne had retired, so I wrote Br. Guy, asking the same question. His first response brought a smile to my face, "Don't wait ten years between e-mails!" His next response was humbling and invigorating, "We still don't have any programs, but let's make something!" And that something was the Faith and Astronomy Worship (FAW)!
For the first FAW, I was a participant and an annoyingly curious one at that! Br. Guy had told me to hold off on telling people why I was at FAW until my homily at the closing Mass. It was rather awkward when the participants that year would ask me, "So, how did you hear about FAW?" I often pondered how I could tactfully, but honestly answer, "I didn't... I was there from the beginning!" Below is a write-up I did for our Diocesan newspaper on the first Faith and Astronomy Workshop, FAW2015.
In 2016, my role reversed at FAW. I went form being a participant at the Faith and Astronomy Workshop to being a presenter. After being invited by Br. Guy to write for The Catholic Astronomer, he asked if I would be willing to present at FAW2016 on how I integrate faith and astronomy into my parish work. As usual, I was so excited that I tried to put to much into my presentation, focused on the wrong things, and came away feeling like - that... didn't go as well as I hoped. Still, the one point that many of the participants appreciated was when I shared with them, "This is not a program in which you will be spoon-fed tidy answers to questions on faith and science. Rather, you will be thrown into the world of professional astronomy and be asked to apply the faith you bring to these questions. In other words, YOU are the bride between faith and science as we share our thoughts and experiences with each other as a group!"
I think this little nugget of wisdom is important to keep in mind if you are considering going to FAW2019. If you are looking for a week of apologetics, thinking you will learn all the best answers to questions that atheists can throw at a Christian about faith and science, this probably isn't the workshop for you.
Instead, if you embrace the Church's tradition of embracing science and the mission of the Vatican Observatory that doing good science is part of being a good Catholic, then FAW2019 could very well be your workshop!
As conversations, prayer, and friendships develop over the week, your eyes will be opened anew to deeper and deeper questions about faith and science. To put it another way, you will probably come to realize that what you bring to FAW2019 as the pressing issues that interest you might give way to a whole new view of the relationship between faith and science you never knew existed!
To learn more about the Faith and Astronomy Workshop from 2016, I would encourage you to read some of the pieces done by Dennis Sadowski. Dennis joined us for FAW2016 and wrote some wonderful pieces on the workshop. Here are some links to his articles:
- Heavenly Mysteries: Questions of faith, science intersect at astronomy workshop.
- Connecting with cutting edge astronomy.
- Priests find comfort that in studying the universe, they come closer to God.
- This piece is not by Dennis, but a wonderful reflection by FAW Alumni Fr. Sauppe
FAW2017 was an interesting event for me. I came to the workshop rather tired. My Diocese was asking more from me in my ministerial work, making my energy reserves rather low for FAW that year. Still, it was a wonderful week of meeting new people, with new backgrounds, and were looking for different things than did the last FAW group. That's one thing I find fascinating and hard to describe to people about FAW: Every event has been very different because the group dynamics were very different.
The easiest way I can try to explain this dynamic is from my experience as a high school teacher. Every year, each class I had was very, very different. I learned that the best of teachers can pick up on these differences and provide new experiences for their students while communicating the same information year after year. As I learned how to apply these tricks of the trade, I grew in my knowledge and understanding, being attentive to how my students needed to be approached in the process of learning. Why do I mention this in regard to FAW? Part of my excitement of coming back to FAW2019 as a presenter is the unknown of a new group dynamic that will be asking similar, but different questions. As we journey together, not only will I share my journey with them, but they will share their journey with me, inviting me to grow in my understanding of faith and science. In many ways, I go as both presenter and participant!
I could go on, but I'll spare you the lengthy slideshow. I hate long, boring jaunts through someone else's vacation just as much as the next person! Nevertheless, I hope this virtual tour through some of the highlights in my FAW scrapbook was helpful to give you a sense of what a faith and astronomy workshop is about!
In closing, I simply wish to invite you to prayerfully consider joining us in Tucson for FAW2019. It is a unique experience and a rare opportunity to journey alongside professional scientists from the Vatican Observatory and lay people who are friends to the Vatican Observatory Foundation. It will be a wonderful opportunity to explore your questions with the other participants as you search for your own bridges between faith and science. From this standpoint, part of the goal of FAW2019 is for you to see that the faith you bring is an essential part of this journey. And, as we pray together, we ask God to reveal to us, under the beauty of the starry nights of Arizona, a new appreciation of our common home and our place in this vast universe.
