Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Star Gazing: A Son Reminisces

Published January 1, 2009

When we were young, you took me and Jimmy to the planetarium in New York City. It was our birthday, and it was to be a good day for we also went to the Museum of Natural History and had lunch in the cafeteria. I remember the taste of the lemonade.

We went by subway and bus, and I remember how you worried about taking the subway. Do you remember how you lost sight of me—or was it Jimmy—on the subway platform and the doors were shutting when you realized that one of us was missing and you held a doors open until he—or was it me—ran right past you, and I was amazed that you could do that. But you were very upset. We sat near you then, and you held our hands and told us not to move, not to move an inch. And so we stayed still. And yet we moved, moved toward the city.

And so we arrived, and you took us to the Hayden Planetarium. We sat in a large, dimly lit auditorium waiting for the show to begin. There was an enormous machine, which looked like a metal monster. It was, I think, made of copper or brass, and the lenses were huge. This was the telescope, or at least it looked like one, but what it actually did was project onto the ceiling above pictures of the heavens and constellations of stars. The lighting in the room was such that it was hard to tell how high the domed ceiling was. I remember staring up at it and not being able to discern anything other than its soft white glow. The walls were like that, too. It was hard to tell where the ceiling ended and the walls began. The angles blended together—it was like sitting in a huge bowl.

You did not have to tell us to be quiet, for something about the place gave it the same aura as a cathedral. Its beauty and promise of something extraordinary commanded a reverent and expectant silence.

I wonder now what you were thinking then, in that place—was your heart still racing about almost losing one of us? Or were you able to be at peace, if just for a moment or two, waiting for the heavens to open and enter the mysteries of the universe?

The lights dimmed and the master of ceremonies mounted a platform near the telescope, and the show began. I leaned back and gazed at the ceiling as it was transformed into a wondrous view of the galaxy. The telescope or whatever it was turned slowly and projected image after image on the ceiling, which now looked just like there was no ceiling at all, and we were looking right into the depths of the deepest, darkest night sky. How beautiful it was—millions of stars right above our heads. We saw galaxies and supernovae, shooting stars and planets and constellations. The man used a tiny laser-like beam to point out Orion and Pisces and all the other clusters of stars that had names. His voice was rich and deep and inviting. I was totally absorbed by it all, entranced by the view of the heavens and the vastness of the universe.

When looking up there it did not matter to me that it was not real. I never thought about that. Once the show began, I listened to what was being said and watched the movements of light and pattern across the heavens, and it mattered not that it was just a projection. Now I look back and find it fascinating that such far off things as stars and comets and planets could be brought so seemingly close and portrayed on a ceiling in a Manhattan building. Yet now, too, I think of what was real as being so fantastically far away, so unreachable, so impossible to have close. But is it not true that it all did not matter? I sensed mystery and saw such beauty, and I could almost touch it—but not quite.

You were right next to me, Mom. I was too young to make important connections between vast things and human things. I could have touched you then and in that touch felt, really felt, the most wondrous mystery of all, the stars of the heaven brought as close as your love, your worries, your gaze to the heavens above and your sons right next to you.

And what was I thinking?

Maybe I thought about being an astronomer. I probably did. But that was a long time ago, and I fancied being one thing or another back then.

I mused about being a soldier or a garbage man, a cowboy or rock and roll star, whatever impressed me for different reasons. Often it was to follow a role model. I guess there was a particular garbage man I must have admired and looked up to as a kid.

But the years passed and I grew up and became a Roman Catholic priest.

Why? Something must have attracted me to it. Yet if I get too close to trying to figure it all out, I lose it. As time adds distance from the day I was ordained, I look back and from that perspective I do not have clarity on it and never will. Yet somehow I see more, and know that wanting exact answers is looking for less, looking too close.

As I have lived these years, I have used language and symbols like pointers of light for myself and others. For me the realm of religiosity has been something like that ceiling. All the words and symbols, all that I think about and yearn for in terms of desire, a longing for something lasting and the “whatever God is” have never been exact. It has never been the “real” thing but has served as the best I have ever known for offering a glimpse as to what is seemingly so near and yet so far. What is there in the universe or even of ourselves that we can so “have” as to truly know and understand? We only have pointers of light and a yearning for beauty, for holding love close.

Much later in life I was to learn that everything is moving. Nothing can be held onto for too long. We change and move through movement and light—with each other.

Such is life, this fleeting light of beauty and sadness, a light that can be lonely, gazing up at the heavens for where we come from, and even doing a pretty good job of bringing the universe down to a Manhattan ceiling, allowing far away lights to shine so close, close enough that we feel something of love and loss, and hope that we see right, do right, love right.

We do the best we can to show what is far, to bring it close, to love what is near. And if done very well, for a moment or two we hold mysteries so close and know it to be about something real even though we only have those glimmers of light on ceilings, and whispers of love and mystery in our hearts.

So my life has been one of trying to give aim to the constellation that is God, and a forever longing for someone who seems far but is so close.

Your sight has failed, Mom, and I do not know if you remember those lights in the Hayden Planetarium and thinking about mysteries. Close your eyes—and remember with love your life, your loves, your tomorrows and if what you see shines, shines like so many stars, then I am glad.

Glad for a trip a long time ago when I saw wonderful things and did not realize that my life would be as rich as the heavens. Glad for today, knowing that light is a telling kind of thing when we look for it above us and within us. Glad, too, for tomorrow, when even though sight may fail and darkness comes, a beauty is seen with the dimming, as near to me as you were that day so long ago and as I write this and see with the light you gave me. A light given you from afar.

It is Christmas, Mom. Close your eyes and think of love—the heavens have touched the earth and we are all moving again, drawn by a Child to a wondrous Eternal City. The only way to get there is by loving. We move by loving to the heart of God.

It is a wonderful ride and the only door is God’s heart—and that can never close.