“The heavens declare the glory of God…”

George Weigel

In his Life of St. Augustine, the 5th-century bishop Possidius tells us that the greatest of the Latin Doctors of the Church, knowing that his earthly end was near, had four penitential psalms copied and hung on the walls of his room.  “From his sickbed,” Possidius writes, Augustine “could see these sheets of paper…and would read them, crying constantly and deeply.” It was an act of deep piety that we all might ponder ways to emulate.

Were I to do something similar, however, I might add Psalm 42 (“Like the deer that years for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God/My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God?”) – and a few color prints from Astronomy Picture of the Day, an extraordinary project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, available for free at apod.nasa.gov. NASA has come in for a lot of (justified) criticism in recent years. By contrast, Astronomy Picture of the Day is a service for which I’m delighted to pay federal taxes. Every day, it provides me a preview of what I hope to see post-mortem: the glory of God declared in a display of astronomical wonders that vividly illustrate the extravagance of the divine creativity.

Astronomy Picture of the Day lifts my spirits, which is why I try to accompany morning prayer with a visit to the site. For a brief glimpse of the visual feast that awaits anyone similarly inclined, let me suggest four recent gems, available at the “archive” tab at apod.nasa.gov.

On April 25, APOD and the Hubble Space Telescope offered a brilliantly-hued panorama of the “Cosmic Reef” within the Large Magellanic Cloud, 160,000 light years away. On May 15, APOD featured two dancing galaxies 12 million light years away, which, as the brief explanation following the striking image notes, “have been locked in gravitational combat for a billion years” – a dance that “in the next few billions years” will lead to a cosmic merger. On June 1, APOD introduced me to the “whirlwind of spectacular star formation” happening within the Lagoon Nebula, captured in resplendent magenta by Hubble at a distance of 5,000 light years.

And then there was the most extraordinary of this lot: Hubble’s dazzling color portrait of the “Porpoise Galaxy,” which APOD posted on May 10. The description of how this fantastic phenomenon came about is worth quoting: “Just a few hundred million years ago, NGC 2936, the upper of the two galaxies shown, was likely a normal spiral galaxy – spinning, creating stars – and minding its own business. But then it got too close to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC 2937…and took a dive. Dubbed the porpoise galaxy for its…shape, NGC 2936 is not only being deflected but also being distorted by the close gravitational interaction. A burst of young blue stars forms the nose of the porpoise….while the center of the spiral appears as an eye. Alternatively, the galaxy pair…look to some look to some like a penguin protecting an egg.”

Whatever. Porpoise or penguin, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

The marvels archived at APOD suggest more than the possibility of a post-mortem galactic Grand Tour, however. They suggest that the burden of proof ought to be on those who insist that all this grandeur is mere randomness: the accidental by-products of a Big Bang from which what we now know as “the universe” was born. Really? Just an accident, if a happy accident? But while we’re on the subject, how did the Big Bang, so to speak, bang? And if what we know as “the universe” evolved from that primordial eruption, what accounts for the high-density, high-temperature primal material that burst into an expanding universe? To suggest that it, too, was an accident, something that just happened, begs a host of questions: beginning with, how can something come from nothing?

The notion that we live in an accidental universe, one that need not be, has had ugly effects in modern history. It suggests that we’re accidents, too, mere embodied stardust. That dumbed-down notion of the human has underwritten a lot of the awfulness of the last two centuries. Astronomy Picture of the Day hints at a different story: none of this is accidental and thus ultimately meaningless. And that includes you, me, and all those who study the heavens and give us the gift of their work.

COMING UP: Science is an act of worship

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Bill Nye the Science Guy and the recent Marches for Science would do well to learn a thing or two from Vatican observatory director Brother Guy Consolmagno, who argues that science is so much more than simply studying the natural world; it’s an act of worship.

Students at Regis Jesuit High School were treated to a special visit by the Jesuit brother April 20 for an all-school assembly in which he spoke of the crucial juncture of life the students are in. Following the assembly, he hosted two Q&A sessions for students interested in the convergence and compatibility between science and faith. An evening presentation open to the public was also held in which Brother Consolmagno addressed the question, “Does Science Need Faith?”

