The New Cosmology and Spirituality / 2
Called to bring the warmth of compassion to all creation
Perhaps nothing in science fiction is as captivating as black holes. In some science fiction TV programs in the last 20-30 years, show space ships trying to move in a certain direction, and yet, they were drawn, slowly and steadily, into a direction the crew did not want them to go, and they disappeared forever. It was fascinating and frightening!
Scientists have actually confirmed the presence of black holes. They are formed when giant stars die, and their mass collapses into a distinct, gravitationally-dense point called a singularity. A black hole is not an object that can be seen, but rather, an area of space-time whose effect can be recognized by the gravitational pull on anything that may venture too close to it.
The image of the black hole has found its way into our everyday vocabulary. “Falling into a black hole” signifies becoming pulled into a situation from which escape seems difficult, even impossible. In the US, military spending has created a national debt which has been described as a “black hole” from which our children will not emerge.
We can also experience black holes within ourselves. There are areas of our personality or character that seem to draw us into behaviors we want to avoid. We can become addicted to just about anything, alcohol, drugs, food, compulsive activity or behavior; we can even be addicted to a point of view. These exert increasing pressure on us and pull us away from what gives us life.
Like being caught in a “black hole”, this journey of darkness happens suddenly, triggered by a word or event that throws us off balance and makes us loose focus. Once we pass its indistinct perimeter, all that we are becomes oriented toward the darkness and we lose all self-control.
What is it that brings us to these black hole experiences?
While some of them simply occur in the normal course of life, others come about because we are living unaware. When we are living automatically, without conscious focus, it becomes easy to develop attitudes and habits that draw us closer and closer to the darkness. Sometimes, especially when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we make choices to relieve ourselves of our psychological pain or social discomfort. Before we realize what is happening, we encounter a pull that exerts greater and greater force. No longer grounded, our reality becomes distorted and we lose our self-control.
In the scientific world, it was once thought that there was a point of no return within black holes; that once you crossed a certain point on the periphery, nothing could get out of a black hole. Now, as a result of the work of Steven Hawking, we know that there is at least the theoretical possibility of escape. A phenomenon called “Hawking Radiation” implies that under certain conditions, black holes can emit radiation – and another name for radiation is light. What Hawking radiation suggests is that now, not even a black hole lies outside the influence of light. Even the smallest of particles can reverse a situation from which there seems to be no escape – … and light, as we know, is the primary expression of Creation, of Jesus, of God. In our times of utter darkness, when all hope seems to have vanished, along comes the faintest particle of light that collapses the hole and makes us “whole”, the light restores us to life.
What is it that can keep us in the light, that can keep us attentive? Contemplation. Contemplation is the prayer practice that slows us down, so that we become aware that something is going on within us – something that is different, unusual, discomforting. In the silence of contemplation, we more readily recognize our resistance and fear. As we grow in fidelity to contemplative prayer, we begin to change the way we meet the world – we become more awakened to life, less needy, more clear about who we are and what our life is about. In the experience of contemplation, we avail ourselves of the creative power of God, who is Light. We discover that although we may be powerless to change circumstances that are beyond our control, we are empowered by grace to become grounded again and to allow all things to work together for good.
Another aspect of darkness is death itself.
We are no strangers to death, whether the little deaths that happen every day – or the larger death that signifies the end of life as we know it. This phenomenon appears in the cosmos also – as a supernova.
Supernovas are the death explosions of stars. The Hubble telescope photographs of them are so stunning, that we forget that what we are really seeing are images of death and destruction. They are, simultaneously, images of passing away and of coming to life. It seems that the giving over of life, the letting go in life, on behalf of ever-expanding creativity, is integral to life itself.
Our sun and the planets that surround her, including our earth, are the results of a supernova that erupted about 5 billion years ago. The massive star that was mother to our sun met with fiery death, her form completely annihilated by the explosive force of the blast. And yet, she exists in all of us, in the cells of our bodies that are composed of her dust. Consciously or not, we carry her within us as surely as we carry the DNA of our biological parents. We are the children for whom she sacrificed all.
Of course we know that stars have no consciousness, no freedom to choose whether they will die or not, no matter how much creativity will spring from their demise. Death is simply part of the process – a part of every process – and that is the point. What is crucial – what the Paschal Mystery teaches us – is that we can choose to not flee from death, but to meet it with grace.
