This past month, I have embarked on a personal project: Designing an outdoor patio. The reason for this project is multilayered. From the perspective of being the Pastor of St. Olaf Parish, we own a vacant lot next to my rectory that is empty. Due to zoning regulations, there is very little we can do with this lot since we are within the direct flight path of the Eau Claire Municipal Airport. A garden patio is one of the few things that would both beautify the lot and respect the zoning laws.
On a personal level, I come from a family that, during summer, would spend a great deal of time on our outdoor deck. When visiting home, it is common to wake up to an empty house as my parents would be having their morning coffee outside. This simple wood structure, combined with the beauty of our central Wisconsin farm, became a true oasis for the family. The simple, but restful experience of our family's deck greatly influenced how I put together the patio for the parish. Since I was paying for this out of my own pocket and was doing this myself, building a wood deck was out of the question. However, I tried to capture the feel of peace I would find on our farm.
One of the uses of our family deck I wanted incorporate into the parish's patio was a place of observation. On the family farm, I remember fierce summer storms that would, at times, prompt tornado warnings. Thankfully, the worst of the storm always seemed to track south of us. The interesting "rural meteorology" observation was that when the storm would pass our farm, the skies over us would clear, giving us a clear view of the massive thunderheads to the south. It was not uncommon for us to stand or sit on the deck and watch these storms roll through. After they were done, we would go for a ride to both see the aftermath of the storm and make sure everyone was okay.
Simpler observations were the numerous opportunities to watch nature. Whether it be the birds that would visit my mother's feeders, rabbits that would investigate the backyard for something to munch on, or the occasional deer that would wonder through our property, the deck became a place of encountering nature. This spirit of observation was deepened when I started getting into astronomy. I would so enjoy times of bringing my telescope home to show my parents the wonders of the night sky. I will never forget the night I had my binoculars and showed my mother how to find the Andromeda Galaxy. That evening, Andromeda was lined up perfectly over the silo on our property. It was so rewarding when I heard my mother simply utter, "Wow! That's a galaxy?"
I have used social media to keep the parish and friends updated on the patio project. I have come to realize that Facebook not only allows me to share my faith, but is also a fun way to share my life away from the work of priesthood. The patio project has grabbed a lot of local attention, leading to the predictable, "Father, what you need to put in next is..." comments. One suggestion came from my brother, Brian Kurzynski, "You need to make a small observatory as part of your patio!" My brother was on the mark with his request. Part of my original intent was to have a place that would be both relaxing and a good location for stargazing.
My brother's request inspired a question for reflection, "What is an observatory?" Webster's Dictionary or Google will tell you that the word "observatory" refers to a structure designed for astronomical observation. The etymology of the English word goes back to the 1670's, identifying such places.
When you parse the word observatory, you arrive at the Latin word observare. Observare offers the potential for a more expansive definition. "Ob" is to keep something in front of or before us. "Servare" speaks to watching something or keeping it safe, while "ser" communicates an act of protection. While praying with this, I realized I was not just building a patio, but an observatory. I was building a place where I could observe the night skies, nature (specifically the numerous birds that visit my feeders), and find a spiritual peace that is intimately connected with a desire to protect what I observe. In many ways, I have come to realize that the patio is becoming an expression of all the things that inspire me to explore faith and science: The God I love and the beauty of the world we live in.
Request: It wouldn't surprise me if many of you have an "observatory" in your backyard, whether you realize it or not. Some of your observatories may be intentionally built for astronomy, while others might be more like my "patio/observatory" that is a bit more expansive in its use. If you would like to share pictures of your observatory on this blog, respond in the comments below. I will give you my e-mail address so you can send me pictures of your backyard observatory. My hope is, similar to my last post on Apollo 11, we can develop a slideshow of observatories from the people who read Sacred Space Astronomy - Observatories both professional and personal.
Have a great Monday!
What was your experience of Apollo 11?
A few weeks back, I was honored to be interviewed by Dennis Sadowski for a piece he was writing about the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11. For those who would like to read the article, you can either click here or on the image of Buzz Aldrin next to the flag of the United States.
Dennis and I had a wonderful conversation about my "memory" of Apollo 11... even though I was born 4 years after it happened. At first, you may think that I have little to offer in answering the question, "What was your experience of Apollo 11?" However, knowing that Dennis was going to explore this question with me, I started to reflect on how Apollo 11 was presented to me as a youth after the fact in contrast that to my parishioners at St. Olaf who did experience the Apollo 11 landing.
The first insight that surprised me was how few people I talked with actually saw the landing on television. The parishioners I spoke with knew of the landing, were excited about it, and understood the political implications of the landing. However, since televisions were still new, especially color televisions, most parishioners I spoke with experienced Apollo 11 as I did: After the fact.
These conversations helped me understand just how rapidly technology has advanced. In regard to Apollo 11, we have more computing power in our cell phones than did the computers on Apollo 11. The way the technology is explained, I oftentimes feel like Apollo 11 put humans on the moon flying a supercharged Coke can and a tricked out Commodore VIC - 20 (the first computer I ever owned). In many ways, our technology boon shows us just how miraculous the Apollo landing actually was!
This reflection made me wonder, If Apollo 11 happened in 2019, how would our perception of the landing changed? Presuming that Apollo 11 would have been received with the same freshness and historical significance as it did in 1969, I imagine that the coverage would be a data overload as hundreds of cameras from hundreds of angles would broadcast on millions of televisions. The technology we have today (which was made in large part through the advancement of the space programs since Apollo 11) may have made Apollo 11 more personal, more accessible, and something that would have been as common as the roses growing in my backyard instead of a distant adventure that we hear about after the fact. Would this have heightened our sense of wonder of Apollo 11 or would the multimedia overload actually demystified the journey? We may never know.
When I think of Apollo 11, it often evokes other significant moments of American culture such as the Challenger explosion and the terror attacks of 9/11. The reason for this is the association of Apollo 11 as an Earth shattering moment in human history. When I spoke with parishioners at St. Olaf, they didn't quite think of Apollo 11 with this same gravitas and significance. One parishioner explained this in a way that was very clarifying to me: "Father, I don't remember where I was for the landing of Apollo 11, but I remember exactly where I was when JFK was assassinated."
In defense of my parishioners, my examples of Challenger and 9/11 are tragedies, much more akin to the assassination of JFK. Nevertheless, these responses have helped me gain insight into why it felt odd in my youth that very little attention was given to things like the landing of Pathfinder on Mars, but the Oklahoma City Bombing and other tragic events gripped Americans souls.
