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Starting Point

Like stars, words bring light


Such wonderful gifts arrived this day and night. A letter, the light of day and the stars of night. Henry James wrote, “We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have.”

It was the second time a package had arrived at the monastery from a family in California. I recognized the name from the first, which was a donation of a new book. This second package, too, contained a beautiful book. The bookstore invoice gave the return address. So I wrote and thanked the family, not knowing whom in particular to thank.

A letter arrived from Johanna. She had sent the book and appreciated my note. Her letter was brief, too, but it said so much and I have been thinking about her all day.

She wrote that she is a widow and a mother of teenage kids, and that “God is the only Father there.” Then she asked if I ever write about the stars in the night sky and if we have a telescope here at the monastery. Those lines lingered within me all day and, yes, into the night as I sat on the porch at the rear of our church gazing at the stars.

Just recently I read where the writer Barbara Lazear Ascher reads physics because it soothes her and “because it all seems so wonderful, and I can’t understand a word of what I read.” I suppose I gaze at stars for much the same reason. They soothe and mystify me, and yet I do not understand them — their distance, their vastness.

I have written about stars before and I will send those little musings to Johanna. I once read that we really come from stars, that from the long ago Big Bang we went one way along the genetic highway and stars went another. They burn, and we breathe. They shine, and we love.

The point of the article was that they were here first, and from their fiery nature we spewed forth. How to understand such a thing, something which is more at home in the exacting language of the physicist?

I do not understand as much as I gaze.

I thought about Johanna last night. She may have been shopping, or at work, or making dinner for her kids, and waiting for the joy of her night sky and its beauties.

She has no husband. I thought about her being lonesome, as I am at times here. Yet when I look at the night sky and wonder if there is life out there, if the stars were more generous with their magic than we presently know, I feel less lonesome. Or, better, I feel more at home with my loneliness.

I thought about Johanna’s heartbreak when she lost her husband. She did not go into any details, and it occurred to me as I watched the stars that they seem to absorb the need to know such details. Their beauty tends to make me reflect on things here and close by, things that have their origins in some long-ago mystery.

They are so far, the stars. Their light takes so long to travel.

I received a letter with words about stars and loss and pain, and a need for God. Johanna was on my mind last night, here in Georgia. Some may seek to penetrate the mystery of the stars with a telescope. I think that the stars gave to us humans one of their most beautiful characteristics. Words are our light. They too can travel great distances in a brief period of time.

As I took Johanna’s words to heart and said a prayer for her peace last night, I felt a closeness to her that banished the distances imposed by highways and galaxies and light years. I may not understand it but can sure live, love and hope from it.

Something about the stars made Johanna write of them. Something about Johanna made me so grateful for stars and for those to whom they give their light.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999