The email appeared in my inbox last September. I read it. I blinked and read it again, more carefully this time. I turned to my husband, silently holding out my laptop. “Is anything wrong?” he asked. I couldn’t summon the words to explain the unexpected and extraordinary invitation the letter contained, so I just shook my head. With a baffled look, Victor took the computer from my hands and read.
The letter was from the director of the Specola Vaticana — the Vatican Observatory — who was inviting me to consider becoming an adjunct scholar of the observatory, to work for the Pope, or more precisely, to work with the Pope’s astronomers. Yes, the Vatican not only has an observatory, but it also houses one of the world’s largest collections of meteorites and a lab that studies them. It has been a long time since Galileo.
For years I’ve straddled two worlds with my work. I’m a chemist, specializing in the study of small molecules with odd structures, such as might be found in the vast expanses of outer space. I’m also a practicing Roman Catholic and a writer, interested in the ways the ordinary and the sacred collide. A practical mystic, as a friend once called me, I am as likely to be found digging for God in the atom as in the laundry. Now my two worlds were colliding.
“Will you say yes?” Victor asked as he handed the laptop back.
I said yes.
Which is how I found myself in the central piazza of a small town in Italy on a warm evening in June, waiting to get into the Apostolic Palace. I had spent the day in the Observatory’s library, working on an essay about contemplative approaches to science, and eavesdropping on the occasional lecture for the summer school that was in session. I watched the wait staff at the cafes lining the Corso della Repubblica bustle about and the kids chasing each across the steps of the exquisite Bernini church. The lingering light brushed its dome, while everyone was seemingly oblivious to the papal residence looming at the north end, its windows dark and enormous wooden doors shut up tight.
Perched 1300 feet above Rome’s suffocating summer heat on the edge of a long dormant volcano, Castelgandolfo has been the refuge of popes and emperors for almost two thousand years. Since the 1930s, when the pollution in Rome began to muddy its view of the heavens, the Vatican’s observatory has had its headquarters here. Two of its large telescopes sit atop the papal summer palace, two more are housed in the enormous papal gardens, which stretch for two miles along the lip of the crater. (Its modern research telescope is in Arizona at the Mount Graham International Observatory.) Tonight I would use the vintage Zeiss refracting telescope atop the palace to observe the planets. Built in the 1930s, this telescope can gather so much light through its aperture that distant objects appear to be a hundred times larger than with the naked eye; a far cry from my telescope at home, where the planets appear as dim smudges.
As the sun set, I met astronomer and Jesuit priest David Brown who had a half dozen students from the observatory’s summer school in tow. David unlocked the doors leading into the papal palace’s courtyard for us. The Specola is a Jesuit ministry, with a core staff of a dozen Jesuits from four continents complemented by roughly two dozen laymen and women. They study meteorites, planetary formation, and stellar evolution. They are also regulars at the espresso bar across the plaza, and they gather every evening to pray in a plain chapel above the labs and offices. As we walked through the door together, we left Italy and entered the Holy See.
A final flight of stairs took us onto the roof, where the view of Rome and sunset over the Mediterranean on one side and the view of the lake nestled in the crater below on the other vied to take our breath away. Deum creatorem venite adoremus — Come, let us adore God the creator — is inscribed on the walls of one of the telescope domes. I needed no encouragement with this vista.
Inside the dome, we ride the viewing platform in turns, groaning and creaking and shaking our way up to the telescope. I put my eye to the Zeiss’ lens and there it is, a soft blue-green orb, striped in brown with four miniature orbs lined up to the left: Jupiter and its Galilean moons. Leaning out the window to spot the next planetary target, David Brown cranks the dome around so we can catch Saturn, the Cassini division’s dark stripe clearly visible, as are the two jewel-like moons that flank it. Once more bereft of words, all I can say is “Oh my God.” And bend down to look again.
As I do, a part of me grasps that photons, indivisible packets of light, erupted from the sun an hour and a half before, and now, having traveled almost a billion miles, are gathered into the maw of the Zeiss, to slide down the length of its tube and enter my eye. And still all I can say is “Oh my God.” What was born in the sun, what literally skimmed Saturn’s rings, caressed its atmosphere and careened off its moons, has touched me. Even now, weeks later, I am staggered to think that I have been so intimate with the planets, with the sun.
Karl Rahner, S.J., an eminent theologian of the 20th century, addressing a gathering of scientists, noted that, “To be able to stammer about God is after all more important than to speak exactly about the world.” The chance to be part of the work of the Specola is the remarkable opportunity to do both. Stammer out my awe. Speak precisely about what I have observed. To do science. To seek God in all things. Deum creatorem venite adoremus.