To get a taste of what a FAW presentation is like, I would invite you to watch the video below of Dr. Brenda Frye and Br. Guy. Dr. Frye has presented at FAW in the past on the subjects of dark matter and dark energy. They have always been some of my favorite presentations at each FAW! Enjoy and I hope to see you in Tucson!!
Over the past three weeks, I have been invited to speak at two separate science fiction conventions. As I take these requests to prayer, I have been mulling over potential topics. Now, to be clear, I am not someone whose major passion is science fiction. I like science fiction movies, I've read a few books, but I am by no means an expert on the genre. Let's just say, I know what I like and I know what I don't like.
Of the movies that I have seen, I find an interesting and troubling theme that emerges on the future ahead: Dark, mechanical, animalistic, nihilistic, and godless. Dare I say, some of the motion picture "think tanks" that have reflected on our future have tended toward a de-evolution of the human condition versus an evolution into something far more meaningful and beautiful.
Case in point, I was trying to find a good, objective list of the best science fiction movies of all time. Whether it's objective or not, I tend to visit the website, Rotten Tomatoes, since it seems the movies they give high ratings to are usually the movies I end up enjoying the most. When I learned that the top rated science fiction movie was Mad Max: Fury Road, I felt that my hypothesis on the presumption of a dark future might have some merit.
Before I share some of my thoughts on the movie, I find it interesting that the top rated science fiction movie didn't have a script. As odd as it might sound, the only attempt at something resembling a script was the stitching together of many story boards to fuel the intense, raw adrenaline feel of the action scenes, which make up the vast majority of the film. (For an interesting analysis of how Mad Max: Fury Road was written, click here for a writer's analysis of the movie - WARNING: This does contain clips with a good deal of violence in them.)*
As I dug around online, I found that the writing of Mad Max: Fury Road was done more like a graphic novel instead of your classic movie script. This led to my first thought - Is our future moving to more of a visual understanding of reality instead of a written understanding of reality? This resonates with me as I am starting to get into graphic novels that are more than just a bound collection of comic books. One of my favorite graphic novels is titles Here. It's a graphic novel that presents a visual history of the room of a house going back before the room existed, everything that happened in the room after the house was built, and things that happened after the house burned down. It's a fascinating work! (Click here for a review of the book, "Here.")
Though there are many positives I can think of with the rise of visual based story telling, there is also something that concerns me: Mistaking emotionalism for well thought out logic. A movie like Mad Max: Fury Road definitely points to a growing cultural mindset of emotionalism and adrenaline addiction. As I have written and spoken more on matters of faith and science, I can see that there is more of an emotional response to my ideas than rational responses. There is much that can be said of this cultural shift, but I fear that we are becoming a culture of "They who yell loudest are correct." Perhaps it's because I grew up in the rural midwest where there is an implicit introversion to how people approach life, but I was raised more with the mentality, "Those who yell loudest should be trusted the least!" It's an unwritten rural ethic that implies that the best approaches to life are those that are patient, reflected upon, and not done rashly. Are the prophetic voices of science fiction seeing an end to rational discourse and a measured approach to life?
In terms of the movie itself, I will reflect upon two themes that emerge: The disintegration of human dignity and the destruction of our environment. The Mad Max genre is set in a Post-Nuclear War world. Therefore, the "think tank" of the world view is, "What would happen to society after a nuclear war - presuming that some people survive?" As shocking as this might sound, I think that the creators of Mad Max are correct to presume it would lead to cultural chaos and a survivalist mentality. Now, are the particulars of the movie such as turning people into living "blood bags" going to come true? I'd like to think that was more for dramatic flare. However, do the dangers of a culture of barbarism and literal wars over natural resources have merit? Unfortunately, those themes are not futuristic and have already occurred in the world we live. Whether it be disputes over the fertile crescent in the Holy Land or the ongoing chaos between North and South Sudan, we can see concrete foundations for this frightening worldview.
So what does a reflection on Mad Max: Fury Road have to do with a faith and astronomy blog? When I think of how I approach astronomy, it's definitely more of a "visual novel" approach. What I mean is that my first approach is to understand heavenly bodies from my experience of the visual and then develop a story around that experience. As I have grown in my love of astronomy, I have gotten into more of the rational, mechanical, and mathematical aspects of astronomy.
