Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Judith Valente on Rethinking Perspectives

I recently attended a retreat where my fellow presenters included astronauts who have spent time on the International Space Station, as well as several noted physicists.

If you ever need reinforcement for belief in a higher power, just listen to the observations of those who have voyaged in space or who study the laws of physics. They tell us that our universe is far vaster and more intricate than we can imagine. As one of the astronauts put it, our generation knows more about the inner workings of the cosmos than any previous one, yet we still understand only a thimbleful of its complexity.

This is not to say all who study quarks or have orbited the earth become instant evangelists. They do share a common respect and awe for the beauty and intricacy of the universe. Scott Kelly, one of the astronauts I met, has spent more time on the International Space Station than any other human. Kelly was raised Catholic, but jettisoned formal religion as a teenager for a kind of open-minded agnosticism, Still, he writes in his memoir Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime of Discovery:

“I am a scientific minded person, curious to understand everything I can about the universe. We know there are trillions of stars, more than the grains of sand on planet Earth. Those stars make up less than 5 percent of the matter in the universe. The rest is dark matter and dark energy. The universe is so complex. Is it all an accident?  I don’t know.”

The scientists I met seem more comfortable with the existence of mystery than so many of us who call ourselves people of faith. We crave certainty. We seek doctrine and rules. We want a God who conforms to our andromorphic needs. Of course Jesus was a light-skinned male (though he probably looked more like a present-day Syrian refugee). Of course Mary had blonde hair and blue eyes. And God is a senior citizen with a snow-colored beard.

Could we not think of God as pure mystery, as absolute love, as inviolate light, as the deepest, truest point of being within our own soul and still faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus?

My time with the astronauts and physicists inspired me to rethink several conventional perspectives. Consider the current political discourse about “protecting” the U.S. border. When astronauts gaze upon Earth from deep space, they see one mass. A single planet. A fragile bead suspended in infinite blackness.

Borders are artificial human constructs. To be perfectly honest, what we now consider our inviolate U.S. borders once belonged to other people: to Mexicans, to the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and yes, our Native Americans. About this history we seem to have collective amnesia.

Then there is the question of whether we are alone in the universe. The astronauts I met don’t fear the possibility that we have company. In fact, some think it’s highly likely that a form of intelligent life exists in outer reaches we have yet to discover.

How would we react as people of faith?  Thomas Merton so accurately noted that the root of war is always fear. Would we confront those from other galaxies as threats we need to subdue? Or would we replace fear with cooperation? Would we have the courage to link arms with beings who once thought, like us, that they too were at the center of the cosmos?

The 2016 film The Arrival offers an intriguing perspective. It is the story of beings who arrive from outer space, igniting a wildfire of fear on Earth. Their language is unlike anything spoken or written and includes a unique perception of time. An expert linguist is tapped to initiate contact. If she cannot determine the visitors’ true intentions, the nations of the world will pool their weaponry and launch an all-out assault.

To show her own peaceful motives, the linguist enters the alien spacecraft, and at considerable risk to herself, removes her biohazard suit. She approaches the strange, multi-limbed creatures with outstretched palms. Her body language demonstrates she isn’t there to attack. Slowly, by immersing herself in the aliens’ complex language, she uncovers the purpose of their visit. Earth escapes an inter-planetary disaster, not by superior weaponry, but by listening. By seeking to understand those whom we don’t at first understand. Sounds very Benedictine to me.

Throughout the centuries Benedictines have adapted to advances in knowledge, changes in perspectives, and challenges to conventional wisdom. They did so with hospitality of mind and humility of spirit – understanding that truth doesn’t belong to a single group of people. Understanding that knowledge is vast. That God is infinitely more mysterious than we can imagine.

Judith Valente is an award-winning broadcast journalist who covers religion news for PBS-TV, a poet, author and retreat leader. She is the author of two poetry collections and co-author of two other books. Visit Judith's website.

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