Tag Archives: the cosmos

Life pouring in, every moment.

 “…the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.”

I’m sure I don’t know all the reasons, but my mind has often been overfull, or numb, or empty — or all three?? — of late, while as a whole embodied person I have been awfully busy, so much so that I also haven’t had time to be about the typical documentarist, analytical or musing business. I do feel that I am changing, which is to be expected, and is normal…  As I get older I often think, Who knows when I will wake up one morning without the strength to do ___ ? I better take my opportunity now!

So many of those opportunities keep coming my way, one after the other, cascading through the weeks. I am very thankful. In between, when I stagger into the house and drink my tea, read a few blogs and fall into bed, I feel incapable of putting thoughts together in writing here. Which is okay, because, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says,

“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Even the things that are new to us as individuals are not new to humanity, and whatever I might think and write about has been said before. Maybe I myself even said it before! That is the case with the quote at top, which was part of a post I “wrote,” or assembled, to put it more accurately, several years ago. I was surprised and pleased to come across it today,  when WordPress was giving me fits and caused me to stay longer at my computer, when I ought to have been out shopping for Thanksgiving menu items. The old blog post helps me think about things I’ve been reading recently.

One of the opportunities I had this month was to participate in a newly formed local book group that was reading Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. I had been wanting to read something by Percy for at least twenty years; two or three books by him had come and gone from my shelves without being read. So I tackled the Cosmos book and joined the group, in large part to meet the other readers who were interested in such a book.

Walker Percy

I didn’t love the book, I think mostly because I have watched so little TV in my adult life, and was not familiar with the many references to shows and personalities; I missed the allusions by which I would have accessed the humor. In preparation for our group discussion I read a review of Lost in the Cosmos by Alan Jacobs, who claims that Carl Sagan is the main (unmentioned) character in the book, and that Percy is writing partly in response to the 1981 PBS series “Cosmos” (by Carl Sagan), which opens with Sagan’s narration, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Jacobs gives us his take: “‘Cosmos’ was not about science, but about allowing us to observe a scientist with an attractive personality as a substitute for thinking scientifically.”

The middle section of Lost in the Cosmos is a lesson in semiotics, and it was my favorite part, once I put my mind to it. I have wanted to learn about this field of study which someone has described as “an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated.” So that was another opportunity not to pass up.

If you remember watching “Cosmos,” or are interested in how modern man has lost himself, and what it all has to do with semiotics and television, you might want to read that review by Jacobs, or even read Lost in the Cosmos. A few people in our discussion group said that they like Walker Percy’s novels better than this ironic “self-help book”: The Moviegoer, for example. I hope I will get around to reading one of them.

The article that prompted my post of eight years ago, “Space is the womb of life,” was by Michael Baruzzini, in Touchstone magazine, titled “Lost in Space.” I had forgotten that Carl Sagan had ever been referenced on my blog, but in that article Baruzzini compares Carl Sagan’s view of “space” to that of C.S. Lewis’s character Ransom in the Space Trilogy (the “he” in the quote at top).

Baruzzini traces the development of modern man’s concept of the heavens to the point where Sagan could authoritatively tell us, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” He then shares some of what fills the heavens, revealed by modern scientific instruments — such as the “glowing background of radiation left over from the early moments of the universe,” and the invisible particles that show up in the aurora borealis.

One thing Sagan evidently gets right is how we are made of stardust! My readers are likely more aware of these discoveries than I am; as I said, I have watched little TV, and read few scientific articles or books. Still, I find it easy to get lost in browsing Hubble photos. More from the Touchstone article:

“[A]ll of the particles that make up our bodies and the familiar world around us are the products of reactions deep within stars. The same reactions that turn simple protons into the rocks and waters of planets also form the complex elements in living things, starting with the indispensable element carbon, which makes up the backbone of all organic molecules.”

A caption on the above photo reads: “This image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows the area around the Lagoon Nebula, otherwise known as Messier 8. This nebula is filled with intense winds from hot stars, churning funnels of gas, and energetic star formation, all embedded within an intricate haze of gas and pitch-dark dust.” The empyrean ocean! How did Lewis know?

Surely his understanding grew out of the richness of his Christian world view, which informed his knowledge of philosophy, theology and literature — something like Baruzzini describes:

“From the readiness with which medieval Christianity accepted the nested order of the Aristotelian universe, to the progressive cosmic orders of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and even to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation myth, which speaks of the habitation of man as nestled far within the ‘Deeps of Time,’ the idea of a universe of meaningful immensity and density has been amenable to the Christian mind. Man finds himself not lost in the cold, but placed precisely in a life-giving realm, not too unlike a developing infant folded deep in the tissues of his mother, or a vibrant reef enveloped in the nourishing flows and currents of the ocean.”

Flaming Star Nebula

The “meaningful immensity and density” is not only a quality of the material world: the earthly and heavenly things we can see, whether with the naked eye or modern instruments, are reflections of spiritual realities. The heavens declare the glory of God to a degree, but they speak of a personal God who wants to reveal His glory in the realm of the human spirit. Let us fall down and worship.

This new balance remains fragile.

St. Gregory Palamas

To the brief passage below, taken from The Theology of Illness by Jean-Claude Larchet, the author attaches four footnotes, in which he references St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory Palamas, Vladimir Lossky and the Book of Job. He is a patristics scholar for sure! And he manages to incorporate many quotes from church fathers and Scripture  in the main text as well, without making it hard to read. In fact, it is pure pleasure to follow Larchet’s explanations as he gathers from great minds of the church and reveals the unity of their thought and faith.