About a week ago, one of my relatives who lives in Eau Claire invited me over to watch a television special of declassified video of the Apollo 11 landing. The special simply called "Apollo 11" gave me a taste of what wall to wall coverage of Apollo 11 would have felt like. Below are videos from NASA and the Smithsonian Institute of the lunar landing. Enjoy these videos and, as we approach the anniversary of Apollo 11, let us pray that the spirit of exploration and wonderment we have as a human race will continue to inspire us to explore the God we love and the universe God created.
Reflection Question: What was your experience of Apollo 11?
Live television broadcast from CBS of the lunar landing.
What do you do when your LEM decides to land in a crater instead of your landing site?
A three hour video of the lunar mission
Follow-Up: I want to thank Steven Lanoux for these pictures he took of his 25inch Sylvania TV the night of the lunar landing. Neat, homespun piece of history!
One of the understandable occupational hazard that can greatly increase the stress of a Catholic priest is Easter. Amid the culmination of Lent, the spiritual and emotional power of Holy Week, the joy of Easter Sunday, First Communion, Confirmation, and St. Olaf's parish festival, my time has been rather crunched, but in a good, fruitful way!
Many approach Easter as a day and for understandable reasons. Between Easter sales in stores, Easter Egg Hunts, and grown adults who dress up in a bunny costume (kindof odd when you think about it), Easter is a feast that the broader culture has turned into a day of chocolate, chocolate... and a lot more chocolate!
For Christians who observe a liturgical calendar, Easter is not only a day of celebration but a season. The lead-up to Easter is the 40 day period (give or take a couple days) of Lent. The symbolic understanding of this time is multilayered, symbolizing the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the desert, the 40 years the Children of Israel wondered in the desert, and other calls for a time of penance and purification like the 40 days of sackcloth and ashes called for by Jonah to the town of Nineveh. The purpose of this time is to detach our hearts from those things that lead us away from God so that we can allow for a deeper indwelling of God's love and grace in our lives.
This then moves to a very intentional time called Holy Week, punctuated by the three day period called the Triduum, (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). What is unique about the Triduum is that it does not represent three, separate celebrations. Rather, they are one, continual liturgical rite that spans a three day period. An interesting way to signify this unity is through the use of bells.
On Holy Thursday, a communal hymn called the Gloria is sung toward the beginning of Mass. During the song, servers ring hand bells that are typically used during the consecration of bread and wine. After the song is done, the bells are not rung again until the Gloria is sung again at the Easter Vigil. At one of my previous assignments, the bell tower that tolled every hour was turned off during this period of time as well, signaling to the entire community that time was "standing still."
After the celebration of Easter Sunday, the celebration continues through what is called the Octave of Easter - an eight day period in which our liturgical celebration is seen as one, constant Easter Sunday. This Octave beings the 50 day season of Easter. The reason it is 50 days is to remember the time after Jesus' resurrection when he appeared to many, entered into eternal glory, and then sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to guide the Church, which we celebrated last weekend.
As you can see, these celebrations contain a very fluid sense of time. Days are elongated, such as the Triduum, seeking to evoke a timelessness of the heart to embrace the mystery of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Periods of time such as 40 days and 50 days are used to draw our minds and hearts into reflection on some of the greatest events and mysteries of the Christian faith. It would not be a stretch to say that, for Catholics, our liturgical time is most definitely relative!
As odd as this may sound, these reflections on time came up while I was doing some post-Easter Sunday decompression watching Avengers - End Game. Since the movie has been out for some time, I presume that a few spoilers are tolerable. For example, the film contains an interesting question with scientific, philosophical, and theological dimensions: Could Quantum Physics be a pathway to finding a way to go back in time?
The first thoughts I had while watching End Game was, "That would presume that time actually exists." As I shared with you in the past, Bob Berman from Slooh and Astronomy Magazine once shared with me in an interview that the best science of the day points to time being a type of illusion, more rightly understood as an observation of change through decay.
From the Catholic intellectual tradition, St. Augustine speculated that time might not be what we perceive it to be, but might be more of an observation of change as we become the people God calls us to be. Though these are obviously two different ways of approaching the question of time, one material and the other spiritual/moral/emotional, it does beg the question, "Do we really understand time as well as we think we do?"
These reflections on time awoke every time the characters in End Game discussed how they could undo the devastation that the main villain, Thanos, brought upon the universe by killing half of all living things. The ultimate solution was to "go back in time" and find the magical stones called "infinity stones" that Thanos used to bring about such destruction, trying to keep him from possessing the stones in the first place.
As the characters tried to grasp this "Quantum Theory" about time travel, they argued about what it meant to go back in time. The cyclical argument that emerged was when you travel back in time, the past becomes our future and our previous future from that moment becomes our past. It was a bit funny when some of them were horrified that some of the classic science fiction "ethics of time travel" were shown in that moment not to be true - rules like not talking with anyone from the past, not visiting yourself in the past, and being careful to not change too much in the historical timeline. As one of the characters asserted, so much for the movie Back to the Future! (Major disclaimer: Though I am not a scientist and can't speak to the complexity of Quantum Theory, my gut tells me that I should deeply question how true End Game was to the science of Quantum Theory - I'll leave that to our professionals to comment on below.)
I do find it interesting in this year of epic science fiction movies that trying to incorporate modern scientific understandings of time and existence seem to be at the forefront of many plot lines. One only needs to look at the recent release of the Star Wars -The Rise of Skywalker teaser-trailer to see how one laugh has spawned a social media firestorm of speculation on how Emperor Palpatine will return after his death in Return of the Jedi.
The cyber theories are wide and wild from thoughts that The Rise of Skywalker might revert back to George Lucas' original idea of the Emperor creating clones that his spirit would enter, a "ghost Emperor" that has possessed the old Darth Vader helmet that Kylo Ren has in his possession, or simply a holographic message found on the destroyed remains of the old Death Star (first or second). Might there be another trip into Quantum Theory in The Rise of Skywalker where the new characters will need to go back in time to confront the Emperor in some way? Might "the Force" make it possible to transfer one's essence to another time in history, similar to how Luke transferred his younger self to the battle of Crait to dupe his nephew in The Last Jedi? As a fan of these movies from my youth, I sure hope not! Then again, I'm not the one writing the movies - just enjoying the journey these brilliant directors have taken us on!
Whether it be the Catholic liturgical calendar, the Easter Triduum, Avengers, or Star Wars, time has been a constant theme that humanity still struggles to understand. One thing I feel fairly certain of is that the advancements of science will further change our understanding of time. As the concept of time deepens, so will theological reflection on how we live our lives in chronos (the daily passing of time) and kairos (timeless moments of great significance). And as science, philosophy, and theology wrestle with time, so, too, will the modern cinema of the future seek to incorporate these understandings of time into meaningful plot lines that are both engaging to the audience and at least in the ballpark of modern scholarship. (Most of the time, it needs to be a very big ballpark!)
