In Space there is a lot of space. Much more than the naked eye can see. The recently deployed James Webb telescope (in 2021), now a million miles away from earth, has shown us how vast and spectacular space is. Not to mention how old. We are now receiving – for the first time, pictures of other galaxies that took forty million light years to arrive on the Webb’s mirror.
I can’t fathom that; fathom being a common measure of ocean depth; one fathom is about nine feet. The deepest part of the ocean is about 6,000 fathoms, or nearly seven miles; I can’t fathom that either. I remember a summer night, shortly after I graduated from high school, looking up at the stars – and feeling overwhelmed by how many, how far and how big they were. I felt small, insignificant – and scared. At the time I was wrestling with how, where and if God fit in my life – and my looking up into the heavens just made that spiritual quest more complicated and confusing; and ratcheted up my anxiety.
I tried to scale back. I found a lot of support. Instead of trying to take in the entirety of the universe, I took comfort in theologies and cosmologies that were pre-Galileo – that made the earth the center of everything. Instead of wrestling with unfathomable theories of evolution which posited that humans emerged 8 million years ago, it was much easier to subscribe to some biblical interpretations that we are no more than 12,000 years old, which some have insisted is the dawn of Creation (as opposed to the accepted scientific big bang date of 13.7 billion years ago.)
In the fifty-four years since my nocturnal encounter with the insignificance of my existence, due to a prolonged gaze into a starlit sky, I have learned more of the demands and the desires of my ego. Which is to break down the enormity of reality and the universe into smaller pieces. I can do this by denial, distortion – or the need to manage or manipulate. And I – and we, see this happening every day. The ego – especially when it is hyper-engaged or overly inflated, can reduce things to binary choices – this or that; right or wrong. Would-be political and economic dictators do this on a daily basis. Inconvenient data is refuted or ignored. People holding oppositional views become enemies. The vastness of space becomes a playground for fantasy; it is not real. Nothing should be unfathomable. The exercise of power becomes paramount.
Embracing the unfathomable – by absorbing the images from the Webb telescope, by honoring the vastness of space and the depth of the ocean, can serve to unhook us from the desires and demands of the ego. We are not masters of the universe; we are important and valuable constituent parts of it. By disengaging from the push and pull of the ego, we can more effectively engage with the important work of calling for restoration, reconciliation, peace – and healing the world. As we honor the expansiveness of space, we are better able to fathom the pain that people inflict on one another, as those with more power often try to violently eliminate others, thus shrinking the world to fit their agenda.
Nearly a thousand years ago St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) wrote “What are you, Lord God, than that which nothing greater can be thought”? The vastness and beauty of what the Webb images show points me to that which nothing greater can be thought. It expands my mind. It opens up my heart. My ego may feel insignificant, but my soul is expanded. If the Webb telescope’s images or Anselm’s wisdom doesn’t point you to God (as it does me), it can perhaps guide us to a realization that it is all much bigger than we thought. And from that vantage point, with greater openness and compassion, we can better address the violence, fear and hate that engulfs our world.
And for that I am grateful.