Tag Archives: science

1 December: Over the stile with Emily

Stile near Silverdale, Lancashire, England.

Once more I find myself disagreeing with Emily: this time with her possibly tongue-in-cheek condemnation of science. However, her light-hearted, joyful acceptance of creation and of death are refreshing and appropriate for Advent. Refreshing too, her final image of the Father lifting her over the stile of pearl into Heaven. I can almost feel those hands, half circling my chest to lift me to himself, though now it is my privilege to lift grandsons to where they need to be. ‘You have to help me’, even when the child is ‘helping’ you.

No pearls on the stiles shown here, but good, solid, dependable limestone, that humans and dogs can get over, perhaps with a little help; that deer can leap with grace, but sheep are too woolly to manage. Not the best image for Heaven’s gate, perhaps, but there again, the stile is not the gate, not the official entrance where the sheep go in. This is a short cut, and it is not Peter or Michael but the Father himself that is watching here, ready to lift the naughty ones into his everlasting arms.

XX. OLD-FASHIONED.

 Arcturus is his other name, —
I'd rather call him star!
It's so unkind of science
To go and interfere!

 I pull a flower from the woods, —
A monster with a glass
Computes the stamens in a breath,
And has her in a class.

 Whereas I took the butterfly
Aforetime in my hat,
He sits erect in cabinets,
The clover-bells forgot.

 What once was heaven, is zenith now.
Where I proposed to go
When time's brief masquerade was done,
Is mapped, and charted too!

 What if the poles should frisk about
And stand upon their heads!
I hope I 'm ready for the worst,
Whatever prank betides!

 Perhaps the kingdom of Heaven 's changed!
I hope the children there
Won't be new-fashioned when I come,
And laugh at me, and stare!

 I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl, —
Old-fashioned, naughty, everything, —
Over the stile of pearl!" 

(from “Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete” by Emily Dickinson)

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25 November: Falling through the night sky, Creation XXXVI.

Another reflection on the stars by a writer who loves the wild places where dark skies are more likely, the stars more visible. Robert Macfarlane is moved, almost physically, by gazing up - or is it down? into the night sky. 

The unconverted and limitless nature of the night sky ... is given a depth by the stars that far exceeds the depth given to the diurnal sky by clouds. On a cloudless night, looking upwards, you experience a sudden flipped vertigo, the feeling that your feet might latch off from the earth and you might plummet upwards into space... Our estrangement from the dark [due to street lighting] was a great and serious loss.
Robert Macfarlane, THE WILD PLACES, London, Granta, 2007.

A similar emotion struck David, who must have spent many a night under the stars:

For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded.
What is man that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him?
Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour:
And hast set him over the works of thy hands.
                                                                                           Psalm 8:4-7

Before we get carried away in gratification, let Macfarlane remind us that the loss of the night sky to urban dwellers is serious and stunting.

About the photograph: Image of the night sky above Paranal, Chile on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the galaxy to which we belong. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. Three of the four 8.2-m telescopes forming ESO’s VLT are seen, with a laser beaming out from Yepun, Unit Telescope number 4. The laser points directly at the Galactic Centre. Also visible are three of the 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes used for interferometry. They show small light beams which are diodes located on the domes. The exposure time is 5 minutes and because the tracking was made on the stars, the telescopes are slightly blurred.

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24 November: The Stars of Heaven, Creation XXXV

Image from NASA
He in the evening, when on high 
The stars shine in the silent sky, 
Beholds th' eternal flames with mirth, 
And globes of light more large than Earth; 
Then weeps for joy, and through his tears 
Looks on the fire-enamell'd spheres, 
Where with his Saviour he would be 
Lifted above mortality. 
Meanwhile the golden stars do set, 
And the slow pilgrim leave all wet 
With his own tears, which flow so fast 
They make his sleeps light, and soon past. 

from Poems of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Volume II via Kindle

Eddie was writing about the stars yesterday, so an opportunity presents to complement his reflection with a poem. I was talking to a friend who had been moved to tears by a television drama, and remarked that certain saints had written of 'the gift of tears'. My friend was grateful that the fountain had welled up within her. 

Here we have a 17th Century poet, writing in English though living in Wales. He was twenty years old when Galileo died. Science did not erode his faith but enhanced it, intellectually and emotionally, the sight of the 'fire-enamell'd spheres' moving him to tears of awe at creation.

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4 September, Season of Creation VI: The gift to be simple, III.

We turned to Saint Gregory the Great, see yesterday’s post, after reading this passage from his successor, Good Pope John XXIII, who at this time, November 1948, was Papal Representative in France, well able to comment on ‘cunning minds’ in Vatican diplomacy, especially as he was writing in his journal, for his eyes only! Notice how he links the simplicity of the just man with the scientist’s search for truth.

