Convert Greg Wolfe describes the impact of astronomy and star-gazing on his heart as a young man and the way it spoke to his nascent sacramental joy in creation:
GROWING UP AS I DID amidst the dazzling lights of New York City, it is strange that even as a small child I was madly in love with the stars. The city’s glare effectively canceled out the night sky, admitting only the rare glimpse of the brightest heavenly orbs. Beyond the moon and Venus, you’d be lucky to spot Sirius, Vega, or Rigel—or constellations other than Orion and the Big Dipper.
But what the artifice of the city may have taken from my perception of nature it restored in the form of the Hayden Planetarium. It all began when my mother took me to the Museum of Natural History, where the planetarium is housed, and we soon fell into a pattern on our return visits. This was the 1960s, decades before the Rose Center was built. The dramatic sphere-within-a-cube that you can see on Central Park West today was yet to be. You simply passed through a nondescript gate into the planetarium section of the museum.
There I remember moving through the various exhibits: running my fingertips over a huge iron meteorite that looked like a human brain, stepping on scales that told me what I would weigh in the gravities of the other planets. I’d puzzle over various models of the solar system, trying to understand counterintuitive phenomena like the retrograde motion of the planets in the night sky and the precession of the equinoxes.Now it was just a matter of the clock ticking down until the next sky show, our ultimate destination, the Holy of Holies. This was held in a large circular room surmounted by a dome. At the center was another circular area containing technical equipment. As the lights dimmed, a strange-looking device rose from that central zone: the Zeiss Mark IV projector. Mounted on a sturdy tripod, the projector consisted of a large bar with spheres at either end, from which shone the lights on the dome representing the night sky.
The room would go completely dark, except for the faint glow of the four exit signs at the points of the compass. We leaned back in our seats to gaze up as the stars began to emerge on the dome above. In the hush that descended, the sound of crickets could be heard: now we were out in the country, the place where true darkness could still be found and the full glory of the heavens swam across the sky each night.
This might be science, but to this child it was also poetry.
It is no exaggeration to say that those moments in the planetarium came as close to an experience of true worship as any I had known. The plain, white interiors of the Christian Science church my father took us to were no match for the liturgy of the stars.