Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Symbolic languages

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published July 24, 2014

I was thinking about symbols a few days ago. What got me going on them were several articles in the paper about the recent and stunning discoveries in the world of physics. I won’t even try here to get into the finer details of those discoveries. They are way over my head.

One had to do with the luminous waves left over from the Big Bang—the creation of the universe. The waves are also called “ripples.”  I read several articles about the “ripples” and got lost in a haze where fact is hard to separate from theory. The other had to do with the discovery of water on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

Such faraway and far-reaching discoveries are due in large measure to the gift of numbers—exacting mathematical theorems, experiments, jottings and hunches.

I was a very poor math student. Even as early as the first grade, when I was supposed to master the counting of apples and bananas, I messed up. Arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry nearly killed me. I somehow avoided having to take calculus—that would have pushed me over the edge.

I can remember as if it was yesterday—though it was more than 60 years ago—sitting next to my dad on the couch. He was an accountant. He used gold Cross pens and wrote his figures on yellow legal pads that had light blue lines. He was helping me with my arithmetic homework, which was really hard for me, as was the fact that he wasn’t too patient. He told me to count up some numbers. He wrote them on the pad. I saw the gold Cross pen move across—or I guess down—the page as he wrote numbers. I stared at the numbers and the gold pen. I froze. I took a guess. I was just one number off—and then he said that it was wrong and when I said that I was “close” he said in exasperation that “in arithmetic ‘close’ is never right. It is always wrong.”

So now I am thinking about the numbers—the symbols—that physicists use to figure out the universe. I know they have other things, like huge sub-atomic colliders that cost billions and microscopes and telescopes, as aids to see the very close and the very far. But I have a hunch that they have to sit down with a pad and pen and use equations, numbers, and those wild symbols that you might see on Einstein’s chalkboard or on your computer screen if you have a symbol set.

It amazes me that events that took place a billion years ago, and a trillion light years away, and things that are trillion degrees hot or cold can be better approached and better understood with a pad, paper and symbols.

Do physicists get it all figured out? I do not think so. They will always need erasers. And better machines and of course, more money.

But the human hand, moving along on a pad of paper as a scientist tries to figure things out, seems to me to be a necessary part of the process of discovery.

I think that whatever is disclosed in the future will come as a gift, as some kind of a strange glitch that is really a key to a new frontier, a new way of seeing things. It always seems to happen that way. Like a strange light going on in one’s brain, or a hunch that seems to come from nowhere and that in effect is the longed-for solution.

My dad was right. Close is never right. It is not good enough. But I still think it is near enough to help a first-grader move in the right direction (though I did not fare too well with that as far as numbers are concerned).

I am interested in the living symbol that is God. For the word “God” points to something or someone it cannot contain. It is a word. We are looking for the real thing. But we have to use symbols, pads and pens, liturgies and hopefully good lives. It all is pointing to something but isn’t the exact answer. We have to keep looking.

And everybody is looking—using all kinds of symbols to get to the real. Believers, atheists, agnostics, spiritualists and sensualists all try and scratch the given surfaces of life to probe what is beneath.

As more of the riddles of the universe are unraveled, the question of God’s plan becomes a tantalizing one. To gaze in awe at the sky on a starry night fills me with wonder. Who are we, where did we come from, why is the universe so vast, are we alone?  The night sky is silent. Yet I believe God spoke. His word brought all that we know into being. And he made us in his likeness.

As I stand in the field, I hear the cry of a baby from a nearby house on a dark, starry night. It is a cry of hope that someone will hear and come. A parent will give comfort, and God speaks again. And I come back to my room and pick up my pen. Trying to write the beauty, the mystery of what I heard. And somewhere, a physicist gazes in awe through his or her telescope, picks up a pen and makes a few or a lot of symbols on his pad, and what is written may bring the mystery closer, but it is not quite right yet. It is maybe close, but not close enough.

An infant and the heavens call to us, and we need to respond to a baby and the stars. These living, crying and shining mysteries are so near and yet so far, but name them we must, to bring them close, to understand. Yet we never can draw them close enough—something or someone hides within our symbols, a living and wondrous gift that cannot be penetrated with letters or numbers, but only received and loved. And that is close enough. So I keep writing and physicists keep figuring—and I think at bottom we are after the same mystery.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at