And then I wrote… this piece appeared in the March, 2017, issue of Liguorian, the magazine of the Redemptorist fathers. Many of you may recognize them as the folks who run the Renewal Center north of Tucson where we hold our biennial Astronomy for Catholics in Ministry and Education week (formerly called the “Faith and Astronomy Workshop”).
• Stargazing can be a form of prayer
• You don’t need a telescope to learn and appreciate the night sky
• Light pollution is a kind of sin, our own lights blinding us to God’s light
• In the stars we find beauty and subtlety; but you have to look in order to see
Job, Chapter 9: Then Job answered: “… how can a mortal be justified before God… who alone stretched out the heavens; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond understanding, and marvelous things without number?”
Last night I took my little telescope outside into the parking lot of the Vatican Observatory’s headquarters, here in the Pope’s summer gardens outside Rome. I spent only about fifteen minutes or so, hunting down a few of my favorite objects: a galaxy, a double star, a nebula. They are old friends I have gazed at ever since I was a child with my first telescope, years ago. It was very much like a moment of prayer.
Both as a professional astronomer and a Jesuit brother, I find enormous satisfaction and a sense of God’s presence when I tease out some subtle truth in my scientific data. But as well as being a professional astronomer I am also an “amateur”, one who looks at the sky just for the love of it. I’ve used the biggest telescopes on Earth for my research; I also look through my own small amateur’s ’scope whenever I have a free moment.
When I say that looking at the stars is like praying, I realize that people might get the wrong idea – especially people who are not used to praying. I don’t mean that I had a mystical experience, a transport of my soul to another dimension, looking through my telescope last night. Sorry, that doesn’t happen too often during star-gazing… or during prayer. Most stargazing, like most prayer, is usually just a simple pause in the business of the day, a moment to retreat and reflect, a quiet period that does not have fireworks and incense but which does leave you feeling calmer, quieter, refreshed.
I’m not the first person, or even the first Jesuit, to find spiritual refreshment in gazing at the stars. In his Autobiography the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, noted that when he was young, “the greatest consolation that he received … was from gazing at the sky and stars, and this he often did and for quite a long time.”
For most of human history, people conflated our understand of God’s “place” in our universe with the splendors of the sky. In many languages we even use the same words for “heaven” and “the heavens.” We can recognize, of course, that such an understanding of God is naive. But maybe our ancestors were on to something. The beauty of the night sky can be a wonderful source to inspire contemplation of both creation and its Creator. And Jesuit work in astronomy, like ours at the Vatican Observatory, is in keeping with the incarnational nature of Jesuit spirituality to “find God in all things.”
Astronomy is something everyone can do. It takes no special equipment or deep education to look at the sky. But the more you know about what to look for, and the more you know about what you’re looking at, the deeper your sense of joy becomes as you appreciate the profound achievement of its Creator.
When was the last time you contemplated “the marvelous things, without number” that God has done in this universe?
Learn to see the sky. Go outside every day, at about the same time every night. (Or every morning, before dawn, if that fits your schedule better.) This is an act of prayer we’re talking about, so treat it as such. Do it regularly. Do it in silence. Do it alone. Do it (at least, at first) without a book or binoculars or any of those other things. That’s what I mean by “naked astronomy”: learn to see stars without any artificial add ons. For now, leave your books, and your expectations, at home. Instead, look up often enough that you can recognize on your own the patterns in the sky every night.
All you have to do is to go outside and look up. Looking through a window might be all you can do if you’re an invalid, and if so, that can be a source of consolation, but it’s not the same as standing under the open sky. Ask any prisoner. Why do we imprison ourselves indoors? If you can, get yourself outdoors.
Dress warmly, and find a spot that can be your own personal observatory. It should be dark, away from city lights; it should be open, away from trees and tall buildings; it should be easy to get to. Ideal spots are hard to find. But even in a big city you should be able to find someplace to look; maybe the roof of a building.
Look closely at the stars. Can you see that stars come in different colors? Which stars twinkle the most? Does the amount of twinkling change from star to star, from position to position, from night to night?
Look for planets. How can you recognize them? Usually they are the brightest “stars” you can see (not counting airplanes and the occasional satellite!) but they are “stars” that do not move like an airplane, and do not twinkle like a star. For that matter, do you see any satellites? They’ll cross the sky slower than an airplane, but still fast enough to disappear completely in a few minutes.
Find the rhythm of the sky. Notice how the Moon changes over a month, how the Sun’s position changes over the year, how different stars appear and go away over the course of a year, how the location of the stars appears to shift as you travel north or south, how planets change in position and brightness over many years.
Keep a diary of what you see. Just a few notes every day can be enough.
