Category Archives: God

Another Beauty

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God.”  Psalm 19

This is NGC136, a galaxy so “ordinary” that it doesn’t even have a name.

[Reminder: When considering the heavens and their magnitude (100 billion galaxies of 100 billion stars each), remember that all of it was, in the beginning, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Well, not your hand, but God’s.]

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Hope Without Faith?

There can be no greater blessing than faith in a loving God.  This much I have learned.  But this blessing is not easily achieved; at least it has not been for me.

“Now abideth these three, Faith, Hope, and Love,” writes St. Paul.  Hope seems to me the future tense of faith and love.  Hope  for the future, without faith in something that can save us from ourselves, seems impossible; without faith we live hopeless lives. But how do we do that?

Surprisingly well, for the most part. The  hopeless life can apparently be lived in a condition of general self-satisfaction.  The Swerve, a recent book about Lucretius and his Epicurian writings, sings the praises of just such a life.  It has become the default setting of modern life: “happiness” as a goal in itself, looking away from ugly things, ignoring the things others must do for me so that I may achieve my happiness.

The other alternative to hopelessness is faith in something – anything – that we can persuade ourselves is greater than ourselves.  If one cannot believe in a loving God, one has other choices.  One can believe in saving the world through political action; countless lives have been sacrificed to the belief that a political party holds the key to the salvation of the world.  Hegel first gave scientific pretensions to the faith in historical progress, freeing envy and the will to power to masquerade as world salvation, thereby making a better world by putting me and people just like me in total authority.

Faith in a warrior god, such as some strains of Islam, is an ancient alternative that is reasserting itself.  But faith in a god of bloody conquest tends to be a close kin of the Marxism that gives supernatural authority to our natural desire to destroy our enemies and elevate ourselves.

Or, at a less intense level, one may believe that People Are Basically Good (the PABGoo assumption) and that therefore things will somehow work out.  This variety of the unexamined life, which goes by the name of optimism, is generally coupled with The Swerve’s Epicurianism in the modern default mode.  The only sacrifice most PABGoos are called upon to make for their faith is their contact with reality; most seem only too glad to make it.

I have gone through these alternatives throughout my long life.  They no longer work on me.  I am no longer willing to deny reality, and I am no longer comfortable dressing my will to power in Marxist or Hegelian costume.

And so I have come to the Church, the reality of God’s existence and purpose on earth.  Nothing will be saved without God. God is in fact the only hope which remains when false faiths have fallen away.

 

The Birds and the Bees and the Flowers and the Trees

[Warning:  no birds or trees appear in this essay. This is poetic license. The poet in question is songwriter Herbert Newman.]

A friend gave us a beautiful bouquet of flowers on Christmas day; white and purple daisies and lilies, in a purple vase.  Because the weather has been so pleasant, we put it on our patio table.

Today I saw a bee hovering over the flowers, now a week old but still beautiful and fresh-looking. The bee then landed on one of the lilies and climbed down into its center.  She** then repeated the action with several other flowers, and finally flew away.

A bee visiting a flower is a beautiful thing to see.

But this seemed odd to me.  The flowers are technically dead, having been cut from their plants many days ago.  But they looked alive to the bee (and me) so she stopped by to fill up with nectar and pollen.  It must have been satisfactory, because she repeated it with several flowers.

There must be a lesson in all this.  The flowers, cut dead in their prime of beauty and sweetness, continued to sustain the bee…for a while.  As Shakespeare wrote, “where the bee sucks, there suck I.”  I, too, can be sustained by the beauty of a vase of dead flowers.

But another thought arises.  As far as we understand, flowers have beautiful colors and make sweet nectar in order to attract and feed bees. The flower does so not because it loves the bee, but because the bee helps propagate the flowering plant by carrying away its pollen. The bee spreads the pollen not because it loves flowers, but because the pollen sticks to the her legs.  The bee seeks sweetness; the flower seeks the bee.

The flower has a purpose in creating nectar, just as the bee has a purpose in spreading pollen, though neither of them know of their purpose. And what about me?  Do I have a purpose? Would it not be odd if every living thing – except me – has a purpose for what it does?

Unlike the bee and the flower, I can and do wonder about my purpose.  And once that wondering starts, it leads inevitably to wondering about God.

