You can learn a lot by looking at the sky, even in the daytime.
Contemplating the beauty of Creation can be a difficult task on a muggy August day in Houston, but there we were, the seniors and I, staring at the sky.
“What do you observe?”
“Okay, yes… But what else? How are things moving in the sky?”
As we persevered through our adverse conditions, the sky began to reveal her secrets.
“Where did the sun come up this morning? Where do you think it will set this evening? What path will it travel through the sky? How high will it get? How will this change throughout the year? And the moon: where, and when, did it rise, and where will it set? (And why can we see it during the day!?) How will this change over the course of a month? What phase is it in, and how is this changing?”
As we reflected upon these questions and repeated our observation on other stargazing occasions, the students marveled at their ability to discern the movements of the heavens once they stopped and looked. Often ignored (or just briefly touched upon) in contemporary astronomy classes, this work of understanding the movements of the heavens forms the central portion of the Fall semester of our senior astronomy course.
While we do eventually get to the modern astronomy that most people expect ‒ nuclear fusion, red giants, black holes, white dwarfs, and the rest ‒ the Fall semester of our course is unique in its focus upon ancient and classical astronomy. We read the Greek constellation myths, the story of the sky that we have inherited, and then reflect upon the origins of the universe and its relation to eternal things through Plato’s Timaeus. After that, we dive into the (often hard!) work of constructing a mental model of the celestial sphere and its motions. The culmination of this hard work is the use of a medieval instrument known as the astrolabe, a fixture of learning throughout the Middle Ages.
But why spend so much time learning an outmoded model of the universe rather than skipping straight to the scientific knowledge and paradigms of today? Many answers could be offered to this question, from the importance of familiarity with one’s intellectual heritage to a defense of the oft-mischaracterized intelligence of the ancients and medievals. (They knew the Earth was spherical!! This can easily be traced from Aristotle to Ptolemy to Aquinas and beyond.)
However, the most important reason to study the astronomy of our predecessors is its impact on the heart and soul. Those who learn ‒ and contemplate ‒ the motions of the spheres are opened to wonder and led through Creation to the Creator. As the Psalmist declares, the heavens do indeed “proclaim the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands” (Psalm 19). As we contemplate the heavens, the order with which the Creator imbued Creation is manifest before our eyes and we hear the “story” and the “message” made known by the day and the night. Our souls are led to seek the Creator “whose wisdom it was made the skies” (Psalm 136) that we, too, may be like the stars who, “when he calls them… answer, ‘Here we are!’ shining with joy for their Maker” (Baruch 3:35). As we contemplate the heavens, their silent harmony and rhythm draws our minds and our hearts to the order, tranquility, and joy of the Eternal Godhead.
While Jews (and, later, Christians) were aided in their contemplation of the heavens and her motions by the revealed Word, this contemplation could be experienced by the pagans, too, as the Book of Nature is open to all people of good will. In fact, according to Timaeus, the contemplation of the order and harmony of the heavens is the very reason for our gift of eyesight so that, through this contemplation, we might bring order to our souls:
“Let us rather declare that the cause and purpose of this supreme good is this: the god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god.” (Plato, Timaeus, 47b-c)
As any self-reflective person acknowledges, the motions of our souls so often stray from the Good. As the things among “that which becomes” that most perfectly reflect “that which always is” ‒ to use the language of Timaeus ‒ the heavenly bodies remind us of the harmony and integrity for which we were created that we, too, may shine forth the Beauty and Goodness of Eternal Truth.
In February, I traveled with students and a fellow faculty member to the McDonald Observatory in west Texas. While there, we experienced the full grandeur of the night sky in one of the darkest locations in the continental United States. Although they (and I!) still have much to learn, the students were equipped, after the difficult work of the fall semester, to not only marvel at the beauty of thousands of bright sentinels in the night sky but to contemplate the wisdom and order to which they give witness.
But you need not travel to remote west Texas to share this experience; a dark field or backyard in the city will still be sufficient! Even from the heart of Houston, one can see enough of the brightest stars to pick out the major constellations and observe their motions. To borrow and adapt an invitation from C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image, I invite you to “go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour.” But don’t let this be a one time event! Rather, go out regularly, even just for a few minutes and look up ‒ really look ‒ and pay attention to what is happening in the sky. (And pay attention during the day, too!)
Grab a star map and go outside early on these April evenings and look west at Orion, the great hunter, accompanied by his faithful canine companion, as he confronts the Bull. (Look in Canis Major for Sirius, the brightest of the fixed stars!) Look high in the eastern sky and see Leo, the lion killed barehanded by Heracles, who will appear behind him in the sky in a few hours. If you love mornings, Venus, Saturn, and Mars can be seen in close proximity to one another in the eastern sky. (Venus will be the brightest “star” in that vicinity and together the three make a roughly straight line.) They will soon be joined by Jupiter to make a spectacular line-up throughout April and early May. (If you are new to this, the tools and information here can help you figure out what to look for.)
With a few minutes here and a few there, watch year after year as the stars “proclaim the glory of God” through their ordered revolutions. Learn the pattern and order of the heavens and allow them to make known to you their message and their story. Look up that you may see life down here anew and your heart may be lifted to the eternal. Let the stars speak to you of Him, “at whose command they keep their place and never relax in their vigils.” (Sirach 43:10)