Notice, I did not use the word "scientific" in the previous sentence. I once was someone who thought that science was devoid of an approach to beauty. As I have deepened my understanding of faith and science, I have come to appreciate how beauty does impact a scientist. At the same time, the fact that I can look at the Orion Nebula and be taken by its stunning, eerie, and wispy beauty that reminds me of nonrepresentational art and appreciate the study of chemical composition, star formation, and temperature levels that allow this emission nebula to illuminate itself point to two very different kinds of understanding. I find that it is when both approaches are appreciated, embraced, and respected, we can get a clearer, richer, and more meaningful understanding of the universe we live in. Put another way, we need both the rational and the emotional to be healthy people, healthy scientists, healthy Christians, and a healthy society. To live in a world of pure emotionalism or a world of pure rationalism opens up the door for some very unhealthy developments in our personal lives and society.
Lastly, when I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I was reminded of a statement made by a brother priest while watching a Shakespearian tragedy: This story needs a Savior! As a priest, one would rightly presume that I bristle at the idea of a Godless, nihilistic future. It further saddens me when many of the insertions of faith I do see in science fiction movies these days gravitate toward the controlling, abusive, and oppressive views of religion. In defense of those who are pessimistic about the role of faith in our world, I can understand how people not only think of faith as oppressive, but also undesirable amid devastating revelations of crimes against children by clergy that are abhorrent, disgusting, sinful, and criminal.
I, too, feel sickened when I hear of reports of child sex abuse in the Church. My experience of faith was positive, freeing, life giving, and the priests in my childhood were good men who were my heroes, inspiring me to embrace the priesthood. Different priests showed me how faith was both rational and emotive, thinking and feeling, heady, but still had a heart. They were not perfect men, but their bad days never approached the sickening tales that have been presented to us in the media. And it is the example of these wonderful priests from my youth that I try to emulate in my ministry, though imperfectly, to try and instill hope that not only will faith be a part of our future, but instrumental in allowing for a renaissance of authentic faith, hope, and love, rooted in the love Jesus Christ.
There is much more I could write, but I want to hear from you. Am I on the right path or am I off base? Leave your thoughts below. Who knows, you might spark a great idea that will turn up at a science fiction convention the future! Or, even better, you might continue the long tradition in Christian thought of a sacred conversation about God and the world we live in that helps renew us personally and communally. It is a necessary conversation that can contribute toward a future of optimism, beauty, and peace, versus a world of darkness, despair, and hopelessness.
- *Disclaimer: the creator of the video cited has a commercial at the end to support his channel. My use of his video is in no way an endorsement of his work or an encouragement to subscribe to his page. I simply use his video because it provides great insight into how Mad Max: Fury Road was written.)
It's hard to believe that it was a year ago today that the United States gazed to the sky to experience totality. It was a moment where people literally stoped, looked up, and gazed in wonder at a rare natural phenomena that sparked in many an awareness of the supernatural. The Catholic Astronomer put together an archive of posts on the 2017 Eclipse. Take some time today and do what St. Ignatius of Loyola would call a repetition: Prayerfully reentering a past experience of God to seek deeper meaning and understanding.
Delight in this prayer and happy Tuesday! Click here to look through the 2017 Eclipse Archive!
This past weekend, I had the privilege of presenting at the Northwoods Starfest. Starfest is an annual gathering of astronomy enthusiasts at Hobbs Observatory, located just outside of the town of Fall Creek, Wisconsin. The participants pitch tents for the weekend, bring their telescopes, and enjoy time together sharing their love of astronomy.
I was invited by Mike Brown, an active member of the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS) and friend, to speak on the subject of the Vatican Observatory. Specifically, Mike wanted me discuss the history of the Observatory and the science that is done at the observatory.
Since I am not a Vatican scientist, I utilized many of the wonderful resources that are found on the Vatican Observatory Foundation's YouTube page and the Vatican Observatory's Annual Reports. The end result was a broad overview of how the observatory came into existence and how the research priorities are based upon the personal expertise of the scientists recruited by the Jesuits. All of this is placed under the simple rubric every Pope gives to a new member of the Vatican Observatory: Do good science!
After the presentation was done, I had a wonderful time meeting the participants of Starfest, looking through their telescopes, and getting to know who they are. As I often find when I do these type of presentations, the follow-up is less about how much I know about the science of space and more about a simple implied question that is never directly asked: Can I trust you and do you trust me?