Something I find interesting is that, whether it be ancient Greek Theatre or End Game, there always is room for one of the most timeless themes of human history: An ultimate sacrifice to set the world aright. Welcome to the intersection I see between Easter and End Game: Regardless of how our understanding of time and reality changes, there is at the heart of the most meaningful stories of life a true narrative of giving one's self for the good of all.
This theme of a sacred sacrifice emerges throughout human history. In the Jewish tradition, we encounter grain, birds, lambs, and bulls as burnt offerings to God for the forgiveness of sin, restoring us to right relationship with God. In many ancient cultures, human sacrifice was often used as an offering the appease the gods. In End Game, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), the one character that did not lose any of his family when Thanos destroyed half of all living things, offered his life so that all who were destroyed would be restored. At the end of the movie, it was a powerful moment when Stark, having used the same method of destroying all the bad guys in the movie as Thanos used to destroy half of all living things, lay dying from the physical aftermath of using the infinity stones. Stark, knowing what would happen to him if he were to use the infinity stones, had to step out in faith that his self-sacrifice would establish peace - even though that sacrifice meant his death and separation form those he loved.
Some have argued that this timeless take of sacrifice to keep the gods happy is no different from what Jesus did on the cross on Good Friday. If Jesus were merely a human being, there would be merit for this argument. However, Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity meaning that Jesus is God. Therefore, what subverts the classic, timeless narrative of sacrifice by humans to appease the gods is that God offered God's-self as the sacrifice. In Jesus Christ, God takes our place and embraces our death, breaking the cycle of sin and offers us the opportunity for salvation. To put it in movie terms, it was the greatest "plot twist" in human history.
The ever-changing understanding of the physical world and the timeless themes that have endured the test of time have been at the heart of modern cinema, literature, and faith. It is a beautiful narrative of how two intuitive truths drive the best narratives of human history: We have a natural desire to understand how our world works that is ever changing and peace in this world comes when we give of ourselves in an act of radical selflessness in imitation of the radical, timeless gift Jesus made of himself.
Spiritual Exercise: How do you see this timeless narrative present in your life? How does the changing nature of science and the timeless themes of human experience influence you on a daily basis? Whether it be the father who begs God to allow him to take on his child's cancer, the mother who rejoices that modern science has given her daughter hope in the face of a life threatening disease, or the avid movie goer trying to find an $8, two hour experience that makes them feel as though their life is better for having watching a movie, let us embrace this tension of an evolving understanding of how our world operates and the timeless narratives of how to set that world aright spiritually.
Below is an interview with the late Catholic philosopher Rene Girad discussing "Scapegoat Theory." It is one of his greatest contributions to the intellectual tradition and at the heart of my reflection on sacrifice in this post. Enjoy!
Later this week, I will have the honor of being one of the presenters at Vision 20/20 in Davenport, Iowa. This event is three days and has as its theme "From Pentecost to Pentecost." The heart of this event is to explore the New Evangelization through the eyes of Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. When looking at the list of speakers, it becomes clear that this will be a wonderful event for the people of Davenport!
Below are some examples of presentations that will happen at 20/20: From Pentecost to Pentecost. I would have shared all the presentations, but to do so would have meant nine pages of presenters! Please pray for the success of 20/20!
As you can see in the summary notes, my presentation will be offering an image of peace between faith and science, especially with our youth. The starting point of my presentation will be a recent pastoral experience that is not only fueling this upcoming presentation, but has made me take to prayer the possibility of writing an open letter to any science teacher who will read it.
One of the youth from Saint Olaf Parish, the parish I serve as Pastor, asked if I would be willing to be interviewed for a project in her middle school science class. The project was on how Christians view evolution. The teacher asked the middle school students to write a paper on the question, "Why does Christianity reject evolution?" As part of the project, the teacher asked the students to interview someone other than their parents to get their opinion on the matter.
The school has a very good reputation, as does the education culture in Eau Claire, Wisconsin as a whole. Many of the teachers and administrators at this school are some of the most dedicated and active parishioners at St. Olaf. Therefore, I see no need to "declare war" on this school or out the teacher by creating an emotionally driven caricature of them that would undoubtedly misrepresent and dehumanize them. It is a good school, with good teachers, and I have no reason to think that this project was given in any other spirit than as a means to get the students to think about faith and science.
Sadly, as those of you who follow my writing can guess, the very premise of the assignment reminds me of St. Thomas Aquinas' famous quote, "An error in the beginning is an error indeed!" Are there Christian denominations that reject evolution? Absolutely! And for those denominations, this is a valid question to be asked and explored. However, to stereotype all Christians as rejecting evolution is a misrepresentation of the diverse tapestry that is Christianity. Instead, it would have been far more fruitful for the teacher to ask:
"How do you understand evolution in light of the faith tradition you belong to? As part of your answer, interview someone from your Church/Synagogue/Temple/Mosque or place of worship who can give you an educated answer to this question. If you are not a part of a faith tradition, how do you view the question of religion and evolution?"
Why did I frame the question as I did? For one, the school I speak of is a public school. In my sixteen years of priesthood, I have seen two models emerge on how the separation of Church and state in United States is observed in public schools. One is that faith is not to be discussed in any way as part of classroom projects. The other is that faith can be mentioned, but must allow for the full expanse of faith traditions represented in the school to have a voice. My reworking of the project question obviously seeks to embrace approach two.
The second reason I re-framed the question as I did was to display the inadequacy of the original question. Some may argue from the outset that a faith question should never be asked in a science class whether it's a public or private school. I think there is foundation, at least in a narrowly focused course, for such an approach. I don't mind that faith questions are asked in a science class, but if they are, I beg any science teacher who is reading my blog post to take seriously my main point - Present a question of faith with the same level of clarity, intellectual integrity, and fidelity to the truth as you do your science lessons!
Sadly, as a priest who has been blessed with intentional ministry to middle school, high school, and university students, I see a growing trend of class projects on faith and science in education environments that are laced with false presumptions, grossly misrepresenting people of faith, and, unlike the situation I mentioned above that was presented respectfully, can be downright insulting to Christians.
At the university level, I have counseled students who have been called Monkey Haters (presuming they deny evolution from apes since they are Catholic), Flat Earthers, Woman Haters (used against those who oppose abortion on genetic grounds), and a plethora of other spiteful labels that do nothing but fuel hate. Now, I also need to share that I have counseled an equal number students (at times the same ones I referenced in the previous sentence) who have used, as Christians, derogatory, spiteful, and hateful misrepresentations of people who reject Christianity. This ministerial background leads me to two conclusions: 1. Anyone who thinks that a parish priest doesn't know what parents go through might be rushing to a false presumption; and, 2. We all need to take a deep breath, step away from the emotional fire of cultural spitefulness, and let the healing flames of the Holy Spirit assist us to embrace a sober respect and intellectual honesty for questions of faith and science.
