Friday, July 22, 2016


“For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance;
but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
(Matthew 13:12)

     I am old enough to remember the fading years of the Flying Saucer craze, which began shortly after World War II (and for some people continues to this day). Its heyday was in the mid-1950s, when it was possible for totally respectable people to openly say without the least embarrassment that they believed the Earth was being regularly visited by extraterrestrials. “Saucers” it seems were being spotted everywhere… well, almost everywhere. There was a curious inverse correlation between population density and number of sightings. The more rural a location (the deserts of the American West and similar wildernesses were best of all), the more likely one was to see one of these things. Somehow or another, our interplanetary interlopers never got around to flying over New York, Moscow, or London. They preferred Siberia, Tibet, the wilds of New Mexico, or the (then) dark lanes of rural Ohio.

     It wasn’t until many years later that I started wondering about why this was so. Not personally believing in visitors from distant worlds, I figured the answer lay somewhere within human thought processes. What was it about the Far West, the back forty, or a deserted country road that lent itself to such encounters?

     Well, first of all we have to keep in mind that the world was one heck of a lot darker at night back then. Light pollution was not a problem, once one got out of the cities. So there was far more to see. The Milky Way was a band of fire across the sky and you could read by the light of Venus or Jupiter. Instead of today’s pathetic sprinkling of a few dots of light, bravely battering their way through the combined spillage of millions of poorly shielded streetlights, the night sky was positively ablaze with wonder and color. So there were far more chances of mistaking Sirius or Mars at opposition for a mysterious spacecraft.

     But more importantly, there is something about driving far away from other people, going deep into the wilderness, that seems to cause one to somehow think he is in fact physically closer to the stars. After all, Space was the New Frontier, and how better to get close to it than by actually going to the frontier, right here on the Earth? It’s a curious mindset, and a bit amusing if you stop and think about it, but nevertheless still quite understandable.

     Nowadays, with the relentless advance of light pollution over the countryside, we have entire states where it is impossible to see the Heavens in all their unspoiled grandeur. Living as I do in Maryland, I am forced to travel hundreds of miles to get away from the leaden gray skies that one sees in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. I consider myself lucky if even just two or three nights a year I get the chance to see the stars as they ought to be seen.

     So there really is something to the idea that heading into the wilderness brings one closer to the Milky Way. Some years ago, I made a solo trip by car all the way across the country (and back again), starting in Maryland and going as far as Monterey, California. By the time I had made it to Salina, Kansas, I was in Dark Sky country. That night, I drove out to Mushroom Rock State Park, about 15 miles outside of town. I was completely alone, not having seen another human being for the last 6 or 7 miles of the drive (the final 4 of which were along a dirt road). It was still light when I set up in the absolute stillness of complete solitude, and waited somewhat impatiently for it to get dark. Night, when it finally arrived, seemed to come like the turning off of a light switch. I looked to the southwest (it was mid-October) and what I beheld took my breath away. The Milky Way in all its glory (I was looking straight toward the center of our galaxy) was a blaze of light that went right down to the horizon and arched overhead to be lost somewhere to the north. It was so bright that it actually cast a shadow. And it wasn’t just bright – it was colored! Electric blue star clouds interspersed with gleaming yellow spiral arms. Ruby red, gold, and brilliant blues sparkled along its entire length. I was shocked – that’s the only word for it. I was so used to looking up at the pale, barely visible Milky Way that I had seen under suburban Maryland skies a hundred times or more, and had no idea… simply no idea.

     I looked at M24, the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud, through my 15X70 binoculars (pictured below, with parallelogram mount), and literally wept at the sight. Using binoculars gave the view a 3-dimendional quality, while preserving the wide field aspect of the view. It was blindingly obvious that I was looking past multiple stellar aggregations to catch a glimpse of the outer regions of our galactic center. I have no idea what else I observed that night, because I kept coming back to M24 again and again and again. I simply could not get enough of it.

     There were several other opportunities on that trip (mostly in New Mexico) to experience dark skies, but that first encounter is what most stays in my memory. And as much as I enjoy reliving the experience, it saddens me in a way too. I think about the hundreds of millions of people who have never seen what our universe truly looks like. I feel that much of our contemporary spiritual poverty stems from our estrangement from the natural world about us. There should be no mystery to the loss of faith and rise in moral relativism in an environment where one seldom if ever encounters an horizon further off than a city block, where concrete takes the place of soil, and electric lighting that of the stars.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Prayer Before Observing

 (To be recited while setting up one's telescope.)

GOD, Creator of all things,

As I prepare this evening to look upon Your works,

Grant that I may have the wisdom to perceive You in all that You have made.

The universe is vast, but vaster still are You.

Matter and energy are real, but Your reality is all the greater.

The life that arises on Your worlds is fertile and active, yet it is but a poor shadow of Your mighty works that I can see at every hand.

If I am humbled by my place in such a universe, it is nothing to the humility You showed to Your people, when You assumed our form and became one of us, in the person of Your Son, Jesus Christ.

Teach me, O Lord, in my own life, to appreciate the majesty of all Your works, especially the beauty of those persons near to me - to whom, with Your aid, I can be an instrument of Your love.

As You brought fire to the hearts of suns and galaxies, fill my heart with the fire of Your Holy Spirit.