The first barrier to cross in these conversations is getting beyond that fact that I am a Catholic Priest. What I mean is that many people will make a point of clarifying their religious background if they have one. Whether it is the Pentecostal with a Catholic wife, the United Church of Christ Pastor, the atheist son of a Baptist Pastor, or the Mennonite family that was cautiously curious about looking through a telescope, I felt that every conversation I had came back to the same, common theme of trust.
What I find most rewarding when speaking at these events is that once trust is established, doors begin to open to authentic relationship toward a common love of faith and science. It's not that trust is a skeleton key for deep theological reflection or profound scientific investigation, but it reminds me of the basic truth that theology and science are done by human beings in a trusting, open community. Yes, I can take the Bible from my shelf, pray with it, and have insights into scripture that are meaningful. However, when I share these insights with my parish in the context of a homily at Mass, the Bible truly becomes a living, oral tradition of Divine Revelation. In regard to science, I remember Br. Guy telling me, "If it wasn't published, it didn't happen." A scientist can spend time on their own researching different phenomena of the natural world. However, it is in the sharing of this research when science truly takes hold in the context of a community. The common bond of communities of both faith and science is trust that each are honestly and sincerely pursuing truth.
These thoughts came to me as I was giving thanks to God for my conversation with Pete Peloquin, the radio astronomer at Hobbs Observatory. As we began our conversation with a common foundation of Catholicism, Pete explained \what he does with radio astronomy. Pete took great care explaining a new collaboration with another local radio telescope to develop a small array that will allow him to research pulsars. Given the trust we developed with one another, I asked him if he could use the help of a radio telescope novice in this research. Pete pointed me to some good "radio telescope 101" resources with the common goal of helping me learn not only what radio astronomy is, but to do astronomy with him in a meaningful way. Needless to say, I'm very excited!
Trust as the bridge between faith and science. It seems so simple, but when we think about it, isn't that the missing link to almost all aspects of what it means to be human? If trust is not established, nothing can be achieved. Trust is a key foundation to human advancement and development, rooted in a peaceful disposition that affirms we can accomplish more together than apart. To fall into distrust is to breed rivalry in the human heart. It is this distrust and rivalry that leads to violence, war, and many forms of dehumanization. Therefore, trust is not only essential to do good theology and good science, but is necessary to live life well.
Spiritual Exercise: Whether you read this blog as a person of faith, a person of science, or someone who embraces both, how do you feel about trust in your pursuits? Do you embrace the fact that the sincere investigation of truth in faith and science can point us to the same starting point? Have things happened to break trust, making you suspicious of theological or scientific pursuits because of past hurts and wounds? Pray with these questions this week so, together, we can build trust that leads to theological and scientific insight. Who knows: It might just help us become better humans in every aspect of our lives - not just in the debates between faith and science.
One of the keys to success as the new pastor of a parish is to get to know your people... rapidly! I had a fun opportunity last week to not only get to know some of the youth at my new assignment, but also let them get to know their Pastor. As is the case at many parishes over the summer, St. Olaf held its annual Summer Vacation Bible School. Given the popularity of the recent Star Wars movies (I completely agree with Chris Graney's critique of the movies), our youth leaders chose a program called "Scar Force." The term obviously references Jesus' wounds, Scar, and the Holy Spirit, Force. The students were trained to be "J-Di" (Jesus' Disciples).
Given my love of astronomy, the organizers of our Summer Bible School asked me to do something with my telescopes. I was ready to take my H-Alpha telescope out to look at the Sun. Then, in predictable Wisconsin star gazing conditions, haze... a lot of haze! Frustrating, yes, but having dealt with these situations before, I had a "Plan B" in the event of uncooperative weather. What was my Plan B, you may ask? I set up my computer projector and introduced our youth to the NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) to show them how they could study the Sun on their own!
Images of the Sun and Solar Winds taken yesterday afternoon.
The students and I had a wonderful morning talking about solar prominences, solar winds, northern lights, and a little bit about the Parker Solar Probe that launched this past weekend. Throw in a little discussion about the size of the Sun in relation to the size of the Earth, and the astronomy portion of Scar Force received a great deal of "ohs and ahs."
After the science lesson and chat about NASA's mission to the Sun, I then asked the kids, "How do we understand stars in the Bible?" One of the youth immediately raised his hand and said, "The eleven stars that bowed down to Joseph in his dream!" A day earlier, our future J-Di studied the story of Joseph's prophetic dreams and their meaning in the book of Genesis.
