I am a week away from starting my sabbatical! Many have asked, “Father, are you excited to go to Arizona?” I must admit that it is an odd question to answer. I know that I need a sabbatical and that this time of rest will be very good for me. Still, I’m feeling the tug to stay at the parish, experiencing feelings of missing my family, both my parish and on the farm, before departure. In those times of mixed emotions, I have reminded myself of what our Vicar of Clergy told me is the first lesson of sabbatical – “James, the parish will be fine without you.”
One of the aspects of sabbatical I am greatly looking forward to is having the weekends to myself. One of my goals for these weekends is to do some astrophotography along with other “shutter bug” projects. To have ten weekends to shoot the stars in one of the best places on Earth to do night photography is an opportunity I do not want to take for granted. Still, I am keeping this desire secondary to the primary goals of embracing the desert spirituality program at the Redemptorist Renewal Center and working on improving my spiritual, physical, and emotional health. Needless to say, this has the potential to be one of the most life changing times of my priesthood!
My goal for my day off today is to begin packing. This includes thinking through the astrophotography gear I want to take while still leaving room for things like cloths! After doing a little research, I find that astrophotographers have a great problem of taking way too much gear with them on their trips. In that spirit, I’m trying to limit myself to three or four lenses and a small travel telescope.
The lenses I’m choosing to bring are based on the type of photography I will be primarily focusing on: Wide-angle landscapes. The starting point of good astrophotography is wide shots of the Milky Way. Therefore, my Rokinon SP 14mm 2.4 is coming along with me as well as my Tokina Opera 16-28mm zoom lens. Here are some images I have taken with both of these lenses.
Obviously, these images are heavily edited. These edits were trying to bring out the main subjects I wanted to present. For example, in the two Rokinon shots I wanted the trees to be a significant part of the image composition. For the Tokina, I wanted the Milky Way to be prominent with St. Raymond Church in the foreground. Personally, I have had a lot of mixed feelings about image editing. There is part of me that wants to be a purist and focus on the “out of camera image.” Yet, part of me greatly enjoys the creative process of editing an image to emphasize certain aspects of the capture. This theme of creative editing was emphasized when I saw a documentary on Ansel Adams, arguably the greatest landscape photographer in American history.
Of the many things I learned from Adams’ approach to photography, I realized editing was a huge part of what made his photography grow from great to prolific. The analogy he used was that of the relationship between a musical score and the conductor of an orchestra. Ansel explained that the editing of an image was the composer’s performance of what she or he feels and sees in the score. This analogy spoke deeply to me as a trained musician, knowing that a sheet of music is simply the road map for making music. We, the musician, must take that road map and go on the journey. This became very important to me after finding the travel telescope that will work well for me on sabbatical. Mounting the William Optics 61mm telescope displayed below on a StarTracker gave me a 30 second to 5 minute exposure time of the Orion Nebula! The real fun, however, was when I took these images to Lightroom and started to pull out the colors I wanted to emphasize. Is this how the Orion Nebula actually looks? Probably not. Do I feel it captures what I experienced when I got these captures? Yes, but there are better images to come that will better express those feelings. Sadly, clouds brought both captures to an early end, limiting the data I had to work with. I can’t wait to see what I capture with this little rig in the Arizona desert!
The significance of editing images reminds me of one of the great lessons I’ve already learned about faith and science: All of us view our lives through a series of filters to understand God and the world God created. In the past, I’ve shared this image of Pluto presented in rather psychedelic colors. Though it is rather self-evident that this is not how Pluto actually looks, the false coloring helped the New Horizon’s team learn a great deal about the varying geography of this mysterious Dwarf Planet. In many ways, all images of heavenly bodies are subjective presentations of an objective reality. This subjective application of false colors heightens the objective reality of the varying aspects of Pluto’s surface. Put another way, a creative application of the subjective knowledge of the New Horizon’s scientists was able to bring out the objective truth of Pluto’s geography.
A similar lesson can be learned from the photography of Ansel Adams. A turning point for Ansel Adams’ photography was when he employed a red filter on his camera to darken the sky of a landscape image he was capturing, later title “Monolith, Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.” The reason he did this was to not only draw greater attention to the rocky face of the cliff by muting the bright sky, but he wanted to communicate his experience of this magnificent stone facade. If we were to look at both of Adams’ images of the cliff, one with the red filter and the other without, one could argue which is the “true” image: The one that is not edited out of camera or the edited image that captures the surface of the rock, the weather, and the smallness experienced before this stony facade?
When trying to give voice to our faith in God, we, too, use internal filters to express the truth found in the divine. Whether it be the sources of Scripture, Tradition, or the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, we find this tension between the limits of our subjective knowledge and experience of God that needs to communicate clearly what the objective reality of God is. Just as one filter can not provide us with the total image of Pluto, so, too, do we need multiple sources to explore the depths of God. Some of those sources and filters may seem rather cold and abstract like technical definitions of Trinity, Essence, Nature, Person, and Substance, similar to the filter used to image Pluto’s surface. Some may be more experiential, exploring how God moves the human heart, changes lives, and inspires people to live and share their faith, similar to how Ansel Adams used a red filter to communicate what he felt when he experienced Yosemite National Park. It is not that one filter is better than the other or more important than the other, but that both are necessary to help us gain a deeper awareness and appreciation of who God is and how we can understand God through the created world that has been given to us as gift and responsibility.
Spiritual Exercise: How do you view the world around you? What are the filters of the mind and heart you use when viewing creation? Are they filters that help draw you into a larger framework of understanding God or do they limit and obscure divinity? Pray with this today and may all of us find new and creative ways to express our inner thoughts and feelings about the God who loves us and created us in a way that gives clearer voice to who God actually is in our lives and in the lives of all people.