One of my favorite things to do when I lived in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was to stroll over the walking bridges that stretch over the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers. They were originally train bridges that are no longer in service. Instead of tearing them down, the city, wisely, decided to repurpose them as pedestrian walking and biking bridges. These bridges and walking trails are so well done that you literally feel like you have escaped the city, even though you are still in the middle of about 70,000 people.
When I was in more contemplative moods, I loved to walk to the middle of the bridge that goes over the Chippewa River and just watch the water flow beneath me. The Chippewa River is quite shallow at this point and moves quickly. This shallow water, the current’s speed, and a rocky river bed creates a beauty effect of hundreds of little “whirlpools” that spin down the river. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to think of the galaxy that has been dubbed the “Whirlpool Galaxy,” floating on the “river” of space-time, being twisted and contorted by forces we don’t see or completely understand, but we know are present because of their impact upon the visible universe. These moments become a spiritual experience, feeling God is allowing me to feel connected with something far beyond my comprehension (a galaxy) through a small spiral of water I can break apart with my fingers if I choose. Needless to say, these contemplative walks brought great peace.
Another moment of connecting something small on earth with something unthinkably huge in space occurred while I was doing my classroom visit with the kids at St. Joseph’s Grade School (our parish grade school). I was sitting with our second graders and doing a “Q and A” session, which means that I would listen to them make statements and then turn those ideas into questions. One of the children, a young girl, raised her hand and said, “I love to look at the middle of sunflowers! They are so pretty, more pretty than anything else in the whole world!” Her innocent comment made me think of a “sunflower” I like to look at: the “Sunflower Galaxy.” In this moment of excitement, I tried to put into second grade language the visual similarities between the Sunflower Galaxy and the sunflower she so loves. As I saw the confusion cover her face, I asked, “Would it help if I would bring a picture of the Sunflower Galaxy to class next time?” She quickly nodded her head up and down. Therefore, thanks to the NASA website, below is my “show and tell” for my next classroom visit.
These serene images of whirlpools and sunflowers can evoke the predictable melancholy that comes at the end of summer for those of us who live in cold winter climates. The crisp, beautiful days of September are not only treasured for their beauty, but also their brevity. All too soon, the cold and chill of winter snows will arrive after the departure of the healing ambers and rusty yellows of fall, painting our landscape with inescapably beauty. This brief time of serenity inspires most of us to go out and visit our local parks for one last deep breath of summer, reverting back to simple joys like sitting on a blanket with family or friends for a picnic lunch. This pastoral image evokes another connection with the little things of life and the immensity of our universe, the simple play of a child holding a pinwheel in the wind. Can you imagine a “Pinwheel Galaxy” on a stick? I’m surprised the organizers of the Minnesota State Fair haven’t found a creative way to add this to their array of hand heald, deep fried treats!
Why do people get drawn into astronomy? I’m sure there are as many answers to this question as there are people who have gazed into the heaven. However, I can’t help but think that part of the answer to this question is that we can make easy, visual connections with what we see on earth and what we see in the heavens. Now, when exploring the science of these objects, there becomes a greater dissimilarity than similarity. Yet, I still wonder if the astronomer runs the risk that Mark Twain eluded to when writing about being a Mississippi Riverboat Captain, reducing a magnificent river into nothing more than an endless litany of dangers and doom.
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade? (from “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” by Mark Twain)
From this standpoint, I can see an important application for both faith and science: If our theological and scientific pursuits become so divorced from the common experience of everyday people, creating a dense web of theories and ideas that are close to incomprehensible even to the brightest of minds, does this really contribute to the human condition? Am I arguing that we shouldn’t have advanced science and theology? No, we need to continually explore our understanding of the physical world and how God inspires us to understand the world we live in. However, even the most complicated aspects of faith and science need to be made accessible to all people, allowing for public discussion that includes science, theology, philosophy, the arts, literature, and all branches of knowledge. Put another way, we all should have the heart of my second grader, willing to experience the intricate beauty of our world, as she does when looking at sunflowers, and share that beauty with others. For those who are in the professional sciences and professional theology, it is our responsibility to invite this young mind to comprehend a world that is both connected with the beauty she sees, but also deepens her knowledge in new ways, never forgetting the initial wonder that drew her (and us) into this exploration in the first place. In the process, we are called to walk together as a community, constantly seeking to understand the beauty, goodness, and truth of the world we live in.
What connections do you see between the simple things of our world and the universe that exists beyond our common home? Ask God to reveal His fingerprints to you in creation, allowing you a moment of comprehending this beauty that also contains within its aesthetics a complexity of truth, calling the human mind to study and understand our world in greater detail.