Then Joseph had another dream, and told it to his brothers. “Look, I had another dream,” he said; “this time, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told it to his father and his brothers, his father reproved him and asked, “What is the meaning of this dream of yours? Can it be that I and your mother and your brothers are to come and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were furious at him but his father kept the matter in mind. (Genesis 37:9-11)
We talked about how the most common interpretation of stars in the Bible are as symbols of people. In Joseph's dream, the Sun and Moon symbolized his mother and father and the eleven stars symbolized his eleven brothers. I then transitioned to the story of God changing Abram's name to Abraham and how the Covenant made with God was emphasized by referencing the stars as a symbol of his future family tree.
He took him outside and said: Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be. (Genesis 15:5)
I shared with our youth, "The next time you go outside at night and look at the stars, remember that God has used them as a sacred reminder of you and me - The continued fruitfulness of God's promise to Abraham." Talking to a few of our adult volunteers the next day, I think it's safe to say I have some budding astronomers among the kids of St. Olaf!
Spiritual Exercise: When you look up at the night sky, what do you see? Do you see massive nuclear furnaces? Do you see the Suns of other worlds? Do you see the age these celestial giants reveal in tints of blues and reds? Do you see yourself, symbolized in this constant image of silent tranquility? Do you see something that makes you feel insignificant because of the radical smallness of our material self? Do you find your significance, realizing that if God sees the beauty of the night sky as symbolic of you and me, then we must be greatly loved and of great significance in God's eyes? Pray with these questions and may all of us go "back to school" as we seek to not only understand the science of the stars, but find in their beauty new and creative ways of affirming our dignity amid the radiant light of our celestial neighbors.
A while back, I shared with you my hope of going to see the launch of the Parker Solar Probe as part of my vacation time. Well, a new assignment later and that goal needed to be put aside. Nothing kills vacation plans like packing up your life and then unpacking it again in the space of a month. Still, I am greatly looking forward to following the Parker Solar Probe as it makes its journey to our star!
When digging around on the NASA webpage created for this mission, the technology put into this probe is mind boggling. The most basic achievement (hopefully) is the development of a probe that can survive the intense heat and radiation of the sun. Presuming this technology holds, this probe will give us information about our star that might unlock some of the great, unknown mysteries of the Sun and most likely open up new questions for exploration. In short, the Parker Solar Probe will feed one of the most basic intuitions of the human person: The desire to explore and understand this universe of wonder.
These past few years have been a scientific goldmine of discoveries. I never thought, as a trained musician, a scientific discovery would emerge that "listened" for the sound or "music" of space through something called "gravitational waves." In music history, the study of the music of the spheres was often presented as an ancient, out-of-date understanding of our universe. Granted, gravitational waves aren't going to be mistaken for heavenly ratios of numbers that contribute to music theory anytime soon. However, the simple fact that there is a way to "listen" to space through subtle vibrations in the fabric of the universe easily captivates the imagination of this musician priest!
Though the discovery of signs of water on Mars is not new News, the possibility of a saltwater sea under Mars' southern pole is rather exciting. My presumption is that this well founded speculation will lead to the development of new space missions to try to both verify the existence of this salt water and then find out exactly what this "sea" is like. As is often the case with Mars discoveries, the mix of science with a wild history of science fiction about Mars creates a plethora of bad interpretations of what this discovery actually means. Still, this discovery may help shed light on one of the most basic question of the universe: Is there life outside our common home? Throw in Brenda Frye's team discovering the oldest known star in the universe, and we begin to see that this is a great time to follow the science of space!
As I have shared with you in the past, my greatest joy as a hobby astronomer is being wrapped in awe and wonder. Whether it be peering at ancient star clusters through my small, backyard telescope or gazing upon solar fares on the sun, the universe provides a constant sea of wonder, begging us to ask the big questions of life and continue to scratch the itch we all have to understand what exactly it is we are looking at. As a Catholic Priest, this curiosity bleeds into more theological questions about the origins of the universe, my origins, and the purpose of my existence. These questions remind me how many attempts have been made to define what it means to be human. Whether it be scientific, philosophical, and theological, I think one of the sturdiest starting points we can agree upon is our unique ability to wonder.
Spiritual Exercise: What is it about our universe that draws you into wonder? What are the big questions of your life that you wrestle with? Share your thoughts and, together, let us explore these questions, regardless of our faith background, to help us understand not only our origin and place in the universe, but what it means to be a part of the human family. A family of curiosity. A family of hopes. And a family full of wonder and awe - the beginning of wisdom!