So, what answer did I give to my middle school student? As a Catholic Priest, I shared our belief on evolution based on Scripture and Tradition.
Scripture - Genesis 2:7 ...then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Point being - The notion that humans came from preexisting matter is not contrary to Scripture.
Tradition: Papal teachings on matters of evolution have clearly displayed not only an openness to the subject, but a call to embrace the best science of the day.
Pope Pius XII: ..the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. (Humani Generis. 36)
Saint John Paul II: Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.
In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution. 4)
Pope Benedict XVI: Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such.(Question and Answer with Clergy on July 24, 2007. Response to Question 6)
Pope Francis: When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which He assured them of his continual presence, giving life to every reality. And thus Creation has been progressing for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until becoming as we know it today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives life to all beings. The beginning of the world was not a work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big Bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve. (Address to the pontifical Academy of Sciences. October 27, 2014)
Intellectual overkill for a middle school thought project? Absolutely! Speaking as a former teacher, kids know how to feel - let's teach them how to use the gray matter between their ears a little more!
There is more that I could say, but, for now, these are the initial musings I'm playing with for my presentation in Davenport. What are your thoughts? Share your reflections below. Who knows? I might just quote you in Davenport, Iowa later this week!
I wish to apologize for my absence from Sacred Space Astronomy these past few weeks. The Easter season is a time that dramatically increases the workload for a priest. In addition to Holy Week and Easter Sunday, the weeks that follow are typically the time parishes will celebrate First Communion for our 2nd Grade students and Confirmation for our Sophomores. Throw in Mother's Day and our parish FunFest and you begin to see the reason for my absence.
Sadly, there are also unanticipated moments that become a struggle for a priest, a parish, and a community. The Tuesday after Easter Sunday, one of our parish youth, Williamefipanio Hessel, went missing in the Chippewa River. Will and his friends decided, on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon, to go to one of the local parks to swim. Sadly, given the higher and faster river waters due to seasonal flooding, Will disappeared while swimming. It was announced yesterday that Will was found. I would ask the Sacred Space Astronomy community to pray for Will's family.
As pastor of the Hessel family, I have witnessed the full breadth of human emotion as I journey with them. Whether it be feelings of helplessness or the awkwardness of planning a Memorial Service while Will was missing, it is safe to say there is little that can prepare anyone for a tragedy such as this. After almost a month of praying and waiting, the news of Will being found was an odd mix of relief and grief.
The reason I share this as my reflection on the Sacred Space Astronomy blog is to reflect on one of the most basic truths about the human person: We are a Communal Creature. Yes, we have the privilege of openly sharing thoughts on Astronomy, Science, and Faith on this blog, furthering the natural desire of exploration that exists in the human heart. Too often we take these explorations for granted, at times to the point of allowing them to devolve into moments of dividing humanity instead of uniting us. Sadly, it is often when tragedy strikes, tragedy like the drowning of Will Hessel, that we take a step back, take a deep breath, and realize that what unites us is far stronger than what divides us.
In almost 16 years of priesthood, times of tragedy have taught me two things: 1. The "Whys" we can ask have no concrete answers in those moments; and, 2. The first step toward allowing the answers to the "Whys" to naturally emerge come when we deepen our communal bonds of love with one another. I love writing for Sacred Space Astronomy and I love my life as a Parish Priest. As I return to share my thoughts with you weekly, my prayer is that all of us will see this Sacred Space as one that unites and not divides. May it be a place for the wondering heart to freely explore truth. And when we need the support of one another, I pray this be a place of safety where honest thoughts and feelings can be both openly shared and reverenced as necessary to further our calling to be a communal creature.
In that spirit - Thank you for being a part of Sacred Space Astronomy. And thank you for being a community that I have the privilege to be a part of and contribute too. Your contribution to this blog is sacred to me. Together, let us walk with one another in this Sacred Space.
The old cliche claims, "A picture says a thousand words." This cliche may need to be revisited. When seeing the Facebook pic of Dr. Katie Bouman reacting to the first image of a black hole, I wondered what is more striking? A picture that will become one of history's most iconic images of a black hole or a smile so full of pure, infectious joy that it has entranced the world. Congratulations Dr. Bouman, your smile is one of the few things powerful enough to rival a picture that carries the historic significance of the Apollo 11 landing! I also think it is noteworthy that this may become the first Facebook profile picture to end up in every science textbook on the planet!
Sadly, the vicious nature of social media is trying to damage this wonderful scientist's achievement. Ignoring the fact that Dr. Bouman is downplaying her role in this image, giving equal if not more credit to the international team of scientists that turned the Earth into a telescope to take this image, the cyber trolls have shown no interest in learning the truth about this brilliant woman.
My first exposure to Dr. Bouman was about a year ago while watching a TEDx talk she gave on her contribution to this historic image. What struck me the first time I saw the talk was excitement, both at the possibility of imaging a black hole, but also feeding off Dr. Bouman's visible passion explaining the science behind this imaging process. I invite you to watch this TEDx talk to hear Dr. Bouman explain the science in her own words.
As much as I would love to wax eloquently about her great analogies of counting oranges, turning the Earth into a disco ball, quoting Mick Jagger, and teaching computers to identify selfies, all analogies that will serve her well as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, I want to focus on her team's goal: The imaging of a black hole.
What blew me away was when I re-watched her TEDx talk about what scientists thought they would see and then watched a video from last week of Dr. Bouman and other contributing scientists explaining what they did see. Watch this next video and I think you can get a clearer appreciation as to why Dr. Bouman is so happy!
I can't imagine the joy a scientist must feel when something they have worked on is finally put to the test and is proven to be accurate. Yes, this image is only the first of many that will further our understanding of the wondrous creation we live in, but it is the first!
For me, it is easy to make a connection between Dr. Bouman's facebook pic and the first fruit of the Holy Spirit we encounter in Scripture: Joy. The joy I see in Dr. Bouman is not only an iconic image that affirms her role in this historic image, but it should remind us of the joy we all desire and need. Dr. Bouman's joy also affirms something I have shared with you in the past: One of the greatest lessons that science teaches me is that life is a journey of exploration and discovery of the world God made and the people God made us to be - and I must embrace my part of this exploration!
Spiritual Exercise: Do we find joy in our life? If we don't, could it be that what is lacking is a meaningful journey, a pilgrimage to help us understand ourselves, the world we live in, the God we love, and the God who loves us? Could it be that science once again has taught us that the limits of the human person are only those we place upon ourselves, challenging us to explore new horizons to find deeper meaning and purpose?