And help me to remember always, that all that You have made exists to Your greater glory, and is but a pale reflection of Your divine self, upon which I hope to look one day… unimpeded.  Amen.

Thropes Ende

As we were entryng at a Thropes Ende;
For which oure Hooste, as he was wont to gye,
As in this caas, oure joly compaignye,
Seyde in this wise: ‘Lordynges everichoon, Now lakketh us no tales mo than oon.
Fulfilled is my sentence and my decree; I trowe that we had herd of ech degree;
Almoost fulfilled is al myn ordinaunce.’

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, The Parson’s Prologue, lines 12-19

     So like that long ago host of the Canterbury pilgrims, fulfilled as well is my ordinaunce. The pilgrim road is behind us, and the blessed shrine of the Holy Martyr is in sight. Surely the journey has been of some profit to us. Perhaps some of those Big Questions that were raised at the start of this blog have been (at least in part) answered. Do we now know what is the “Meaning of Life”? Do we at least have a better understanding of what the question actually means?  You certainly won’t find the Meaning in where you’ve been along the way (all those places would have still been there without you), or who you’ve met, or what you’ve accomplished. It is certainly not what you know (there will always be infinitely more that you don’t know), or any other experience you may have had. Least of all is it what possessions you may have amassed (in the end, all we that may “own” is really only given to us on loan). It is who you ARE. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn wrote that life was the process of “becoming a human being”, and frequently noted how difficult that process was. He also pointed out (repeatedly) that we never know at the time what is best for us, and that what we often see as failures or disappointments (in his case, even a Soviet prison camp) are in reality precisely those things necessary for our (dare I say it, although he doesn’t use the word?) salvation. And we cannot accomplish this “Becoming” on our own – in fact, any attempt to do so is self-defeating.

     I cannot stress enough how strongly I believe in God. I agree with novelist Mark Helprin, who wrote that to deny His presence is like a person standing on the beach in a howling gale, lashed by sand, wind, and salt spray, yet all the time denying the existence of the sea. I can’t, in fact, even begin to imagine the world existing without Him. I get dizzy even trying to conceive of there being anything at all, even nothingness, without the Creator.

     So why bring up God? What does He have to do with “becoming human”? Just this. I believe (I really do) that God created the world in order to live in it – to be one of us. The Incarnation IS the Meaning of Life. In the first and last analysis, Becoming Human is why the universe exists, and we personally and corporately are part of that process.

The Parson
     Several years ago, spending Christmas at a friend’s house, a retired priest and friend of the family gave the blessing before dinner, and began his prayer with, “Look around, Lord, because what you see is what you get”. Those words really struck a chord with me, and I never forgot them. At the time, I thought he was just celebrating the company gathered together, and unapologetically acknowledging our humanity. But it wasn’t long afterwards that I read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the first time.  Reading those stories was an experience in itself, and what especially affected me was the Prologue to “The Parson’s Tale”, near the end of the book. In fact, I can scarcely think of any single passage in all of literature that so overwhelmed me with its depth of meaning as those lines in which the Company arrives at “Thropes Ende”, and the Host unexpectedly declares their pilgrimage achieved. I was stunned by the audacity of the conception. For more than 500 pages, we had been following the fractious pilgrims on their journey to the shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, “The hooly blissful martir for to seke”. In the course of the tale telling, this pilgrimage was gradually revealed to be nothing less than, as in the Parson’s own words, a quest for “Jerusalem Celestial”. Now we are suddenly told that a nameless, nondescript village (Thropes Ende could easily translate into modern English as something like “Anytown”) is nothing less than the Heavenly City itself. What is Chaucer telling us? That we should be complacent? That we should be satisfied with the way things are, and hope for nothing better? I don’t think so. (Especially since the Parson’s Tale itself, which follows immediately, is anything but complacent.)

     So what are we to make of this? I believe that Chaucer is affirming that life’s contradictions and shortcomings are an inseparable part of humanity, and indeed an essential element to our obtaining happiness. He is telling us that mankind’s proper concern is the “emparadising” (to coin a Dantean term) the Here and Now. And Christ’s Incarnation is the central element of that process. For while, as Genesis says, we are created in the image of God - of even greater importance is that God has also assumed our image in Christ. Through His becoming a human being, the most mundane aspects of our lives are inseparably connected to the divine. Our smallest, most insignificant, and utterly normal activities must be seen as leading us to the Heavenly City. As Dorothy Day would so often say:

“All the way to heaven IS heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the Way’.”

     And you don’t need a telescope to see that.

Site of Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury 
(Destroyed in 1538 on orders of King Henry the Eighth)

The endelees blisse of hevene, there joye hath no contrarioustee of wo ne grevaunce; ther alle harmes been passed of this present lyf; ther as is the sikernesse fro the peyne of helle; ther as is the blissful compaignye that rejoysen hem evermo, everich of others joye; ther as the body of man, that whilom was foul and derk, is moore cleer than the sonne, ther as the body, that whilom was syk, freele, and fieble, and mortal, is inmortal, and so strong and so hool that ther may no thing apeyren it; ther as ne is neither hunger, thurst, no coold, but every soule replenyssed with the sight of the parfit knowynge of God.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, The Parson’s Tale, lines 3096-3108