And then I wrote… it’s September and so the 2021 Calendars are available! Here are two more reflections from calendars of years past…
And since these are meant to support our Calendar guild (click here to get a calendar!) I am not putting them behind the usual firewall…
The COVID-19 pandemic that hit the world in 2020 brought many changes to all of our lives, including the tragic deaths of people we knew and loved. Meanwhile, even for those of us who were not directly affected by the disease, the uncertainty that it brought to our lives was a constant worry. Fear arises from uncertainty.
Science tries to put constraints on that fear by at least letting us know what is likely, or not likely, to occur. This was the motivation behind the desire of every civilization to outline the shape of the coming year with calendars. Astronomy was developed and supported by our ancient cultures precisely to give us the reassurance that spring would follow winter, and to remind us to be prepared when winter would come again.
As our knowledge of the sky grew and we learned even how to predict the motions of the planets, wandering among those stars, it was tempting (if ultimately fruitless) to hope that we could use that ability to somehow give us a comforting foreknowledge of things to come here on Earth. Still, even if astrology was ultimately found wanting, the repeatable sequence of the stars through the seasons which astronomy taught us could be a source of reassurance in an uncertain universe.
But along with letting us know about the usual seasons of the year, a calendar can also remind us of the days when something unusual did happen: the birth or death of a notable person, the remembrance days of triumph or tragedy. And each day on a calendar can also have space for us to note, as they come, events which may have an unusual significance only to us; and to remind us of them when they have passed.
The fact is, for all that calendars can give us a repeatable framework for our lives, nonetheless every day is filled with unpredictable moments. Even wonderful events — a wedding, a graduation, a new birth — can be unsettling. That is why, beyond the limits of astronomy or medicine to cure our worries, we can be reassured by the words of the risen Christ to his apostles: “Do not be afraid.”
One striking parallel I find between the worlds of science and faith is the eternal tension between isolation and community. When I am at the telescope looking at a beautiful nebula, or when I am in front of my computer analyzing my data, I am alone. My concentration is entirely on the object before me; I dread the interruption of a visitor to my office or the beep of an incoming email.
And yet I cannot do this work without the community of people who taught me where to point my telescope, indeed who made the telescope for me to point. And I do this work so that I can share it with my colleagues and friends. The joy of discovery is empty if it is not linked to the joy of telling someone else about what I have discovered.
Likewise, every encounter with God is intensely personal and private. And yet I would not know how to find God, much less how to understand that encounter, without the support of my religion. Even people who think they are “finding Jesus on their own,” only know that there is a Jesus to be found because of the community of our forebears who gave us the scriptures.
As a young astronomer I worried that the isolation I experienced in my work meant that astronomy had no relevance to the “real world” of human problems and pain. But when I went to Africa with the US Peace Corps, I found that the Africans themselves were hungry to learn about this universe. It’s a hunger as real as the need for bread; we are human, we cannot live by bread alone.
We are all familiar with the sad irony that so-called “social media” can make us less social, more isolated. The beautiful irony is that an observer isolated and alone on a mountaintop studying the stars is in fact linked to every other human who has looked up at the sky in wonder.
Your support of the Vatican Observatory Foundation helps us build these links among all of us who go alone to the mountaintops, seeking bread for the soul.