Thank you Dr. Bouman, along with your team, for the historic work you have done. Thank you for inspiring many young women and men who will want to become scientists because of your work. And thank you for reminding this star gazing priest that at the heart of all of our lives is a longing for sincere joy that breathes life into the human person. Joy that you found in the first image of a black hole. Joy you have shared with the world through a smile.
A couple months ago, I received a call from Hilary Ribbons from Guideposts. Hilary writes for the branch of Guideposts that publishes Mysterious Ways and asked if they could do an article with me on faith and science. Below is a Q and A they did with me apart from the article. To visit the original post, click here to read Look to the Heavens: A Conversation With Fr. Kurzynski.
An excerpt from the Q and A, originally published by Guideposts.com on March 5, 2019
How did your interest in astronomy and faith begin?
It started as a kid. I grew up in rural Wisconsin on our family farm. I was really blessed to be born in a very dark part of the state with clear skies where I could see the stars. I was a daydreamer who loved to lie in the backyard and marvel at the beauty of the night sky. I would look at the heavens and be amazed with God’s love for me. The deep connection we share with creation and with God was very self-evident to me as a child when I saw the stars at night. It sparked a lot of questions for me, so I began to grow up on faith and science.
I went on to minor in astronomy in college. When I entered seminary, I wanted to explore some of the classic questions of faith and science, but my seminary didn’t have any classes on that. That’s when I reached out to the Vatican Observatory, and ended up working with them to help create the “Faith and Astronomy Workshop.”
There are many stunning sights in this world that elicit awe and wonder, and make us think of our faith and of God, but it seems that the night sky holds a particularly powerful experience for many. Why do you think that is?
When you look at a night sky and see what seem to be just pinpricks of light in exception to the moon, the honest question you always ask is: What else is out there?
When you begin to look into that, you start to understand the immense distances between our earth and everything else. You start talking about things like billions of light years and the size of our solar system. So it can be a very normal tendency to see ourselves as incredibly small. For some, this leads to a crisis of faith, because unfortunately, a modern presumption is that we need to be significant in proportion to creation to be important in God’s eyes. But Scripture doesn’t support this idea. In fact, it supports the opposite idea. Scripture says that it is in smallness that we find our meaning. It is when we are small that God can lift us up.
The philosopher G.K. Cheserton wrote a sketch in his book Tremendous Trifles that illustrates this well. In it, two friends are each granted a wish. One wishes to become a giant, while one wishes to be made very small. The giant is underwhelmed by the world, which seems tiny from his perspective, and unimpressive. The small man, on the other hand, remains in a constant state of awe and wonder.
What can we make of the tumultuous relationship between science—like astronomy—and religion?
Actually, the original history was that astronomy and faith were very closely connected. It wasn’t until recent day that the fight dimension has taken hold. When you look at the nature of science and faith, they’re not at odds with each other. Science examines the physical world and remains neutral about God and faith. Science doesn’t have the ability to explain everything. The proper relationship between science and faith is as dialogue partners.
It’s one thing to ask, as science does, “How are we here?” But it’s another to ask, “Why do I exist? Why do I feel the need to search for purpose? Why does my life seem to be meaningful?” The calling that we have to ask these questions, to improve ourselves, points us to something beyond ourselves. It shows us that something is calling to us as we’re calling to it.
Are there places in the Bible, or early in Judeo-Christian history, where we can see this close connection?
Have a great Monday!
One of the occupational hazards of priesthood is becoming a "workaholic." Priests are encouraged to take a day off every week as part of our Sabbath rest. This sounds simple enough, but between weekend Masses, sick calls, funerals, daily Mass, religious education for the parish, committee meetings, parish events, social outreach, and making sure the parish's boilers are in good working order, it is easy to fall into the trap of never taking time away from the work we do as clergy.
As is the case with many priests, I found myself in just such a scenario about two years ago. Without getting into the details, I began to see that the ministry I loved was actually creating health warning signs that I was approaching burnout. Now that I can look in the proverbial rear-view-mirror and feel thankful that the burnout I experienced is no longer a part of my priestly ministry, I now have a new goal: Make sure I never allow myself to become a workaholic again!
Through this journey, I've come to realize the importance of taking a Sabbath rest. When the Commandments call us to Keep Holy The Sabbath, many can reduce this Commandment to attending Mass on Sunday or some other type of religious observance depending on what faith tradition you affiliate with. The deeper context of the Sabbath points to two, essential needs for the human person: We need to stay grounded in our prayer and our bodies need rest.
As I have been prayerfully considering how best to keep holy the Sabbath, I'm feeling moved to use my day off as an opportunity to explore my love of music and astronomy. As I shared with you in previous posts, I had a wonderful vacation in Phoenix, Arizona after the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. After hiking up Superstition Mountain and recording music in a beautiful bowl shaped canyon, I am now inspired to relive this experience as part of my Sabbath rest.
To do this, I want to combine my love of the outdoors, music, and astronomy into a creative endeavor to help feed me spiritually. My new goal (once the weather turns to late spring/early summer) is to take periodic overnight trips to beautiful, dark sky places in Wisconsin and the Midwest, do some star gazing and astrophotography at night, and then record some of my favorite music in these beautiful places. The end result will be creating a series of short videos of my journeys that will be a kind of "Astronomy Scrapbook" of the places I've been and the things I've seen in the night sky.
Now, some of you that are familiar with Astronomy might be thinking, "Your plan sounds more like work that relaxation Father!" And, in many cases, you would be right. Astronomy is a labor intensive hobby with setup, calibration, planning, and then dealing with whatever the night throws at you in regard to weather. However, the advancements in technology combined with creative minds is taking the complexities of things like astrophotography and are providing creative solutions so many people can more easily enter into the exploration of the night sky.
There is a small company out of Singapore called TinyMOS. It is a company that is producing the first cameras that have astronomy presets that allow the beginner photographer to do "point and shoot" photography of the night sky. The way this is done is by noise reduction and shutter presets in the camera software that allows you to identify the type of object you are trying to image and then the camera automatically adjusts the exposure settings to help you take your image. I have ordered one of these cameras and have been notified that it just went to production! I contacted TinyMOS and asked them if I could do a review of their camera for The Catholic Astronomer once it arrives and they graciously agreed.
The reason I'm sharing this information with you is not to endorse this company (The Catholic Astronomer doesn't do business endorsements and this post should not be seen as one) nor am I getting any type of compensation from TinyMOS to mention their company (I'm paying the same amount as everyone else is for the camera). Instead, the reason I think you should know about TinyMOS is because of its founder, Grey Tan. When I heard his TEDx talk on why he wanted to develop a point and shoot astronomy camera, I found a number of similarities between how he came to love the night sky and the journey I have been on as a hobby astronomer. Here's his presentation to help give insight into his journey.