Speaking of his own path to becoming a world-renowned astronomer and a Jesuit, Brother Consolmagno encouraged the students to embrace this time of their lives and use it to find those things that bring them joy – and a bright future.

“This is the time when you become self-aware. This is the time when you have the chance to daydream,” he said. “Human beings do more than just put food on the table because we are more than just well-fed cows. We are creatures who dream. Now’s the time to bring God’s joy into your life.”

Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, visited Regis Jesuit High School April 20 and gave a presentation about the relationship between faith and science. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

Brother Consolmagno found that joy when he decided he wanted to be a scientist. He majored in earth and planetary science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became fascinated with meteorites.

“You can hold outer space in your hands, and I was hooked,” he said.

His vocation as a Jesuit brother never conflicted with his profession as a scientist. In fact, he tends to look at science as an act of worship.

“Science needs faith, it needs joy, or it wouldn’t happen,” Brother Consolmagno told the audience at his evening presentation. He related his work as a scientist to playing a game with God, much like a parent plays with a child as an expression of love.

“Spending time, sharing the joy, the little bit of discovery we get in a simple game that a kid can play – that’s how I feel when I’m in the laboratory,” he said. “I’m playing a game with God. God has set up the puzzle, it’s up to me to solve it. And when I get a little progress, I can hear God saying, ‘Yeah, isn’t that cool? Now let me show you the next step.’ That’s why doing science is an act of worship.”

Imaginary odds

The debate between science and religion persists, even to this day, but the two don’t have to be at odds, Brother Consolmagno said. In fact, the Catholic Church has historically played an important role in advancing scientific studies. After all, it was in the medieval universities, which were started to train priests and clergy, where the study of science began.

“We owe our system, not only of educating people, but also of letting other people know that you’ve been educated, [to] the Church,” he explained.

People are often surprised to discover that the Vatican has an observatory, let alone a team of scientists doing important scientific work, Brother Consolmagno said. The attitude that religion and science are at odds can do more damage than good, he said.

“How many great scientists have we lost by insisting there’s a war between the two? It’s out of my faith that I believe science can work, and it’s out of my faith that I can justify doing science,” he argued.

Two pursuits, one truth

Brother Consolmagno is far from the only religious with this attitude toward science. Father Tomasz Strzebonski, parochial vicar at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Edwards, has a degree in theoretical physics – a product of his knack for breaking things and putting them back together as a child in Poland. He also grew up in a devoutly Catholic family, and faith was an important part of his life.

“I always had two worlds, but I never saw them as separate. I always saw them mingled together and I think that’s my perspective of how I see the relationship between faith and science,” Father Strzebonski said.

Science is propelled by questions, Father Strzebonski explained, and the main contention between faith and science lies in the other side’s unwillingness to ask questions.

“How many great scientists have we lost by insisting there’s a war between the two? It’s out of my faith that I believe science can work, and it’s out of my faith that I can justify doing science.”

“That fear of asking questions is what is creating the difficulty between the two, especially when it comes to [Christian] fundamentalists,” he explained. “It took a lot of time for the Church to realize that asking questions is not that bad.”

In questioning things – whether they be scientific theories or matters of dogma in the Church – people come to a greater understanding of how things work.

“With science, you’re not really changing the way the universe works, you’re gaining more of an understanding of it,” Father Strzebonski said. “It’s the same thing with the Church. We’re not changing things – faith is there, God is there – we’re just gaining more of an understanding of it. An understanding of God though faith, and an understanding of the universe through science.”

In a way, Father Strzebonski explained, both faith and science are chasing after the same end: truth.

“Both are seeking the truth. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. When we are deepening our faith, we are getting closer to the truth,” he said. “The scientist, [too], is looking for the truth [about the universe].”

When it comes to questions of faith and science, Father Strzebonski said there should be no fear in not knowing the answers, but also to acknowledge that there are still many questions to which answers should be pursued.

“It’s very important to say there are questions that are not being answered in both faith and science,” he said. “It’s not a shameful thing not to know the answers, but I think it’s a shameful thing not to look for the answers.”

This story has been amended to correctly reference Brother Guy as a Jesuit brother.