The Beat of the Moon
Where’s the Moon tonight? It’s astonishing how difficult it is to actually pay attention to the Moon. I teach an on-line astronomy class as part of the Arrupe Virtual Learning Institute, and my high school students have a terrible time reporting just what the Moon looks like on any given evening… it takes practice to train ourselves to know how to see what’s actually there, and how to report accurately what we see.
How does the Moon’s shape change night by night? It is tricky to remember just how the curved side is facing: up, or down, or left, or right. Too often we do not see it the way it actually is, but the way we expect it to be from seeing pictures in books. (Notice any spiritual parallels there?) When I was in the Peace Corps in Africa, living close to the equator, the crescent of the Moon actually appears in the sky curved up or down; but the kids in my classes in Kenya would draw it “C” shaped or “D” shaped, like they saw it in their books. (Most of their books came from England.) In your diary, draw a horizon and then draw the orientation of the Moon relative to that horizon. Keep track of it, night by night.
Learning Where to Find Your Friends
Everyone should know the Big Dipper or, if you are south of the equator, the Southern Cross. For most of the world, either the one or the other will be visible all year round. But where it sits changes from hour to hour, and then from night to night. What direction is the change? Does it move around the sky clockwise or counterclockwise? Does its shift from season to season represent a slow drift clockwise or counterclockwise?
Use the Big Dipper stars as pointers to other stars. You may have learned this as a kid, in the Scouts: the two stars at the end of the Dipper’s bowl point northwards towards the North Star. The North Star (also called Polaris, the Pole Star) is by no means the brightest star in the sky, but it’s bright enough to be seen most nights. It is the only star that doesn’t seem to move while the Earth spins in its daily motion. It sits, by a nice coincidence, above our north pole so when you face it, you’ll always be facing north. (Likewise, the Southern Cross always points south; but there is no south pole star. We in the northern hemisphere are lucky.) The stars can orient you when you’re lost.
Polaris isn’t the only star you can find with the Big Dipper. If you follow the arc of the Dipper’s handle, you’ll arrive at a bright orange star called Arcturus. Keep going and (if the Dipper is high enough in the sky) you will reach another bright star, the blue star Spica. Remember, “arc to Arcturus and spike to Spica”.
Look across from the Big Dipper, past the Pole Star, to Cassiopeia: five stars in the shape of a big W. The Dipper and Cassiopeia take turns riding high overhead, then low on the northern horizon, the one up when the other is down.
Each season has its own collection of notable bright stars. Find the Summer Triangle… the Great Square in autumn… during the winter, Orion with its three bright belt stars… the Lion’s mane (a “backwards” question mark) sitting south of the Big Dipper in spring.
What Does It All Mean?
Watching the sky tells us more than just that God makes beautiful things. Learning the stars teaches us to recognize both regularity and change; you must know what’s regular before you can recognize what is unusual. It teaches us to be aware of both pattern and surprise; you must know what the patterns are, before you can be surprised by what is outside of the pattern.
In the stars we find beauty and subtlety. The most beautiful things are often the most subtle, the still soft voice heard by the prophet Elijah at Horeb.
You have to look in order to see. Seeing is more than just looking, it’s paying attention. That’s hard. But that’s also spiritual. Learning to pay attention is learning to pray.
You have to see in order to understand. But understanding never ends. You never understand the sky; you just get used to it. Like God.
Pope-emeritus Benedict taught one final lesson from the gleam of the stars, during his Holy Saturday homily at Saint Peter’s Basilica in 2012. Ask yourself this, once you’ve tried looking for the things I have talked about here: did you find the night sky disappointing in any way? Were you able to find a really good dark site? Or did light pollution, too much light from our cities, get in your way?
The International Dark Sky Society fights light pollution; their web site (darksky.org) can give you lots more information than I have space for, here, of what to do and why. But the Pope had his own lesson to draw from light pollution.
The Pope began his homily by recalling how the Liturgy of the Word on Easter night begins with the Genesis account of the creation of the world: “God said, ‘let there be light!’” Surely, light is a good thing. We think of darkness as the enemy of that light.
However, spiritual darkness is not the same as the darkness of night. Pope Benedict pointed out, “the darkness that poses a real threat to humankind, after all, is the fact that while we can see and investigate tangible material things, we cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil.” If we can’t see difference between good and evil, then what good are all our other lights, all the fruits of our technological achievements? Our artificial lights can be wonderful signs of progress, yes; but the Pope reminds us, “they can also be dangers that put us – and the world – at risk.”
Light created by God gives life. But what of the light we try to make for ourselves, to replace God’s light? “Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible,” the Pope noted. “Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of ‘Enlightenment’?”
We can find God in the stars, the lights in the sky that He has made for us… once we give ourselves the time to look for them. And once we stop blinding ourselves with our our puny lights.