What strikes me about Grey Tan's presentation is how a powerful experience of seeing the Milky Way Galaxy for the first time gave birth to passion not only to create a new gizmo, but further his love and understanding of the night sky. This passion is something he wishes to share by allowing others to experience what he experienced in his astronomy class. It is this passionate heart that resonates deeply with my experience, wanting to share my love of astronomy with all of you as a Diocesan Priest. And, if the camera performs as advertised, perhaps I'll be able to share some images from my journeys to beautiful places in Wisconsin in the weeks and months ahead!
Spiritual Exercise: What experiences have you had with the night sky that drive you to want to deepen your love and understanding of astronomy? How can you possibly do astronomy as part of your Sabbath rest, getting away from the work you do and providing an opportunity to delight in God's creation? Do you take a Sabbath rest or has work become so consuming in your life that you are burning out and in need of some time for rest and rejuvenation? Pray with these questions and, together, let us find creative ways to further our love of the heavens. Who knows - It just might be that God is inviting you to behold the beauty of the cosmos as part of your Sabbath rest!
About a month ago, a good friend of mine who directs a local community theater called me in a panic. She explained that she was directing a stage rendition of C.S. Lewis' classic, The Magician's Nephew, and had one, big problem: She couldn't find someone to play Aslan. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician's Nephew parallel's the creation story from the book of Genesis. Aslan, a lion, is the allegorical figure for Jesus. Therefore, a creation narrative without Jesus would be downright scandalous in C.S. Lewis' classic!
Since I have background in theatre and opera, my friend Judine asked if I would play Aslan for two reasons: 1. I could pull it off in a short period of time, and, 2. I've been spending my whole life learning the "backstory" of the character! After prayer and discussing it with my staff, I accepted the role... and began to learn how to roar! Here's a review of another stage version of The Magician's Nephew.
The video nicely introduces you to the two main characters, Polly and Digory, and how their curiosity brought them to the attic of their devious and selfish Uncle Andrew. Uncle Andrew is a magician who makes two types of magical rings: One takes you out of the world and the other brings you back. As mentioned in the video, the children, unfortunately, have an encounter with an evil witch on their first journey before being transported to a different world - A world that is in the process of being created - Narnia!
It is at this part of the story that Aslan emerges, singing and speaking creation into existence. Aslan proclaims that what breaks the dark void of silence is the joy of life. Aslan then invites all to behold the beauty of creation - a newborn world! (Roar)
What I found interesting as one of the actors in this production, when the beauty of life is mention by Aslan, nothing is on the stage other than our ring bearing travelers. Then, slowly, life begins to take shape - hills, rivers, desert sand, mountain peaks, waterfalls, green grass, flowers that burst with pollen like sweet perfumes, and then the animals. Again, this is the stage rendition of a children's novel so I need to be a little cautious about being too theological in my interpretations. Yet, every performance we did begged a question in my heart: What is the joy of life?
To answer this question, I tried to "get inside the head" of Alsan. In other words, I prayed a lot! I've often read and prayed the story of creation from the "inside/out" meaning creation trying to understand Creator, but this was the first time I tried to put myself in the position of Creator when understanding Genesis. I reflected on the question, What would I experience when creating a new world and How was I to invite the audience, aka creation itself, into this experience?
The first thought I had was that creation would be something so personal, so inwardly inspiring to my heart I would want to share this in a real way. As a musician and painter, I know both the frustration and ecstasy of trying to bring a beautiful idea to canvas and musical staff lines. I experience frustration when the notes penned reflect nothing of my inner joy or the brush strokes refuse to reflect the image in my head. I experience ecstasy when the music and art not only express the beauty I felt, but surpass it with beauty that takes on a life of its own. As an imperfect creature, struggling to portray a creative, messianic lion creating a new world, I began to realize that I couldn't begin to fathom the immeasurable joy and love God the Creator beheld when Word became World!
As I moved to the creation of the animals of Narnia, I felt a certain playfulness emerged while reflecting on animals I find comical. However, I also felt moments of gravitas when the creation of large, ferocious, and stately animals emerged in my mind. Amid all of this, I felt an ever growing and glowing sense of love and joy. Again, as imperfect as I am, I can't begin to image the love and joy within the Godhead when you and I moved from sacred thought to sacred reality.
Predictably, I experienced a profound awkwardness in this production. No matter what theatrical tools I employed to depict creation, my stage presentation was woefully inadequate to express the dynamic between Creator and creation. Though my inner theologian was disappointment, my inner child hasn't had that much fun in a long time!
Now, how does this help answer the question, What is the joy of life? I wish to point out that this question is far different from the more basic question, What is life? To speak of the joy of life points to something that takes a more mundane reality and infuses a spark or energy into it that makes it richer. It is the difference between the statements, God Created and God Created Out of Love. One statement communicates a rather "lifeless" sentiment of creation where the other communicates not only a creative act but a quality that creation itself contains and intuitively connects it with the Creator - Love. Put another way, it is one thing to behold life and another to behold the joy of life.
What is the purpose of a creation story? This is a question I've reflected on with you in the past. Creation stories are not just a journalistic telling of the Who, What, When, Where, and How of our origins. They are not ignorant and inadequate stories that a scientific worldview can discard as arcane. They are the human person's constant desire to put into the limits of human language a deep longing we have to express our thanks and gratitude for being part of this creation to the Creator. They are, in liturgical language, an act of worship or liturgy.
From this starting point, an act of worship or liturgy can take on many forms other than the celebration of the Sunday Mass. Whether it be a scientist experiencing the joy of new discoveries while wrestling with the Theory of Relativity or a Catholic Priest dressed like a lion reflecting on God's experience of creation, there is a joy of life that makes both scientist and priestly lion rejoice (or roar), giving thanks for this profound gift to the source of the gift. A gift that points us to the three things that ultimately endure in our created world - faith, hope, and love. With the greatest of these being love.
Have a joy-filled Monday everyone!
Last weekend, the Gospel we reflected upon was Luke's version of the Beatitudes. What makes Luke's presentation of those who are blessed unique is his emphasis on the immediacy of those who are blessed in contrast to the Gospel of Matthew. Let's take a look at a side by side comparison of the beatitudes from both Gospels.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.” (Luke 6:20-26)“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-12)
One way to approach these differing texts is to explore the subjective and objective nature of each. With Matthew's beatitudes, they ring more subjectively, using broader language that can be applied in many ways, making it easier to reflect on questions like, "How am I called to be poor in spirit?" Luke, on the other hand, is radically objective, using language that begs an immediate recognition those who are blessed by God this very moment. Whether it be the stark use of "Blessed are you who are poor" or the insertion of the word "now" when we hear "blessed you who are now hungry," Luke forces us into an immediacy of finding in this very moment those who are blessed by God.