In Matthew’s gospel, we see Jesus modeling a free and conscious response as the threat of death encroaches upon his life. The account of his final hours begins, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after 2 days the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Matt 26: 1-2.
Aware that death is imminent, Jesus presses on toward Jerusalem, choosing to participate rather than run for cover.
We usually focus on Jesus’ death on the cross, naming that experience as his dying that saves us. We forget the other dyings that he suffered as his human life came to a close: the dying of having turn over his life’s work to others – disciples who did not understand, who did not appear prepared for the undertaking. There was the dying to relationships, to the friendship with Mary and Martha and Lazarus; the dying of knowing that he was about to be betrayed by Judas – and denied by Peter. There was even the dying of feeling like he was being cut off from Love Itself as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”
Jesus met all these deaths with the awareness that was the fruit of the contemplative way in which he lived.
In an earlier section, we reflected upon Jesus as the one who signaled an advance in human evolution. He was able to capture the light of the Holy One in a way that transforms us all. Jesus’ openness to the Light allowed us to encounter God’s radiance in a new manner. His fidelity to the Light shows us how to live and die so that our lives are transformed here and now. When we engage in a lifetime of deaths and resurrections as Jesus did, we become ever more empowered to do the work God asks us to do.
Life and death are a single mystery. That is what the Paschal Mystery teaches us. Death is inevitable, but so is Resurrection. We can be sure that dyings will intrude upon our lives, but we have a choice about how we will respond to them.
We need to be awake and watchful for the resurrections as well, for the creative ways that new life streams into our lives even in the midst of death. Like the supernova explosions that shatter every recognizable fragment of life, we are capable of transcendence, capable of believing that life and goodness will come from death.
As we have already mentioned, one of the most amazing discoveries of the 20th century is that the universe is expanding and that is not that the universe is expanding in time and space, but that space-time itself is expanding.
The term used to describe the force that causes the universe to expand has been named “dark energy”.
Dark energy is an anti-gravitational force, that like black holes, cannot be seen, but its presence is inferred from the effects it produces. According to scientists, dark energy appears to be spread rather uniformly throughout space and maintains a constant density as the universe expands.
Recent discoveries show that dark energy is found in all reaches of the universe; and that the universe is a sea of dark energy with billions of galaxies emerging like islands.
Perhaps the most amazing detail of the theory of dark energy is that it makes up about 70% of the universe! Over 2/3’s of the cosmos exists in a form we cannot see or touch, yet it exerts a force which cannot be denied! As an anti-gravitational force, it contributes in some mysterious way to ongoing creation, to sustaining life and providing the necessary components for continued development.
But dark energy is not the only dark mystery of the universe. Some galaxies, it was discovered, rotate at a speed of 60,000 miles per second. What keeps them from flinging apart? The answer: dark matter.
Dark matter cannot be seen but is known through the gravitational pull it exerts. “Dark” means that the matter is neutral, carrying no electrical charge that enables it to interact with light. It appears that about 25% of the universe is comprised of dark matter. Whereas dark energy is anti-gravitational and is spread uniformly throughout space, dark matter is dense and contributes to the gravitational field of a galaxy or cluster of galaxies.
The attempt to understand dark energy and dark matter is one of the most significant puzzles that current researchers are trying to solve. Most of the universe, in other words, is mystery. Most of it – 95% in fact -- cannot be seen or touched, yet all life exists because dark matter and dark energy are there, bringing things together in wholeness or stretching them apart in ever-expanding creativity.
Though we have accepted theological mysteries such as the Blessed Trinity as part and parcel of our religious life, many of us are uncomfortable with mystery in our everyday life. It is part of our human nature to want to know…. Yet, Mystery has to do with not knowing, with un-knowing, with living in awareness in the present moment with nothing to hold us except our trust in what is unseen. Mystery has to do with not only accepting darkness, but also befriending the darkness. Even as we profess that God is Mystery, we resist surrendering to the intangible that we label as frightening or unreal.
Mystery calls us to not only lay down our lives, but also to lay down our plans that interfere with our call.
Mystery invites us to live with wisdom, to know when to stand firm and when to take flying leaps.
Mystery asks us to live in the unknown with faith and live in the uncertain with hope, trusting in the revelation of a deeper knowing and certainty that manifests as Love.
