It’s taken me a while to get to this post. The workshop and retreat was, for me, a powerful experience, and I found that I just had to sit for a while–with everything. I still haven’t fully processed all that I learned and experienced. That will continue to unfold at time goes on, I expect.
I left Thunder Bay in the early hours of January 17 and, believe me, the Tucson desert is a long way from the shores of Lake Superior. On the first leg of my trip I picked up the latest issue of Scientific American, and while leafing through the pages, and in what seemed like the ultimate irony, my eye was drawn to an otherwise nondescript advert for a group called Freedom from Religion Foundation. Under the provocative banner “In Reason We Trust,” a pleasant-looking woman was quoted saying the equally provocative “It’s because I take God so seriously that I can’t bring myself to believe in him.”
I carefully tore out the ad and slipped it into my curriculum folder, thinking that it would make good fodder for discussion with my fellow participants. Here we go again, I thought: speaking about faith and religion as if they are at opposite ends of the spectrum and couldn’t possibly exist in the same community, much less the same individual. I was about to meet 25 vastly diverse people who would prove that commonly held misconception dramatically wrong! 🙂
Three flights and a 45-minute shuttle ride later, I was in the Sonora Desert just outside of Tucson at the lovely and peaceful Redemptorist Renewal Center. The towering trees and vast waterways of my native landscape were replaced by desert cacti swollen by recent rain and wide-open skies that produced blazing red sunsets and dazzling starry skies. I was also completely removed from my comfort zone–just a small-town gal from the “bush” of Northern Ontario, still wondering why I was selected and how I would fit in the group of 25 people from all over North America (and one from South America) to attend the Faith and Astronomy workshop, sponsored and facilitated by the Jesuit Astronomers of the Vatican Observatory. But I muscled down my anxiety and took the leap of faith (pun intended). Five days later, I emerged feeling like I had just come down from the mountain, both literally and metaphorically. I was inspired and moved not just by what I learned and saw, but by the sheer breadth of diversity of the people I met–all of us there for a common purpose. My Irish heritage predisposes me to slight embellishments 🙂 at times; but as I sit with this material, I feel a slight shift in myself, and because the process of building this “bridge” is gradually but steadily unfolding, the outcome just might be–dare I say–life altering. 🙂
Our days were busy and focused, divided between discussion groups; lectures by experts on topics like meteorites, cosmology, the physical nature of the Universe, and the upcoming solar eclipse; and of course–telescopes. Our field trips took us to the campus of the University of Arizona, esteemed for its astronomy program, and its Richard F. Carris Mirror lab to see how the mirrors for the really big telescopes are polished. I was especially thrilled to visit the field headquarters of the OSIRIS REX mission, launched last September with the ambitious goal of travelling to a nearby asteroid named Bennu to “scoop” and return samples–the first mission of its kind. The breadth of knowledge and the sheer passion of the lead scientist who led our tour was inspiring–an ardour and commitment that we would see played out again many times during the workshop.
Our days were divided between science and faith. Between our science lectures and field trips, we broke up into discussion groups, where we got to know each other and discussed issues of faith as it relates to science. We were a compellingly diverse group of people coming from fields of science and technology, religious education (including folks with degrees in theology), and clergy. During Brother Guy’s welcome, he told us that we were all selected for a reason, and I hoped that the reason I was selected would become clear to me before the end of the week. 🙂 Actually, it came earlier, when I met another participant–a young man and fellow writer from New York who was doing his journalism master’s thesis on the Vatican Observatory. (Hi, Greg. :)) We had that bond that writers often form. All gatherings of the mind need scribes. 🙂
The schedule was intense and somewhat tiring, but I wouldn’t have missed a single second! Although I do confess that my head was spinning after the first day or two, after what felt like a lot of jumping between science and astronomy and then over to faith issues. I didn’t realize it at first (and it took a gentle reminder from Brother Guy), but we were building that bridge between faith and science by literally walking it ourselves–every day. 🙂 We concluded our days with a Mass, generally celebrated by one of the priests in our group, and, when the weather was clear, stargazing into the gobsmackingly starry Arizona skies, courtesy of some larger telescopes that some participants brought. Our final Mass was celebrated outside in the desert chapel, and when the celebrating priest (Father James, one of the strongest proponents of the faith and science outreach–more on that later) asked us to stand up and turn our eyes to a stunning red Arizona sunset–and then thanked God for the gift of that special moment–a cherished visual memory was inscribed in my mind, and maybe even my soul. This was Mass as I had never experienced it, and I felt a subtle shift in how I experience my own faith and religion. It sounds like such a cliché, but it was a powerful spiritual experience–that is still unfolding. It is a feeling that I hope stays with me.
This post is becoming too long already, and you are likely wondering, so what was the takeaway? As an avid consumer of news media and communications language, I have noticed that one of the latest buzzwords referring to events and processes is “unpacking.” I don’t usually like buzzwords, but this one really fits the bill. What I learned, experienced, and felt during this very powerful experience is something that I will be unpacking over a period of time. As I do so, I will pass it on to you in a series of posts, but here is the shorter version from the carry-on suitcase. 🙂
Building the bridge between faith and science is not a short-term construction project. I’m starting to think that it’s done through a series of conversations, one at a time. I have heard that people, young people in particular, are leaving the Church (and probably all churches, not just the Catholic Church) for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that they perceive the Church as being antiscience. And what am I starting to see more clearly is that the Catholic Church is, and has been, a strong supporter of science–astronomy in particular–for hundreds of years. But it has done so quietly, and that has been OK until now. Why does it matter now? Because we are living in a world where an increasing number of scientific discoveries will open up new realms of understanding of our place in the Universe–and our origins. What Brother Guy calls the Big Questions. 🙂 And I think that it will be helpful for the faith community to know that their Church understands the science behind these discoveries.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “J word” when trying to sum up my takeaway from the week. And it’s not Jesuit –although it certainly could be–given the guiding presence of the Jesuit astronomers to this course. Quite simply, it’s “joy,” and the joy I observed in these men of God while discussing their love of science and God’s creation. I’m hoping that it’s contagious, because the world sure needs some. 🙂
Stay tuned for upcoming posts. I hope to hear from some of my fellow FAW participants, and I also want to share the article “What if We’re not Alone?” which appeared in the Catholic Sentinel and was passed on to me by one of the diocesan priests (knowing my passionate interest in the subject) in our group. I will be talking to the editor of that publication and the author of the piece in a phone conference later this week.
Clear Skies and God’s blessings. 🙂