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Starting Point

Bringing far-off mysteries close


When we were young my mother took my brother, Jimmy, and me to the planetarium in New York City. We sat in the enormous auditorium waiting for the show to begin. There was a machine there that looked like a metal monster, made of copper or brass. Its huge lenses projected onto the ceiling pictures of the heavens and constellations of stars. It was hard to tell how high the domed ceiling was. I remember staring up at its soft white glow, trying to find 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; it had the same aura as a cathedral. Its promise of something extraordinary commanded a reverent, expectant silence.

The lights dimmed and the master of ceremonies mounted a platform near the telescope. I leaned back and gazed at the ceiling as it was transformed into a wondrous view of the galaxy. The telescope turned slowly and projected image after image on the ceiling. We were looking right into the depths of the deepest, darkest night sky. 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. I was entranced by the view of the heavens and the vastness of the universe.

I 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, comets and planets could be brought so seemingly close on a ceiling in a Manhattan building. I think of what was real as being so fantastically far away, so unreachable, so impossible to have close. I sensed mystery and saw such beauty, and I could almost touch it, but not quite.

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

In my life I have used language and symbols like pointers of light for myself and others. For me the realm of religion has been something like that ceiling. All the words and symbols, all that I think about and yearn for, that longing for something lasting and for God, has 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 truly know and understand? We only have pointers of light and a yearning for beauty and for holding love close. Much later in life I was to learn that everything is moving. Nothing can be held on to for long. We change and move through movement and light -- with each other.

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 close, even though we only really 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 point to the constellation that is God, and a forever longing for someone who seems far but is so close.

My mom’s sight has failed, and I don’t know if she remembers those lights in the Hayden Planetarium and their mystery. I hope she can close her eyes and remember with love her life, her loves. If what she sees shines, shines like so many stars, then I am glad.

I’m 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 come, a beauty is seen within the dimming, as near to me as my mother was that day so long ago. As I write this I see with the light she gave me. A light given from afar.

Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives and writes in Covington, La.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003