First of all, my deep apologies for my absence these past few weeks on The Catholic Astronomer. One of the occupational hazards of parish priests is assignment changes. As of July 5, 2018, I started a new assignment at St. Olaf Parish in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It has been a smooth transition to a city I know well and a parish that is home to some of my best students from my High School teaching days. Now, I'm celebrating their weddings and doing the baptisms of their children. I'm feeling older than I should!
Now that the boxes are almost unpacked and a new sense of "normal" is setting in, I'll be getting back to my weekly blurbs for you. A fun event that is on my radar screen is the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society's Star Fest from August 17-19, 2018. It's an annual event that brings local amateur astronomers together to enjoy a weekend of star gazing and education at the Hobbs Observatory, just outside of Eau Claire at the Beaver Creek Nature Reserve. I will be a presenter at Star Fest this year, talking about the history of the Vatican Observatory and the research that the Vatican Observatory does! In that spirit, below are a couple videos that nicely summarize the themes I will explore in my presentation.
Question: What are the summer star party events in your area? How can you explore your love of astronomy as part of your summer fun? Pray with and explore these questions. I invite you to post star party events in your area in the comment section below. May all of us make gazing at the heavens a part of our summer relaxation!
As is often the case with good vacations, I've been trying to find creative ways to hold onto the joy and peace I found while exploring Portland, Oregon and the area around the city. Since I am a bit of a shutter bug, much of my holding on has been through pictures. As I have shared my pictures on social media, some of my friends have commented that forests I visited look like something out of a fantasy novel. When gazing at towering redwoods, mystic waterfalls, and inviting trails, fantasy and reality easily blend as Washington Park meets Lord of the Rings.
This commingling of fantasy and reality also sparked my creative side. I have long desired to write a book on the Catholic perspective on care for creation. Of the many thought experiments I've played with, one of them has been to write some type of fantasy story that would include a sacramental view of creation. For fun, I have taken some of my favorite vacation pictures and altered them to be more like pictures in a children's storybook. Though the original images are more beautiful than the altered images, it wasn't until I transformed nature's art into human art that my creativity was sparked to explore fictional narratives and develop characters to traverse these mystic lands.
As I brought my creativity to prayer, it dawned on me that the seeds of good fantasy stories are not necessarily found when we escape reality. Rather, it is often through the engagement of the natural world that the heroic narratives of good fantasy emerge. That being said, even though good fantasy can be firmly rooted in reality, it is through the creation of "another world" that the narratives take hold and grab our attention in a way that transcends the world we live in. When putting on my philosopher's hat to explore this paradox, it begs the question: Which is more real - reality or fantasy?
Now, before we delve into an abstract philosophy of literature, we need to ask another question: Would we be able to dream in a way that evokes great fantasy novels if we didn't have a world that is ripe with beauty and mystery to inspire these stories? One way to look at this is through applying my images of west coast woodlands to the reality of deforestation.
Let's say that the places I have presented above are destroyed someday through deforestation. When left with only images and memories of the redwoods, could we grasp their beauty in their totality? Could we take that inspiration and develop fictional stories that may not only possess the natural beauty of the redwoods, but provide a literary backdrop to inspire great adventures of the mind that may lead to real-life adventures? Put another way, if we don't care for creation and lose the natural beauty of our world, do we also lose the necessary means to inspire greatness, creativity, and adventure in the human heart or do our dreams simply fade into a blank page?
These are preliminary thoughts that need reflection and refinement. I also need to remember that they are born from the afterglow of a good vacation. Nevertheless, I would like to hear from you, the readers of The Catholic Astronomer, to share your thoughts on this question: What is the relationship between fantasy and reality? Often, our world tries to separate these two human experiences. Might it be that both are necessary to delve deeper into what it means to truly be human?
Happy Monday everyone and I look forward to your thoughts!
About a year ago, I received a phone call from one of my former students, Kelsey Mattick, with a request I often receive as a priest: “Would you be available to officiate my wedding?”
These requests are both an honor and difficult to receive. They are an honor because they communicate that I have made a significant impact in someone’s life as a priest. They are also difficult because the schedule often leads me to decline these requests.
Kelsey and Sri’s request would have been ripe for a rejection since it was in Portland, Oregon and I live in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Thankfully, I looked at my calendar and was able to not only say “yes” to officiating the wedding but was able to schedule two weeks of vacation in the Portland area!