Oh, the simplicity of the Gospel, of The Imitation of Christ, of the Littler Flowers of Saint Francis, and of the most exquisite passages in Saint Gregory, in his Moralia: ‘The simplicity of the just man is derided’, and the words that follow! I enjoy these pages more and more and return to them with joy. All the wiseacres of this world, and all the cunning minds, including those in Vatican diplomacy, cut such a poor figure in the light of the simplicity and grace shed by this great and fundamental doctrine of Jesus and his saints! This is the surest wisdom, that confounds the learning of this world and, with courtesy and true nobility, is consistent, equally well and even better, with the loftiest achievements in the sphere of science, even of secular and social science, in accordance with the needs of time, place and circumstance.

‘This is the height of philosophy, to be simple with prudence’, as was said by Saint John Chrysostom, my great patron saint of the East.

Lord Jesus, preserve in me the love and practice of this simplicity which, by keeping me humble, makes me more like you and draws and saves the souls of men.

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30 May: Hospitality towards Barn Owls.

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At Trotton Place lived Arthur Edward Knox, whose Ornithological Rambles in Sussex, published in 1849, is one of the few books worthy to stand beside White’s Natural History of Selborne.+ In Sussex, as elsewhere, the fowler* has prevailed, and although rare birds are still occasionally to be seen, they now visit the country only by accident, and leave it as soon as may be, thankful to have a whole skin.

Guns were active enough in Knox’s time, but to read his book to-day is to be translated to a new land:

“I have the satisfaction of exercising the rites of hospitality towards a pair of barn owls, which have for some time taken up their quarters in one of the attic roofs of the ancient, ivy-covered house in which I reside. I delight in listening to the prolonged snoring of the young when I ascend the old oak stairs to the neighbourhood of their nursery, and in hearing the shriek of the parent birds on the calm summer nights as they pass to and fro near my window; for it assures me that they are still safe; and as I know that at least a qualified protection is afforded them elsewhere, and that even their arch-enemy the gamekeeper is beginning reluctantly, but gradually, to acquiesce in the general belief of their innocence and utility, I cannot help indulging the hope that this bird will eventually meet with that general encouragement and protection to which its eminent services so richly entitle it.”

There is a benevolently naive verbosity about some writers of Edwardian times, as we British count the XX Century before the Great War. This passage is from “Highways and Byways in Sussex” by E. V. Lucas, 1904, but of course the story from Knox is older still. I hope both men would appreciate today’s general good will and legal protection towards birds and the scientific study of them, but they both could tell us something of what has been lost in the years since then; although most birds are now legally protected, we should be less complacent; where are the cuckoos, martins and swallows we expected to see and hear thirty, even twenty years ago?

+ See White on Worms, 20 May, and search elsewhere in the blog.

* Fowler: someone who hunts and shoots birds (even rare ones).



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20 May: Gilbert White XII, on worms.

Science was not always seen as attacking Christian belief, and should not be presented as doing so. Rather it challenges the believer to accept, or not, the evidence of their own observations, and the often detailed observations of honest men and women looking at Creation, trying to understand it and their place within it. As one scientist put it, you can believe that God indeed created all things inside a week, but you have to accept that he created a world that looks, sounds and tastes as though he has been creating on a larger scale and over a longer period of time than we can even begin to imagine.

Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne in Hampshire, was one such honest observer. He had his battles to convince gardeners and farmers that ‘worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation’. That is now received wisdom. As for ‘small shell-less snails, called slugs’ … well, at least the hedgehogs enjoy them. White’s Natural History is based on letters to scientist friends.

These worms are rather dirty with grains of sand and soil adhering to their skin. We thought it would be unfair to wash them down. After the photo op they were soon back in their native soil.

Selborne, May 20, 1777.

Dear Sir,

Lands that are subject to frequent inundations are always poor; and probably the reason may be because the worms are drowned. The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy of nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity.

Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass.

Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work: and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently sterile: and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted that green corn, plants, and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulae (long-legs), in their larva, or grub-state; and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.

From “The Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White.

Let’s pray that we may never be counted among the incurious, but may appreciate that every link in the chain of nature has its part to play.

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14 April, Traherne XXXIV: He willed the Creation that He might Be.

White Bluebells, Blean Churchyard, Canterbury.

Here is an idea to contemplate: that God willed Creation into being so that God himself had somewhere to be, in the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Son.

O the nobility of Divine Friendship! Are not all His treasures yours, and yours His?
Is not your very Soul and Body His: is not His life and felicity yours; is not His desire yours?
Is not His will yours? And if His will be yours, the accomplishment of it is yours, and the end of all is your perfection.

