"I'm in Antarctica," I said to myself. "I have always been here. I will always be here. I will be here forever." It was four weeks into our trip; we were searching for meteorites. The beginning had become forgotten in the mists of time. The end was nowhere in sight.
"Hey, Guy," called René from the other side of the tent. "You're talking to yourself again."
I threw a down-filled booty at him; he ducked and went on reading his book. Outside, the wind continued to sling snow and ice in a steady staccato against the walls of our tent. Another day stuck inside an eight-foot-square pyramid, waiting for the weather to clear.
Living in a tiny camp—six scientists, three tents—in Antarctica was giving me a new perspective on finding God in all things.
Here, nature was at its most spectacular and its most sublime. The extreme conditions—wind chills down to 70 below—reminded me how cruel nature can be. The slightest mistake on our part and Antarctica would punish us without qualms. Yet the very fact that there was science to be done and we could do it emphasized that nature does play by rules; even more amazing, those rules could be understood, at least in part, by us frail mortals.
And, in accordance with those rules, nature had provided us the gift of hundreds of meteorites, specks of rocks from planets beyond our reach, peppered across the blue ice fields like Easter eggs waiting to be collected. Once the weather cleared.
Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ, an astronomer working at the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, took part in the 1996 ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites) program, an annual six-week expedition to Antarctica funded by the National Science Foundation. The group, headed by Case Western's Ralph Harvey, also included Sara Russell of the Smithsonian Institution, Laurie Leshin from UCLA, René Martinez of the Johnson Space Center, and John Schutt, a professional field safety officer. They arrived at McMurdo Base, Antarctica, on November 11, flew onto the ice itself a week later, returned to McMurdo on December 27, and departed Antarctica on December 31.
Though plagued by bad weather, they managed to collect nearly 400 meteorites, including one from the moon—only the fourteenth ever discovered.
For further information on the ANSMET program, see: www.cwru.edu/affil/ansmet
Br. Consolmagno's most recent book, The Way to the Dwelling of Light: How Physics Illuminates Creation, has just been published by University of Notre Dame Press.
My life as a Jesuit scientist, an astronomer with the Vatican Observatory, had given me many paths to God: the people I worked with and cared for, my fellow scientists, nature itself, finding the personality of the creator in his creation, the contemplative prayer of religious life. But Antarctica stripped them away.
Living in such isolated conditions, with no privacy, rubbed raw the relationships between the people in our camp. Far from finding God in others, it was an accomplishment at times to stay civil with them. And the work was hard, physical, intense; no time for contemplation.
By necessity, I was thrown back on prayer. When I moved onto the ice I brought with me a red tote bag that I kept close by my pillow and opened only when no one was around. It was far too private. It held my Bible, Ordo, prayer book, and a Tupperware container with 50 consecrated hosts. Opened when no one was around? There was no such time! So I invented one. About 2 a.m., when I knew that Reneacute; was asleep, I would wake myself up and pull out the bag. I'd say a morning prayer and check the Ordo for the day's Scripture readings, looking them up in my tiny-print Bible. And then I would follow a little set of prayers that Fr. Joep van Beeck, SJ, my retreat director back in Chicago, had put together for taking the Eucharist outside of mass.
Was I being a coward, hiding my religion? Or being discreet? Maybe both. We had to live with each other in quarters too close for comfort. Though the long snowbound days led to endless conversations, there were certain topics—politics, religion, and sex—that we carefully avoided. Religion seemed too deep, too personal, to bring up where there was no place to escape. I got the feeling that my camp mates may have wondered about my being a Jesuit and a scientist. But they never asked.
Only afterward would my scientific bona fides, demonstrated by my Antarctic trip, prompt someone to ask me, "How can your religious concepts persist in spite of your knowledge of science?"
Ah! Look at the assumptions in that question! Is religion merely a collection of "concepts" that scientific knowledge ought to dispel somehow?
But notice something deeper. The question assumes that truth exists, that finding truth is important, and that anything less than truth will never satisfy. The very hunger for truth is itself a demonstration of the transcendent.
And yet that's not the whole story. The Judeo-Christian worldview, indeed very specifically Catholicism, is the only way of looking at the world that I find complete and consistent with my experience as a scientist and a human being. The idea of a creator god, so different from the paganism surrounding the people of Genesis, means that creation itself is based on law, not chaos. Only in such a universe does science stand a chance of succeeding.
And it's more than just the regularity of a law-bound nature. The Incarnation, as St. Athanasius pointed out, means that this creation has been sanctified by God's presence. Only the Incarnation can explain why I experience beauty when understanding that regularity, and why I love that beauty and those laws, even in nature at its rawest, as in Antarctica. And only the story of the Fall and Redemption can explain the loves and trials and failures I experience in my human life, even in my behavior at its rawest, as in Antarctica.
But even that's not the whole story. My personal experience of God in worship and prayer is no different from the experiences of religious people in many different times and places and cultures. Either there's an underlying truth, "as true as our experience of the color purple," that we all share, or else we are all hallucinating in exactly the same manner. Occam's Razor, the prime tool of all scientists, cuts pretty cleanly here.
The fact is, I do personally experience God. I always have, from earliest childhood. The ability to do that is what some call "faith." Be it gift or curse (as it seems sometimes!), it's something over which we ultimately have no control. If it's there, we can exercise it or deny it. But if it's not there, we can't make it come by force of will.
"Hey," I told my inquisitor, "some people are tone deaf. It's not their fault, and I don't criticize them for it. But I might get bent out of shape if a tone-deaf person insisted that my love of music was a hallucination based on lies my parents taught me and that my love of music would go away once I'd learned the physics of sound waves!"
Sure, faith can be subtle at times, but no more subtle than the connection between the history of the solar system and a few specks of rock on the Antarctic ice.
Most of us live day to day, circumscribed in a world not much bigger than home and car and office and our next meal—a universe not much bigger than three tents and an empty horizon. Just as I did in Antarctica, we can begin to believe that what we see before our noses is all there is, or was, or ever will be. Astronomy and religion both tell a different story, however. They say the real universe is a lot bigger. And they both say that we humans, puny though we seem, are big enough to realize it, accept it, and respond to it.
Many months after my Antarctic experience, Thaddeus Jones from Vatican Radio asked me about the spiritual side of being in Antarctica. Spiritual? Most of the time I felt grumpy, tired, and stressed!
"What I felt," I told him, "was a deep humility, comparing myself and my puny skills against the raw struggle of staying alive in that climate. You recognized that you were utterly dependent upon the people around you; and they, in turn, depended on you in ways you never felt adequate to fulfill. Still, you could never forget the breathtaking majesty and beauty of our setting. God is extravagant in his creation."
Then I recalled a psalm well known to Jesuits, often used at the beginning of our annual spiritual retreats:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways . . .
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139)
Those last lines felt especially appropriate in the land of the midnight sun! Because, actually, I did not find God in Antarctica. God found me.