Last week, I offered a journal reflection about my trip to the Redwood Trail at the Hoyt Arboretum. This week, I want to reflect upon a beautiful grotto that combines the natural beauty of the redwoods with the supernatural beauty of a place of prayer and reflection: The Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother.
Truth be told, I didn’t know that the Grotto existed before arriving in Portland. Some of Kelsey’s family encouraged me to visit the Grotto. Once I did, I was in awe of how the Servite Order that stewards this land has created a truly sacred space while also demonstrating a respect and care for the environment where the Grotto resides. The central sacred image at the Sanctuary is Michelangelo’s Pieta, replicated in beautiful and powerful ways. The central natural image of the Sanctuary is its breathtaking beauty through trees, flowers, and paths, creating a serenity that makes it easy for pilgrims to enter into a state of prayer.
The first striking feature of the Grotto is its designation as a “Sanctuary” in contrast to being designated a “Shrine.” For some, this distinction might simply sound like semantics, but in the context of my vacation, it took on deep significance. To call something a “Sanctuary” indicates an intentional space in which the things within the Sanctuary are to be protected and shown reverence. Much has been made in the news about “Sanctuary Cities” where undocumented immigrants can find safe haven. It is important that we remember that the use of the word “Sanctuary” in this context gives voice to the human dignity that all people possess and is to be upheld regardless of their background, gender, country of origin, or state of life.
Sanctuary in the context of nature indicates an unusually beautiful and pristine treasure of our common home that needs protection. In the United States, the National Park system was born because of this sentiment, seeing within our natural world extraordinary places that thin the veil between this world and God. When applying this understanding to a place like the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother, we can find a threefold connection of the word “Sanctuary,” giving clear voice to protecting the natural environment the Grotto resides in, the inherent dignity of the people who visit the Grotto, and the presence of Christ in the Sacraments celebrated on these holy grounds - In particular, Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
At the heart of this Sanctuary is the mystery of the Sacramental life of the Church: Natural gifts given to us by God are made holy so that we may be made holy through the reception of these sacred gifts. Though we do not use this language in the west, this Sacramental worldview reminds me of the Christian East where the natural world is viewed as the “Sacrament of Creation.” As I have shared with you in the past, this worldview sees harm done to creation not only as a natural ethic, but also as an act of desecrating that which God has created. Therefore, the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother is a true Sanctuary of land, people, and the Sacraments that God uses to renew all of creation.
A place like the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother reminds me of Pope Francis’ writings on Integral Ecology (the interconnected relationship of all of creation, including the human person) and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s writings on Human Ecology (the more we support human dignity, the more we will naturally help the care of our common home). My recurring thought as I walked through the Sanctuary was, “If there ever was a place for someone to reflect on the ethical, moral, and sacramental dimensions of creation in light of their Catholic faith, the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother is the place!”
While experiencing the Grotto, I was reminded of Romano Guardini’s work, Letters from Lake Como. This text is frequently cited by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato Si’ and is a collection of reflections on what happened to the habitat of Lake Como, Italy as it went from a pristine environment that people enjoyed to the “vacation destination of the elite,” marked by the manipulation of the coastlines to build multi-million dollar homes for the wealthy and powerful.
Guardini draws upon this experience to set a sturdy ethic in regard to the relationship between humanity and creation. Guardini argues that our right relationship with creation should be like a person in a sailboat, riding the waters to a particular destination while also respecting the natural currents and waves of the waters traversed. This analogy emphasizes a respectful relationship between creation and humanity, just as the accomplished sailor develops a respectful relationship with the waters they sail.
At the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother, this relationship set out by Guardini is on full display. At no point did I find myself feeling like those who developed the Sanctuary were trying to overpower the lands with the construction of the Grotto Church, paths, and physical structures meant for pilgrims. Rather, one can easily see that attention was given to respecting the natural contours of the environment to develop the physical structures in relationship with the natural structures. It is done in such a beautiful way that the natural beauty accentuates the buildings in the Sanctuary and the buildings invite you to discover the natural beauty around you. In short, the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother emerges as a beautiful symbol of stewardship in the best sense of the word.
Spiritual Exercise: Do you see creation as something to dominate and manipulate or is creation something to be stewarded and protected? Pray with that question this week, get out into the beauty of creation, and see in this natural world the fingerprints of the supernatural, experiencing peace through the awe-inspiring beauty of our common home.