Do I, like the bee and the flower, exist only to seek sweetness and propagate my genes?

If I exist for any reason beyond that, then God must be part of the answer. Otherwise, why do I wonder?

And yet many people, perhaps most, never seem to ask the question. They seem quite unconcerned by the amazing fact that they exist.

I don’t get it. Like so many other things. But, confusing and troubling as it can be, I am glad that I wonder.

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*As you may remember from school, all worker bees are female. It would be unsound to draw too many conclusions from this fact.

More Stars in the Palm of God’s Hand

This is the Robin’s Egg Nebula. Actually a dying pair of stars surrounded by stardust.  While not a galaxy, still worth a look.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

Here we see one galaxy devouring another.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

This is the Red Rectangular Nebula.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

Here are a couple more. The one on the left is twice as big as our Milky Way.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

This handful  is only a few of the estimated 100 BILLION galaxies that exist, each with an average 100 BILLION stars.  But keep it in perspective:  This entire, unimaginably vast universe, this galaxy of galaxies, was in the beginning compact and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. We learn this not from theologians, but from astrophysicists,  scientists.  Though the Psalmist told us long ago, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmaments display his handiwork.”  And Genesis foretold the Big Bang.

“In the beginning…” it was all in God’s hand.

The Sacred Second

We measure things.  It is one of the things humans do. Mostly because we plan to use them.  

Measurements are of two kinds: natural/intuitive and artificial/synthetic.  Natural ones came first.  Feet based on an average foot (mine, I say without bragging, are exactly one foot long – including the shoe. This makes for a useful way to walk off distances.)  Cubits based on an average forearm of about a foot and a half.  An inch is about the length of a thumb knuckle.

The metric system, on the other hand, is artificial/synthetic, based on…something. (I don’t know what.)  Built on our numbering system, it is more easily used in science and math.

The only area where a natural/intuitive system still prevails in its traditional un-metricized form is our measurement of time.  Natural constants still govern here. A year is one revolution in earth’s orbit around the sun: one cycle of seasons.  A day is one rotation on the earth’s axis: one cycle of light and darkness.  In between a year and a day we have more artificial measures: months and weeks.  And below the day, we have sub-divisions of hour, minute, and second.

Our awareness of the passage of time is a difficulty for us. In late afternoon we ask “where has the day gone?”  Our clocks tell us, but we are still surprised. 

Years are even more so.  On our birthdays and New Year’s Day, we celebrate or mourn the elusive passing of another year; we ponder, for a day, the mysterious year ahead, before moving on into uncharted daily existence.

Even at the much smaller scale, it is hard to track time without mechanical assistance.  Try to concentrate on a single subject or thought for a full minute, without looking at a clock. For me, distractions invariably arise, especially the distraction of wondering how much of the minute has elapsed.  To some extent, this is the problem of reverse concentration: try not to think of an elephant. 

But the crux of the problem is the difficulty of measuring time with our mind alone.  The only way I can make myself aware of the passage of a minute is to count to 60. In other words, to count seconds.

Why are seconds so much easier for us to embrace than any larger measure of time?  Check your pulse. If you are healthy and resting, your heartbeat should be right around 60 beats per minute: a natural standard.

Tiny, fragile, elusive, the second is nonetheless the most tangible form in which we can consciously confront time. It cannot be an accident that it is also the measure of our life blood nourishing our very existence.  The last second-long heartbeat is the end of our earthly life. And long before our birth, the second-long beats of our hearts mark what we are and will become.

The passage of time is thus the passage of life.  Prisoners are said to count the days of their sentences by chalk marks on the cell wall.  If they didn’t do so, they might lose track of the passage of time and their sentences would become infinite.  

Every second is a gift from God.  This can be said of day, week, month and year, of course.  But they slip past us.   Such gifts deserve thanks.  It is appropriate to try to insert a prayer of thanksgiving into every second.  But is it possible?

I am trying.  I find that simply thinking “Thank you, Lord” can be done in about a second.  I can’t do it every second, of course.  But I can do it often.

And I can try to live my life in such a way that I feel grateful for every second.  Some days this is easier than others.  But I can try.

I can try.