Saturday, June 27, 2015

Astrophysical Spirituality

  Astrophysical Spirituality

When I was in the fifth grade, I inherited a Boston Globe paper route. I worked it both on Sundays with a red wagon as I covered all the Christian Hill and High School area of my hometown of Norwood, Massachusetts, and on weeknights with the Daily Globe delivery. By means of this income, over the next six years I saved enough money to pay for my entire first year tuition at Northeastern University College of Engineering. That may sound incredible, but the tuition for one full year in 1955-56 was $850.00. Can you believe it?    My second through fifth years there were fully paid for from the salary I earned on my co-op work jobs to which N.U. assigned me . My parents simply could not afford to help unless you consider giving me room and board free for five years pay! I do, thank you Mom and Dad.

My nighttime paper route afforded me another benefit for which my life has been enriched immeasurably. Delivering papers on  cold clear nights gave me a ring side seat to the greatest show in the Universe; the Universe itself. I grew to become a friend to the constellations, the wandering planets, occasionally some shooting stars and even on one occasion a comet. As I beheld them, I wondered what exactly it was I was seeing. I wrote away to Sky and Telescope Magazine and studied the glow-in-the-dark night sky charts until I knew all the Zodiac and the circumpolar sky, and then because I knew these stars, I began to easily discern “strange stars” moving through them which I knew and could identify because of their lack of twinkling and specific color as planets; Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. I saved up $29.95 and sent away for a small 4” Newtonian reflector telescope which I lugged up to the High School football field on clear nights and saw for the first time in my life the craters on the
Moon, the crescent of Venus, the polar caps on the ruddy Mars, the unbelievable rings of Saturn; and most wonderful of all, I could clearly see the surface of the giant Jupiter, its cloud bands, red spot and the very four moons which Gallileo saw convincing him that they revolved around their planet and consequently we also revolved about the sun, which stirred up all kinds of Church resistance and censure. I was flabbergasted. It made me decide then and there that I wanted to become an astronomer.

In junior high school, I joined the AAVSO [American Association of Variable Star Observers] and I began to travel all by myself by public transportation from my home town into Cambridge and attended the weekly Thursday Night Lectures at Harvard Observatory. My mind was hungry to understand the Universe and its immensity. For the rest of my life, while not indeed becoming an astronomer, my fascination with the subject continued on into my teaching years, helping me to found an Astronomy Club and driving its young members to these same lectures for years. One night, a Harvard Astronomer, Robert Kirshner, gave us the greatest lecture I have ever heard when he broke the news to us that his team of Astronomers at Harvard had just made the greatest discovery in the history of Astrophysics. They discovered that our Universe is not just expanding, but it is accelerating in its expansion requiring a force we have never known to exist.

Our current knowledge indicates that our sun is one star of average proportions. The nearest star to our sun is 3.8 light-years away. That means that light, traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles/second [8.3 minutes from sun to earth] takes 3.8 years to get to us from this next nearest star. These two stars exist in what is called a galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, which it is estimated to contain 1011  [100,000,000,000] stars. Our sun is a star 1/3 of the way towards the center of the galaxy which is  100,000 light-years in diameter. It looks something like our nearest neighboring galaxy, The Andromeda Galaxy which is 2,000,000 light years away and is the furthest object visible to the naked eye as a faint hazy patch but which is really the nearby twin of our own galaxy.

Recently, NASA sent a telescope into outer space and took a 3600   video of our own Milky Way Galaxy from within where we are located. We have never been able to see this before because the earth under our feet prevents us from seeing the southern hemisphere’s portion of the Milky Way. Astrophysicists estimate that the total number of other galaxies in the Universe approaches 1010­ ­[10,000,000,000] with the furthest galaxies 13,700,000,000 light-years away from us. In other words, that is the estimated age of the Cosmos. Thus 13.7 billion years ago it is believed that the entire space-time/matter-energy Universe came into existence from a point of no dimensions! How ‘bout them apples!                                           

 I forgot to mention that back when I was a boy, my mother and dad indicated to me that a very important Reality in our lives was God. We went to Mass every Sunday, confession before first Fridays and abstained from meat on that day. I attended public schools but I was required to attend “Sunday School” on Thursday afternoons at Saint Catherine of Sienna Parish School. I’d like to add that I paid close attention and learned a great deal there, however that would not be true. Actually, when the bell rang for classes, I stayed out on the basketball courts outside of the school and played with the Parochial School kids who didn’t have to go to Thursday classes. I guess I believed in God, but I considered God to be really upset by my attitude and was really going to ream me some day for my pagan ways. Years later, at the completion of my last year at Northeastern, two close friends of mine a year older than me had signed up to be voluntary lay mission teachers in Jamaica, WI, under the supervision of the New England Province of Jesuits. Sounding like the grand world tour I was unable to make, I signed up to go as well. Imagine my surprise when I was accepted for the program and traveled to Above Rocks, Jamaica and met the greatest man I was ever fortunate enough to work for, Father Sylvio Garavaglia, S.J. Three years later I entered a Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. Although I lasted five years there before returning to the world, it was a life changing time where I learned so much more about God. I say about because I was not yet ready to know God personally with faith. That has begun to come late in life I trust. I taught Scripture, Theology, Sexuality, Chemistry, Physics and math in 35 years at a boys’ Catholic high school outside of Boston, and I learned a lot more about God but I still didn't know God in any personal experiential way. I would see other people at prayer and I would assume their posture and try to grind out thoughts about God to which I would say lots and lots of words; mostly, " Forgive me God for being such a mealy mouth faker and for doing all the bad things I enjoy doing." For five years as a monk candidate I witnessed and heard from some of the most saintly people I would ever know. I read books by Thomas Merton and thought that I actually was living a similar life. Nonsense!

Then I left the monastery, got married, we had four children, I became a single Dad , and then I began to understand what life is. It is about failing. It is about needing help. It is worrying about your children, about their children, about being a failure at helping the ones you love and nearly giving up on ever achieving success in this life, and all the time wondering where the hell is this God that's supposed to be loving us? Does this sound familiar? It sounds something like Jesus on the cross , doesn't it? "Father, why have you forsaken me?"
At this point in my life something wonderful happened to me. One day I began to read the earliest written of the four Gospels, Mark, where Jesus opens his mouth and speaks for the very first time and says:"Metanoiete", a Greek word which should have been translated 'Change the way you think', instead of the way Saint Jerome translated it into Latin as "Poenimine"['Repent!']. The entire history of the Church pivoted on that error. To understand what Jesus said and meant to say would have otherwise been translated:"Change the way you think about reality, the present moment is the right time, the Kingdom of God is within you, believe this good news”.

From this time on I began to take seriously the belief that God is within me, closer to me than I am to myself. I no longer considered God to be at the end of the Cosmos somewhere outside me. I began also to believe that God is within every other person as well and that God in us reaches God in the other in this way.  From now on my prayer became real, personal and interior and when I did, all of Jesus' teachings on prayer became my belief.

Just as the entire Cosmos emerged from a point of no dimensions 13.7 billion years ago, God still emerges from the hearts of each and every one of us, God's children. Scientists can try to demand that I prove this from observable data; I say that's like the egg proving that the hen that laid it exists. It is not a question of "perceiving", nor of "conceiving"; but of "believing" first, just like I first believed in God because someone trustworthy told me to, and this is what Jesus, the most trustworthy said, "Believe this good news". 

Now the whole Cosmos means so much more to me than just a big place, it is a Sign of infinite Love and Generosity and Kenosis, a pouring out of oneself for the beloved. That's us.

                                                            Charlie Mc