This past week, I have been blessed with the first of two weeks of vacation. Next week, I will explain why I am in Portland, Oregon and the connection I found between Pope Francis' Encyclical Laudato Si' and my vacation. For this week, I want to share a simple reflection based on the readings from this past Sunday's Mass and my visit to the Hoyt Arboretum at Washington Park. For starters, let's get last Sunday's first reading back in our heads and hearts.
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD,
bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom.
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.
I found it to be a moment of grace that this first reading coincided with my first experience of red cedars one finds on the west coast of the United States. Amid this collection of trees, there was also a Lebanon Cedar. Whether it be the Cedar of Lebanon or the number of Giant Sequoya that towered over me like Cathedral spires, the pairing of our first reading with Psalm 92 in this weekend's Mass took my heart deeper into the spiritual wilderness.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
To proclaim your kindness at dawn
and your faithfulness throughout the night.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
The just one shall flourish like the palm tree,
like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.
They that are planted in the house of the LORD
shall flourish in the courts of our God.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
They shall bear fruit even in old age;
vigorous and sturdy shall they be,
Declaring how just is the LORD,
my rock, in whom there is no wrong.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
As I stood beneath the towering grandeur of the Redwood Trail, it dawned on me that the last time I had a spiritual experience like this was when I visited some of the historic Gothic Cathedrals in Europe and the United States. As I twisted my neck upward to try and peer at the top of the cedars, I remembered twisting my neck in a similar fashion beneath the spires of vaulting sacred spaces. I recalled Bishop Robert Barron sharing with us as seminarians that part of the genius of Gothic architecture is that it naturally compels us to gaze upward, straining to see the top of the structure. This natural contortion reminds the Christian that we are to constantly fix our gaze heavenward, straining to glimpse the Divine.
When we fix our gaze heavenward, whether it be to the top of a Gothic Cathedral or top of a giant cedar, we become powerfully aware of two realities: How massive the structure is we gaze upon and how small we are in relation to that structure!
What I find interesting in both settings, the Gothic Cathedral and the Gothic Sequoya, is that I don't feel a sense of insignificance in this smallness, but a sense of peace, joy, and love. Further, when I gaze upon the refraction of light through stained glass windows or observe light's gentle bend through the leaves of nature's woodland giants, I am reminded how the light of faith touching our lives can cast a warm, mystic light on a world that strains to see and experience God's love. This light of God's love shows through those who inspire us to grow from a small shoot plucked from the top of the spiritual cedar of the community of faith by God and aids us to grow into the well-rooted tree of faith God calls us to be. Our lives become a constant gaze "upward," praying to grow into the towering spires of faith that surround us, being taken in awe and wonder by the growth we see in those who allowed Christ to bring them to full maturity.
For those of you who are familiar with the history of Gothic architecture, you know that the term "Gothic" was first used as a derogatory statement against what was seen as a bizarre and grotesque form of architecture for a sacred space. In time, however, the genius and beauty of these structures were appreciated despite the continued use of their derogatory name. In that spirit, if we remove the moralizing aspect of the term "Gothic," recasting it more as an objective statement of something atypical, not in proportion with things more "common," could we not see in the Everglades of our faith that saints stand like Sequoya and Gothic Cathedrals amid a world of mundane structures? Their lofty stature can, at first, give us a sense of insignificance as we strain to understood how their lives inform us how to live our lives of faith. However, when we realize that it is beneath the shady branches of their intercessory prayers and God's grace that we move from sapling to Lebanon Cedar, we can instead find protection, stability, faith, hope, and love. We begin to see and experience moments of rapid growth, painful pruning, and seeds of faith God plants through us, continuing the family tree of the Church. In a real way, the Gothic Cathedral and Gothic Sequoya become the metaphor for our spiritual lives that Jesus alluded to in this weekend's Gospel.
Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and through it all the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.”
“To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private. (Mark 4:26-34)
Spiritual Exercise: The call for care for creation is not only one of moral decisions on how to protect our environment, but also to see this call rooted in spirituality, affirming the fundamental goodness of all of God's creation. In Eastern Christianity, they speak of the "Sacrament of Creation," viewing the lack of caring for creation in a way akin to desecrating one of the seven Sacraments. Do you find this type of sacredness in how we view the natural world today? Do you find insights through the natural world that can draw us more deeply into the love of God? If weather permits, get outside today, enjoy the beauty of God's creation, open your heart, and don't be surprised if God reveals his love to you through the gift and beauty of our common home.
Now, back to my vacation!