Reverence for the Heavens
The structure and scale of our galaxy is astonishing. But ours is just one among hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.
Little wonder, then, that the contemplation of the cosmos can evoke the same emotions as religious awe and reverence. According to Father Paul Pavel Gabor, an astronomer for the Vatican Observatory, this is not always a positive experience. Just as some may experience fear and trembling when contemplating God and Heaven, there are those who become similarly overwhelmed when confronted with the astronomical proportions of the heavens.
“They find it quite awe-inspiring, but in the wrong way,” Gabor notes. “When I show people pictures of the local cluster of galaxies, just to give them a sense of the scale of things, the reaction quite often is, “Oh dear. I’m completely insignificant, and I’m uncomfortable about this whole universe thing.”
“Faith tells you that the universe is not something to intimidate you, but it is something given to you as a gift, by somebody who wants to give you something nice, something pretty,” he says. “So looking at those astronomy pictures, you can either feel that the glass is half full, and believe that you’re really being given something here, or you can feel the glass is half empty and this is just frightening and you want to hide in your little rabbit hole somewhere.”
Whether you are terrified or thrilled by the grandeur of the universe, there is no disputing its elemental nature: it is the source of us all. As Carl Sagan once said, “We are made of star stuff.” The chemical elements that shape the breadth of creation also form our galaxy, our planet and even the cells of our bodies. Exploring the cosmos therefore is one way to get close to a “grand creator.” This notion is reflected in the final lines of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s poem “High Flight”, which President Reagan read at the memorial service for the Challenger astronauts:
with silent, lifting mind I've trod
This philosophical notion of a God for whom all things are possible, and who is beyond our basic human capacity of understanding, finds an echo in the still mysterious nature of the universe. For instance, most of the universe is currently attributed to the obscure categories “dark energy” and “dark matter”. Writing in Scientific American, the astrophysicist David Cline noted those terms are really just expressions of our ignorance.
Another area of scientific ignorance is the time before the Big Bang. What, if anything, happened before the universe began its current outward expansion? The Roman Catholic priest Georges Lemaître originally proposed the idea that the universe expanded from an initial point (which he called ‘the primeval atom’), and the Catholic Church supported the Big Bang theory even before most cosmologists did. This “day without yesterday” was seen as being consistent with the creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) as described in the Book of Genesis.
"The universe is not the result of chance, as some would like to believe. In contemplating it, we are invited to read for ourselves something quite profound: the wisdom of the Creator, the inexhaustible imagination of God, his infinite love for us. We should not let ourselves be limited by the concept of theories that only arrive at a certain point and which -- if you look closely -- are not set up as rivals of faith, but don't manage to explain the ultimate sense of reality. In the beauty of the world, in its mystery, in its grandness and in its rationality how can we not read the eternal rationality, and how can we do nothing less than to be taken by hand as it leads us to the ultimate unique God, creator of heaven and earth."
-- Read the entire homily (in the original Italian):
“[Galileo] was convinced that God has given us two books, the book of Sacred Scripture and the book of Nature. And the language of Nature -- this was his conviction -- was mathematics, so it is the language of God, a language of the Creator. The surprising thing is that this invention of our human intellect is truly key to understanding Nature, that Nature is truly structured in a mathematical way, and that our mathematics, invented by our human mind, is truly the instrument for working with Nature, to put it at our service, to use it through technology.”
-Read the entire translated homily