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!