At this point, hopefully, we can see how everything in the universe keeps coming back to the Divine, to our Creative God, to Jesus who reveals God’s presence in a human form, and to the Holy Spirit who continues to dwell with us, supporting and sanctifying us and all of creation – all things begin and end in God.
Three times in the book of Revelations, God says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End…”
Teilhard de Chardin once said: “Someday, after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire.”
Throughout today’s program, we have used the discoveries of modern science to bring us back to nature – to the raw beauty of creation – and to human nature. Our faith tradition has always used images of creation, from mountains and seas to seeds and light – to help us understand the Divine Mysteries that Jesus tried to reveal to us.
In Jesus’ final discourse, he prayed for his disciples to remain faithful, but he prayed for us also: “I do not pray for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their word, that all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me that they may be one, as we are one – I living in them, you living in me – and that their unity may be complete. So shall the world know that you sent me, and that you loved them as you loved me.”
Jesus Unity with the Holy One defined his life -- and his prayer indicated that he wants that same unity to define those who follow.
Significant questions remain:
How is it possible to live as a created and creative whole?
What will help us inhabit this vision and make it concrete? Again, we turn to science and the new universe story for a response.
According to some scientists, learning that the universe is expanding was the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century, and the implications of that discovery will engage explorers well into the new millennium. It seems that this image – of the universe flinging itself out in beauty and splendor and infinite creativity – provides a fitting response to our questions.
We live in a time that calls us, just like the universe, to expand – to fling ourselves out into life with creativity and zest.
We are invited to be sparked by the primordial fire from which we came. In Jesus, we ourselves are to become the flames of love that burn away fear and bring the warmth of compassion to all creation. Our expansion will require that we embrace our gifts and capacities for co-creativity as well as reject anything that works against what calls us to life.
We are called to expand our image of God and to embrace a God of radically amazing Mystery.
In the midst of a 13.7 billion year old Universe, which contains about 100 trillion galaxies, each of which contains 100 billion stars, what can we say about God?
One very practical implication is our image for God.
Priest and theologian Raimon Panikkar suggests that
“Novelty and perpetual surprise are traits of God, and the readiness to be surprised and to wonder is almost a requirement for experiencing God, who does not permit God’s self to be imprisoned in either physical or metaphysical forms”.
There is also a clear emphasis on the presence of the Divine within the Universe, and not outside of it. This is not surprising if we accept that the universe, from its inception, is more than a physical reality.
Margaret Galiardi suggests that Karl Rahner’s name for God – Holy Mystery, seems more apt than our usual images for God. Here, we are tapping into an old tradition of our church, works such as The Cloud of Unknowning, the Dark Night of John of the Cross and Centering Prayer, which insist on the limits of both image and language in attempting to speak of the Divine, to speak most deeply to the reality of God.
Theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and John Haught point to an understanding of creation and its ongoing character as a display not so much of Divine Power but rather Divine Humility as God pours God’s self out in love in an ever-expanding universe. Haught highlights God as defenseless and vulnerable love – a God whose love can persist in the face of the deviations, disorder and tragedy involved in 13.7 billion years of unfolding.
We are to expand our hearts to include all people and all of creation. Albert Einstein called the notion of separation an “optical delusion”. So many of the social and ecological problems that confront us now stem from our delusion that we are separate from, better than, or more significant than other members of creation – from other groups of people we encounter to the air we breathe.
We need to embrace our capacity for communion.
Meister Eckhart said, “Relation is the essence of everything that is.”
Relationship is something that all life requires, even inorganic life. Our vitality depends on the connections we establish and the communion we share. Our gifts, as life-giving as their full expression can be for us, are given to us for others. This means we must reject any temptation that keeps us from self-communion, from tending to the Holy One Who dwells with.
What nourishes any of us, more than bread itself, is a relationship in which we discover simultaneously who we are and who the other is. Communion that honors the other, that reverences the Holy One in the other and in the self – this is what we embrace. Connectedness is primary; communion is essential.
Finally we must continue to expand, to commitment ourselves to emergence, to participate in the Divine Unfolding around us and within us as fully as possible.
Life is unfinished. This requires great trust in the Spirit, for there are no maps to guide us into the unknown… We must trust the life skills that we have acquired and the intuition that urges us on.
Most of all, we must trust the God, who in Jesus said, “And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world”.
By Sister Jo-Ann Jackowski, SFP
A review of articles by Judy Cannato, "Radical Amazement"
Published: April 6, 2017