“God, who envisions the salvation of man and through man of the entire universe, does not allow the forces of evil to submerge and destroy His creation. Man and nature remain partially protected by His Providence, which imposes certain limits on the negative activity of the Devil and his demons. Thereby God stabilizes the cosmos in its slide toward nothingness, establishing a certain order in the very heart of disorder. Even if man has lost the ‘likeness’ of God which he began to acquire, he nevertheless remains bearer of the divine ‘image,’ even if that image is veiled, obscured, and deformed.

“Thus man is not totally deprived of grace. Even in his weakness he retains sufficient spiritual power to be able, if he wishes, to turn again toward God and to obey the commandments which he continues to receive from Him (Dt 30:11-19). And thereby he is able to maintain, according to God’s own promise, a certain mastery over nature (cf. Gen 9:1-2).

“Nonetheless, this new balance remains fragile. Man and nature have become a battleground where evil and good, death and life, wage a permanent, merciless combat against each other. This combat is made evident by sickness, infirmity and suffering; and until the Incarnation of Christ, its outcome was uncertain.”

-Jean-Claude Larchet, The Theology of Illness

 

A palace in the cosmos.

These narrowleaf milkweed flowers were the inspiration for the first draft of this blog post, which I thought to title “Wonders of the Universe.” Their intricacy and delicacy wowed me!

I had been thinking for some time about the gentle bombardment of the senses I experience in my garden, including how on warm days the space hums with the sound of busy insects. Just to sit out there is to listen to Life, and is a privilege. It’s also a sweet gift that God gave me, that I could have a tiny part in creating this environment, doing a little bit of planting and watering and seeing God give disproportionately generous increase.

I knew I wanted a Pollinator Garden, because I like the idea of helping the bees. But it was theoretical, and I didn’t begin to imagine what the physical reality would feel like when these fellow creatures buzzed their flight patterns in a rich tapestry of sight and sound throughout the garden. It fills my senses which in turn communicate with my soul.

“God is the Creator of the world. The world as cosmos, i.e. a created order with its own integrity, is a positive reality. It is the good work of the good God (Gen. 1), made by God for the blessed existence of humanity. The Cappadocian Fathers teach that God first creates the world and beautifies it like a palace, and then leads humanity into it. The genesis of the cosmos, being in becoming, is a mystery (mysterion) for the human mind, a genesis produced by the Word of God. As such, the world is a revelation of God (Rom. 1:19-20). Thus, when its intelligent inhabitants see it as cosmos, they come to learn about the Divine wisdom and the Divine energies. The cosmos is a coherent whole, a created synthesis, because all its elements are united and interrelated in time and space.” (From this site)

Now I often think of the book, My Family and Other Animals, which Gerald Durrell wrote about the Greek island of Corfu where he lived for a time as a boy. The one concrete image I’ve retained from my reading many years ago is of Durrell on a baking dirt road stooping to examine and collect whatever fascinating insects and other animals he could find. This quote I found I think is representative:

“…the incessant shimmering cries of the cicadas. If the curious, blurring heat haze produced a sound, it would be exactly the strange, chiming cries of these insects.”

I do not have cicadas at present. I have quieter bees and flies, and nearly silent butterflies, and cries and songs from the bird kingdom as well, adorning my garden. A day or two after I took the picture at the top, I saw a Monarch butterfly near the narrowleaf milkweed. I watched out the window for a few minutes and then… yes! She had landed on the plant. So out I went with my camera, and crouched nearby.

She fluttered away, and circled the garden to come back and light again, but only for a few seconds, mostly hidden by leaves, and then off she flew, nearly grazing my head as she made the same circuit, repeating this behavior many times! My knees got a little tired, so I lay on the ground waiting with my camera at the ready. But that didn’t give me enough flexibility, and I moved to the plum tree nearby and leaned my back against it.

Was she laying eggs each time she landed on those narrow leaves? I gave up trying to get close enough, or to catch her at rest, and began to take shots as she was flying. And this is the best one I have to show, proof to myself that she was there. 🙂

A couple of weeks later, back from the mountains, I found the minutest caterpillar on one of those narrowleaf milkweeds. Quickly I went indoors to attach my new clip-on macro lens to my phone, such as son-in-law Tom showed me how to use months ago but which I hadn’t taken out of its box. I hope my one-and-lonesome caterpillar does not get eaten by a bird, and survives to grow large enough to use my camera alone on, because this is the best I could do:

It seems this little lens is best for completely still shots, not flowers or creatures on long stems waving in the breeze. Here is a sharper image I captured using it:

Can you guess what it is?
Clue: It is a closeup of a flower I showed you in a recent post…
You’re right! It’s the center of a hydrangea bloom!

It’s another decoration of this palace into which we have been led by God….

But bees have preferences, and I’ve never seen them interested in hydrangeas.
What they love is the echium! Remember when it looked like this?

Its flowers just kept opening on the ends of what I don’t think would be called a stem… so that those parts got longer and longer, with always new flowers that the bees never tired of.

Until the Autumn Joy opened. Now the echium is deserted.

It has been two days since I wrote all of the above, and I’m sorry to say that my infant caterpillar has disappeared. If I’m around next August maybe I will bring some Monarch eggs into the house to safeguard the latter stages of this project of assisting the butterfly population. This year I will have to be content with having seen progress beyond the planting of the milkweed, my only direct contribution. I saw the milkweed thrive in its second season, I saw the Monarch laying eggs, I saw a caterpillar… and then, I fed a bird!