In regard to blessed are you poor, it reminded me of an experience I had while at a homeless day center in St. Louis, Missouri. I had taken a group of college students from the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse on a spring break mission trip to this day center. We stayed there all week, sleeping on the floor, and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the homeless who would come to the shelter. The staff was trying to break those who came of the habit of gambling, so they would not allow card playing at the shelter. However, they would let them play chess. Throughout the day, the day center looked more like an ongoing chess tournament instead of a day shelter for the homeless.
There was one gentleman I had the honor of meeting that shared his life story with me. He grew up in some of the more impoverished areas of St. Louis, but he worked hard, got an education, went to college, and then began his own business. He was married and had two wonderful daughters. As we spoke, my first thought was, "So, how did he end up homeless?" In that moment, the fact he was homeless seemed to disappear. Instead, I felt like I was playing chess with one of my parishioners or students. When I finally found the courage to ask him what led to his homelessness, one word came from his mouth with an expression that was twisted with emotional pain: Heroin.
As he recounted how Heroin destroyed his business, his marriage, and his relationship with his daughters, he suddenly remembered, "It's my daughter's birthday today!" He rose from the chess game as if we had never made a move, called her to wish her a happy birthday, and his daughter hung up on him. He came back, sobbing, and told me the heartbreaking end to his conversation.
It was then that Luke's version of the beatitudes spoke fresh to me when the Gospel proclaims, "Blessed are you who are poor... Blessed are you who now are weeping... Woe to you who are rich... Woe to you who laugh now." It became clear to me that Luke pointed to the man across the chess board as being blessed in the immediacy of that moment with poverty and grief. And I felt God tug at me, asking,"The blessing of the poor is before you rich young man, how will you assist him in his need?"
I am not qualified to assist him with his heroin addiction. However, I can help him find food to eat, clothes to wear, the basic necessities of life. And this is where we can see Care for Creation in the Catholic Church as not only a question of whether or not we recycle, but to acknowledge that if we are to take care of the poor in our mist to provide food, shelter, and the basic necessities of life, we need an environment that can provide us with the raw materials to make real these Works of Mercy.
As I have shared with you in the past, one of the most hopeful areas of collaboration I see between faith and science are the areas of Care for Creation and the Corporal Works of Mercy. The beatitudes from the Gospel of Luke clearly state that the blessed are ever present, identifiable if we allow our eyes to see them. Yet, for those of use who fit clearly into the "Woe to you" part of Luke's Gospel, there is a clear call to comfort the poor, to comfort those who grieve, and provide for those who hunger and thirst.
I see a clear connection with the Gospel's call to care for those in need and the work of NASA and ESA when it comes to monitoring our environment. When I heard of NASA's Tom and Jerry satellites, I first thought of one my favorite cartoons from my youth. Though I haven't watched an episode of this ongoing cat and mouse chase for many years, the metaphor was clear and fitting: Two satellites that are constantly chasing each other through the night sky. And what, might you ask, is the purpose for this astronomical game of cat and mouse? The answer is simple, but crucial: Water.
When reflecting on the changes occurring in our environment and the impact it has on drinkable water, I can think of few more important and urgent points of collaboration between faith and science then to ensure water for the peoples of the world. Water, obviously, not only speaks to what we drink, but also is necessary for healthy ecosystems and stable food production. When natural resources become scarce, poverty deepens, homelessness rises, desperation robs the human person of their moral capacities, choosing to justify immoral and criminal behavior for the purpose of survival. This type of social environment can lead to hopelessness and the rise of addictions to cope with reality.
The homeless man I played chess with was a victim of addiction. Yes, one might argue that he made the initial decision to take illegal drugs. At the same time, what started as a free decision became a debilitating addiction and disease. This devastating cycle of choice, impact of the choice, and long term ramification of the choice that robs the person of the ability to choose is at the heart of most addictions.
I see a similar trend in Care for Creation. We can choose to either use the best science set before us to inform our decisions on care for creation or ignore the science and do what we know will harm our environment, similar to someone experimenting with illegal drugs. Whether we want to admit it or not, those decision will have an impact upon not only ourselves, but also those around us and the world we live. In time, if those choices do not change, the environment becomes overwhelmed and the ability to choose what is best for our common home does little to no good for the environment. Similar to addiction, the dangerous part of not caring for creation is that we don't always see the impact of our decisions immediately. It is only when we become painfully aware that something must change that we find ourselves staring at a mountain many fear they cannot climb. This begs a stark question: What is the mountain we are standing before as a global community that needs to be overcome to properly care for creation?
Spiritual Exercise: Do we see Care for Creation being intimately connected with the moral choices we make? Do we see the call to care for the poor in our midst as including ecological choices to protect our ability to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy? Pray with these questions and, together, let us embrace a life of beatitude that we may both be blessed by God and bless those we have to opportunity to support as fellow sojourners in Christ, sharing the gift of our common home.
This is one of those posts I almost dread to write. The reason I say almost is because I have come to peace with my understanding of global climate change. The reason I feel a hint of dread is because of how the people I know who live in Wisconsin will react to this post.
These past three weeks, we have experience wind chills that have dropped to -51 degrees Fahrenheit, multiple snow storms that shut down local schools for days at a time, and so much cloud cover that those with seasonal affect disorder are going a little nutty. Am I simply complaining about the weather as many in the Midwest United States enjoy doing? Perhaps. However, my primary reason for reflecting on this is because NASA, the United Kingdom Met Office, and the World Meteorological Organization have found that 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record. After reading the reports, I have no problem embracing these findings. For many I know in Wisconsin, I'm sure I'll be greeted with, "Hey Father, I read your post on climate change. So, I've got this bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you!"
World Meteorological Organization Findings
United Kingdom Met Office Findings
There are many things that can and will be said about this data. Some will find enough information to argue against the adverse effects of climate change while others will find information to say global warming is so bad that all is lost. Regardless of what the interpretation of this data will be, for or against global warming, as Catholics, it wont change the fact that a foundational part of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is to protect the environment.
I must admit that Care for Creation has been one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my priesthood both personally and ministerial. On a personal level, I struggle to shake my own apathy to embrace care for creation. I have made many good steps, but I know I have a long way to go to embrace every aspect of care for creation within my own ability. In regard to the ministerial dimension of care for creation, it has been difficult, dare I say nearly impossible, to stir a communal ethos to take care for creation seriously. I find hope in many individuals, primarily my former students, who are passionate about sustainability. However, finding a vision in which most people can embrace remains elusive in my ministry.