You are infinitely rich as He is: being pleased in everything as He is. And if His will be yours, yours is His. For you will what He willeth, which is to be truly wise and good and holy. And when you delight in the same reasons that moved Him to will, you will know it. He willed the Creation not only that He might Appear but Be: wherein is seated the mystery of the Eternal Generation of His Son. Do you will it as He did, and you shall be glorious as He.

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15 February: Gilbert White XI: a reflection on the crocus.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is croci.15.2.19.png

The 18th Century curate and scientist saw no conflict between these two ways of looking at the world; here it is science inspiring him to a prayer in poetry.

The crocus sativus, the vernal, and the autumnal crocus have such an affinity, that the best botanists only make them varieties of the same genus, of which there is only one species; not being able to discern any difference in the corolla, or in the internal structure. Yet the vernal crocus expands its flowers by the beginning of March at farthest, and often in very rigorous weather; and cannot be retarded but by some violence offered: — while the autumnal (the saffron) defies the influence of the spring and summer, and will not blow till most plants begin to fade and run to seed.

This circumstance is one of the wonders of the creation, little noticed, because a common occurrence: yet ought not to be overlooked on account of its being familiar, since it would be as difficult to be explained as the most stupendous phaenomenon in nature.

Say, what impels, amidst surrounding snow,
Congealed, the crocus’ flamy bud to grow?
Say, what retards, amidst the summer’s blaze,
Th’ autumnal bulb till pale, declining days ?
The GOD of SEASONS; whose pervading power
Controls the sun, or sheds the fleecy shower:
He bids each flower His quickening word obey;
Or to each lingering bloom enjoins delay.


 Letter XLII from The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White.

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28 January: Consider the flowers of the wayside.

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And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. And if the grass of the field, which is to day, and to morrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?

Matthew 6: 28-30.

The photo is from January last year, but could have been taken today, had the skies not been so grey. I always enjoy our early violets that bloom before their season. They put me in mind of this Gospel passage. I don’t think this was just a throwaway line of Jesus; he wants us to give our attention to the flowers and how they grow and are provided with sunshine, soil and water. That includes solid science.

These violets did not appear by magic, nor do they survive by magic. The bed they grow in was created at the edge of a footpath maybe 20 years ago, with shrubs lining a brick wall and violets providing ground cover beneath, shadowing out any weed seeds that might try and grow there. It’s almost a self-sustaining habitat now, requiring annual pruning of the bushes, and an occasional thinning of the violets.

I once declined to look after the garden of a lady who wanted me to uproot the violets carpeting her rose bed. The combination struck me as one of the most attractive prospects of her plot and she wanted to be rid of it! Removing the violets would have been against nature. Other plants would have come along to fill the space, requiring repeat weedings in turn. Working with nature allows our violets to do what they do best, bringing a smile to the faces of passing humans.

Pat, a girl I once worked with, had no money on her mother’s birthday, but had never noticed the bank of violets by their front fence. We gathered a fine posy to mark the day. Consider the flowers! They can speak of our love for each other as well as God’s love for us. Let’s work with him to restore beauty to our world.

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3 December: follow that star!

Hale-Bopp from NASA

Yesterday was about hearing, today we are seeing hopefully. Or should I say seeing, hopefully. I’m not talking about taking note of the raindrops and kittens that we see, but about the sense of sight.

I’ve been blessed lately with two cataract operations, and sight is suddenly not to be taken for granted. Suddenly, all is Technicolor, or as my friend Winfried would have argued, Agfacolor. He favoured the German films and prints; we disagreed about the red end of the spectrum.

Seeing hopefully: this new lease of life for my eyes inspires hope. Not quite Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord, but a promise that if human co-operation with creation through science can enlighten my little world, there may be better things to come.

Winfried told me that the German for a cataract in the eye translates as grey star; not a star you would want to follow.

So, I told Fr Tom Herbst (TJH in Agnellus’ Mirror) as well, soon after the first op when one eye was still under the grey star.  ‘I imagine’, he said, ‘you can well relate to the ecstasy felt by the blind folks healed by Jesus!!!’

I didn’t need him to point that out, but I was glad he did. I offered this progress report: ‘Till the second eye is done it’s a mixture of ecstasy and ‘I see trees walking’. (Mark 8:24) I hope by next week the eyes will be co-ordinating freely and I’ll recognise more people!’

Tom replied, ‘Good luck with the op. As marvellous as it might be to see trees walking (other than Ents, of course, which are not technically trees), it seems recognition might be the better choice!’

Pray that we may recognise the star we are called to follow this Advent and Christmas. It may all be a little different this year!

MMB, TJH, WOH.

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