Ever since those astonishing photos taken by the Webb telescope were released my inbox has been filled with emails discussing them. It’s a mixed bag of astonishment, wonder, and, well, horror. Seems more than a few people have been sent spinning into existential dread, right along with the stars and galaxies spinning in the images.
When one of the first announcements about the upcoming release of the photos was made, someone called it a “Galileo” moment. It is. Now there are probably a number of things defined by the term “Galileo moment” but surely an event that causes one to ponder one’s place in the universe is one of them. Galileo Galilei, (born February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy, is considered the father of modern science. His discoveries with the telescope revolutionized astronomy and paved the way for the acceptance of the Copernican heliocentric system. In other words, he’s the bloke who posited that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, but rather the Sun is. (Okay, he was right about the Earth going around the Sun, but still didn’t realize the Sun was but a wee speck in an otherwise immense galaxy inside an even more immense universe. One thing at a time.)
WHAT??? screamed just about everybody, but particularly the all-powerful Inquisition. HERESY! they shrieked. God apparently wouldn’t put anything but humans in the center of creation, right? And so Galileo was locked away under house arrest for the rest of his days, which didn’t stop him from writing, incidentally.
We who have known since we were wee kids that the earth goes round the sun (flat-earthers, poor lambs excepted), can’t imagine the seismic rock and roll the idea that the Earth wasn’t the central apple of God’s eye made for folks. People, I am quite sure, lost their faith entirely. For it made the Sun larger, more powerful, more influential in the heavens than Earth, and therefore, well… could it be we are nothing more than dust motes floating about in an uncaring sea of blackness?
I suppose it could.
On the other hand, hasn’t it always been that way? Haven’t we always oscillated in our belief we matter more than anything else, and our belief we are utterly immaterial?
Some folks don’t believe in “God” at all. Some folks believe in a very hands-on “God” who seems inordinately fixated on our most minuscule acts (and often those involving the sex bits). Some are in-between.
But most of us, regardless of religious proclivities (or lack thereof), if we really study these astonishing images, find our perceptions stretched and challenged in one way or another and existential dread probably sets at least a big toe in the door.
It’s whip-lash disconcerting to be terribly worried about my beloved dog’s illness, the atrocities occurring in Ukraine, and the climate crisis, while at the same time having my mind blown by contemplating the fact that by looking at the image on the left I am in fact looking back in time by 13 BILLION years. Yeah, that gives me mind cramps. But really good mind cramps.
A friend of mine told me a story this morning about when her father was dying a painful death from bone cancer. He was a devout Catholic but was happy when a rabbi came by his hospital room to chat. My friend’s father talked about his crisis of faith, how he couldn’t understand how God could care about his pain and death, while at the same time choreographing the dance of the planets. The rabbi suggested he find two small stones and put one in each pocket. On one should be written the words, “For me was the whole universe created” and on the other should be written, “I am but dust and ash.” He should hold and meditate on one stone or the other as needed.
Perhaps the James Webb Space Telescope is the “I am but dust and ash” stone. Marvelous, and, I find, a great relief. I’m not responsible, it seems, for managing the whole universe. Whew. However, let’s not forget to carry the “For me was the whole universe created” stone as well. It is a miracle I take even one breath, live even one day in this astonishing place.
Let me end with a poem by Anne Sexton, which is also one of my favorite prayers.
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is god,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by this kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm,
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.