Discussion: How can the Catholic Church, both locally and universally, do a better job to develop an ethos to inspire people to care for creation? Is there something the Church is missing in the discussion that could help show the importance of caring for our common home? Share your thoughts and, together, let us pray that all people see the importance of care for creation, regardless of climate data. May we see, as have our last few Popes, that care for creation is foundational for human rights and peace in our world.
As I mentioned last week, God blessed me with a wonderfully restful vacation after the Faith and Astronomy Workshop. Restful, that is, until my cellphone died and lost all ability to use the navigation software. When it first happened, I thought, "I've been driving these roads in Phoenix, Arizona for four days now - I'll be fine without Siri." Four hours later, I thanked God for helping me find the house I was staying at, exhausted from the mental stress of asking, "What is this place, how did I get here, and how do I get home?!"
In my defense, even parishioners who spend a great deal of time snow birding (a term used to identify primarily retired people from Wisconsin who spend the bulk of winter in Arizona) complemented me on my courage to try to navigate the city of Phoenix with no GPS. Nevertheless, there is something of the rural kid in me that felt like I failed to use my "natural" directional instincts to find my way home.
What does this have to do with faith and astronomy? One of the tensions I live in as a hobby astronomer is to balance the limited time I have to give to astronomy (given my "day job" as a priest) and the time consuming nature of doing astronomy. I feel blessed with the emerging technologies of automated telescopes that figure out your position for you or augmented reality star charts you can download for free on your cellphone that point you (sometimes) in the right direction of a star or planet. These gifts of technology can help maximize what little time I have to observe the night sky... when they work properly. And therein lies the problem: What happens if we become so codependent upon technology to enjoy the night sky that a dead battery, a worn gear, or a program that becomes corrupt can bring a screeching halt to enjoying the heavens?
The question of how codependent we have become on technology points to another foundational question: Do we even know the "neighborhood" of the night sky?" The first telltale sign that we are too dependent upon technology when observing the heavens is if we look up and can't identify constellations and planets. If our ability to know the night sky can only be done with an app or an automated GPS tracking system, we've put the cart before the horse. Therefore, a first principle of understanding the proper relationship between technology and astronomy would be the following: Does technology act as something that assists us to deepen a preexisting knowledge of the night sky or is our knowledge of the night sky completely dependent upon the technology we use?
The next question we need to explore is whether or not we understand both the limits and the capabilities of the observational tools we already have access to in our homes? For example, I've been slowly moving into doing photography as a hobby - both astrophotography and basic nature photography. When you begin to explore this world, you can be intimidated by camera/lens packages that run in the thousands of dollars, mounts that have directions that you need a couple dictionaries to decipher, and "suggested" telescopes that might be perfect for people who have done astrophotography for years, but would be a waste of money for those who do not know how to use the gear they have sunk a couple paychecks into. In short, as is true with most things in life, we need to start with the basics!
The best way to start with the basics is to ask, "Do I know how to take a good picture?" The advancement of cellphone cameras has given to every person the ability to take really, really nice pictures. Not only do they take nice pictures of landscapes, but also simple images of the night sky. One of the things I enjoyed doing at FAW2019 was to wake up very early and watch Venus, Jupiter, and sunrise. There are few things more beautiful than an Arizona sunrise!
Now, looking at these pictures, they're not the best and wont be winning any photography awards, but they are meaningful to me because they take me back to those experiences. The pictures are not the experience, but help me experience again those sacred moments. This brings up another important question when it comes to the technology of astronomy: What are you trying to accomplish with the technology, given the understanding of the heavens you have?
If you want to take a picture of a nebula, but don't even know the basics of taking good pictures, let alone night photography, it would be best to avoid buying any expensive equipment. Rather, take a good pair of binoculars or a field scope that is collecting dust in your closet, go out on a clear night and begin to get accustomed to the night sky. Find the objects that interest you, find them again, find them routinely, and then venture into the question of how to take pictures of the moon, then the planets, then stars, and then deep space objects. In other words, fall in love with the night sky first, navigate its streets without a gizmo, and then try to create meaningful reminders of your experience of the night sky. Personally, I know I will never be someone who will be shooting professional pictures for magazines, so I usually use my smartphone, a field scope, and an adapter to take images. If I want something a little more professional, I rent a quality camera and lens.
Four pictures taken with the rent-a-camera I never used before. I am particularly happy with the eclipse images since I took them through light clouds. Unfortunately, the clouds thickened just before totality.
Lunar images taken with my smartphone. Not bad!
As you can see, whether it's renting a rig for the weekend you can't afford to buy or buying an adapter for your smartphone and field scope that costs less than the rental, you can take some wonderful pictures of the night sky! The key, again, is to ask, Why are you taking the images? When I look at these pictures, I am reminded of two events: 1. My vacation in Arizona, and 2. A family that invited me over to their house because their daughter wants to get into astronomy, but wasn't sure where to start. If I want a poster for my wall, I'll go to the store and buy one - they're cheaper and higher quality. If I want to have personal, iconic reminders of some of the meaningful moments of my life, my love of the night sky, and my priesthood, I'll take these pictures any day!
Now, I'm not just trying to give you a slideshow of my adventures, but I'm trying to make a point - These pictures are wonderful, but even if I didn't have them, I would still treasure the experiences they capture. These images fail to come even close to what I experienced when I took them. I can't smell the night or morning air, I can't hear the faint calls of the birds, and I can't hear the conversations I had with the people who joined me in these moments. Photos, in my experience, always fail to grasp the essence of the moment, no matter how good they are.
Nevertheless, no matter how grainy, out of focus, or off center the image is, images like this take me back to the love I already had for the night sky. Put another way, I don't love the night sky because of the technology I use to observe the heavens - I use technology to help me remember what it was like to dream under a dark central Wisconsin night sky as a child, gazing into beautiful darkness saying profound things like, "There's Venus... There's Jupiter... There's the Big Dipper... Draw the line from the front of the cup... There's the North Star... There's the Little Dipper... Follow the arc to Arcturus." And so fourth.
Spiritual Exercise: Do you know the night sky? Are you willing to fall in love with gazing into the heavens? Does your technology limit you to what it allows you to experience or does technology deepen a love that already exists? Some may complain, "Ah, today's post was from a hopeless romantic!" A hopeless romantic indeed. And even if our technological genius someday comes crashing down, I will still be a hopeless romantic because I don't need a motor mount to point me home. I am already home in the wonderment of God's creation and the beauty of God's universe.