Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Galactic language for the liturgy?

Stairs up to the Vatican Observatory's
Zeiss Double Astrograph in 

"With joy we give you thanks and praise.
Where once was nothing, your love
brought matter into being and motion,
thus creating time itself,
and countless galaxies, each with its countless stars,
and, to prepare a home for us,
delicately circling round one single star,
this one small globe, our mother earth." — John Daly, SJ

Recently on PrayTell there has been a discussion about a draft of a Eucharistic prayer by John Daly, SJ, that uses language and imagery drawn from modern science — a prayer for the 21st century.  [UPDATE: Kimberly Belcher of Notre Dame now has a post up at PrayTell extending the conversation.]The post grabbed my attention both because of the science and because I'm currently writing prayers for a book that is nearing completion. What should go in them?

There's a lot to critique in the draft (which you can read here, along with Thomas Reese, SJ's commentary here) but Fritz Bauerschmidt posed the question which interests me: "But a more general question might be whether we want eucharistic prayers that are so thoroughly invested in a particular scientific worldview that they are likely to sound outdated before too long."

That said, I would suggest Bauerschmidt's question is moot.  To my eye, the science in this Eucharistic prayer is isn't going to get outdated period, let alone next week.  It's all pretty settled at the level of the broad strokes used to describe in the text, and despite the title of the PrayTell post none of it is from the 21st century, some of it dates back hundreds of years.  For example, the universe is indeed billions of years old, as the prayer implies. we've known the age of the universe is on the order of billions of years for almost a century.  Whether that's 13.81 billion years or 13.77 billion years might still be up for grabs in the cosmology community, but it's immaterial in this context, Daly didn't get into that level of detail.
David Brown, SJ observing using the Zeiss
refractor at the Vatican Observatory in

The rest of the science is similarly situated: baryogenesis did happen (i.e. matter came into being) even if the details are yet a bit murky, the earth circles the sun and is not flat. Evolution is a biological process, life on earth began at single cell level, humans evolved much later. The word chaos is used several times, but not in its technical mathematical sense.  Primal chaos is a pretty reasonable word to use to describe the universe as it existed in its earliest second, so tangled and so dense even light could not escape its clutches.

But I sense in the conversation something of the notion that scientific imagery and language just isn't sacred enough, perhaps a subtext of 'doesn't it sound silly to be thanking God for having discovered the Higgs-Bosun [sic]?' in one of the first comments.1 The serious question I'd like to raise is,  is it really laughable to be grateful to God for scientific discoveries in general?  If not in general, then for specific ones?  May we pray for "scientists," but not for "computational chemists," or for "galaxies" but not "Bose-Einstein condensates"?  On the telescope domes atop the old papal summer palace are inscribed the words, Deum creatorem venite adoremus, come adore God the Creator.  The laws of physics are as much God's creation as the dewfall.  Dew and rain, bless the Lord.  Bosons and fermions, bless the Lord, too.

Science is not a merely secular pursuit, I would argue it's very much a dialog with God about creation.  In that sense, it's prayer.  Contemplative prayer.

It's a more than a bit ironic to deprive our liturgical spaces of any mention of "science", bearing in mind that science has always made these spaces possible, from the engineering and math that ensures the buildings stay up, to the vinter's chemistry, to the dyes used on the vestments, and these days, made those albs resist wrinkles in ways linen ones never would.

When the book is done, perhaps I'll try my hand at a litany of praise for science, galactic and otherwise.

1.  Well, yes it does sound silly, because there is no Higgs-Bosun, it's the Higgs boson that got discovered; bosons are a particle type, not a person's name, but I know that because I deal in bosons and fermions on a daily basis!)

And while we are on the subject of science imagery in the liturgy, I remain distracted by dewfall (which doesn't fall, it condenses), and the bath of regeneration in the blessing over the way, which also distract me, but freely admit the failing is with me.  I'm certain everyone encounters language in the liturgy that abruptly bumps them out of the prayer and into something else.  Prevenient, anyone?


  1. One of the things that make this blog so spectacular is the union of science and belief. I am not a scientist myself but I respect science and believe in God and do not see any contradiction in that union.

    In fact, I know literally dozens of doctors, some who were not particularly religious to start with, who practice their science but also witness miracles in their practice and have thus have belief that they do not find contradictory.

    So, I will be interested in your prayers.

  2. One of your posts that I have enjoyed most! Thank you. I look forward to your prayers and to Brian Daly's Eucharistic prayer.

    1. Thanks! I'm looking forward to finishing the book manuscript!