The National Catholic Review
Aileen A. O
The steel was cool and smooth under my hand. I was lying atop an X-ray machine, awaiting yet another test for an undiagnosed illness. Slowly, I realized I was taking comfort from the machine’s presence. My first reaction was an amused, Gadzooks, what a geek! Deeper reflection, though, made me realize that my view of machines had been profoundly changed by an intellectual journey sparked and fueled by a deep love of all things natural. As an astrophysicist, I spend every day studying how the universe works. Telescopes, computers and other machines enable me to do my job, so it is understandable that another machine, one designed to detect illness, would provide me some comfort.

I feel a little odd admitting that I find God in machines. God is more often associated with the natural worldthe trees and the skythan with the mechanical world of computers and electronic devices. Yet I have come to realize that machines are not foreign to nature.

As a child I pressed leaves and flowers in books and ironed them into waxed paper windows. The highlights of my summers were trips into the Rocky Mountains, where I felt a kinship with the rocks and trees. Back home, I spent my days cradled in the arms of trees, dreaming of life in the wilderness. In school, the study of science never connected with the world of nature. It wasn’t until college that my love for nature found invitation and challenge in classrooms and laboratories, when a quiet professor, Dave Clark, threw open the windows on the universe. In lectures, lab exercises and field trips, he revealed science as the systematic, detailed, disciplined inquiry into the workings of nature and as an expression of reverence for the wonders of the universe. Dave taught about the details of plant families and origins of rocks as though they were the vital signs of a beloved parent. Under his mentoring, science became an act of love.

The last course I took from Dave was astronomy. Under desert skies on field trips to Utah and in the college observatory, the sky came to life for me. After reading Carl Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection, I found that the depths of the universe caught my imagination as nothing else had. Though I had struggled to pass my first physics course, physics seemed to be the native language of the universe. In the way my car keys fall to the floor, the universe speaks of how stars are made. Much to my surprise, I who had longed for a home among the rocks and trees found myself majoring in and pursuing graduate degrees in astrophysics, discovering a home among equations, telescopes and computers.

Seeking the Who-ness’ of the Universe

As a graduate student, I used a telescope to capture images of comets on photographic plates. Between exposures I had time to gaze out through the open dome into the depths of the sky. In these moments, freed by the darkness from papers and homework, I often found myself reflecting on spiritual instead of astrophysical questions. As a budding scientist, I had tried to cast off my belief in God; I was reluctant to impose anything unscientific on the universe. As I looked out on this godless universe, though, I found it achingly lonely. I found myself searching for a who-ness amid the beautiful and wondrous what-ness of the stars. I was looking for a God to match my astronomer’s universe, filled with vast stretches of intergalactic darkness and the profound weirdness of neutron stars, black holes and quantum indeterminacy.

To focus my search for God, I traveled to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, N.M. There I chanted Vigils before dawn from psalters lit by oil lamps and watched the stars through the high windows of the adobe chapel. God’s presence seemed to cascade down from those windows and pool in the folds of the monks’ cowls and blue jeans like the cold night air flooding down the canyon walls. I rested in this presence and wondered why it had eluded me in the pre-dawn hours at observatories. Did God shy away from machines? Slowly, I recognized in myself a bucolic idolatry, which associated spirituality and holiness with the simple, low-tech life of home-grown vegetables and hand-split wood. But integrating spirituality into my life would require that I learn to recognize God in telescopes and computers as fully as I recognized God in the monastery garden.

For my Ph.D. research, I left the comet observatory to study galaxies using the Very Large Array (V.L.A.) radio telescope. The world’s largest telescope at that time, the V.L.A. consisted of 27 radio dishes spread across the plains of southwestern New Mexico. Having grown up admiring Jane Goodall’s friendships with chimpanzees, I thought of my friends the giant antennas as I spent nearly every waking hour working in their midst. Sometimes, often at dawn, I would go stand in the center of the array as radio waves crashed silently onto the ancient lakebed. I knew that, as I watched, tiny electromagnetic disturbances that had propagated across billions of light years of space were jiggling electrons in the telescope’s receivers to reveal the details of galaxies they had left long before the bedrock below me was laid down as sediment. There I began to sense again the presence of the God I had found so easily at the monastery.

Presence: God’s Astronomical Work

The full presence of God in my astronomical work was revealed to me by a project required for my degree. I was always more interested in the galaxies than in the telescope we used to study them. Even after graduate courses in physics, I found the instrument intimidating. One day near the project’s completion, preparing a presentation of the results to the technical staff, in frustration and anxiety, I found myself longing to be at the monastery instead of the observatory. Reflecting on the path that had led me to the task, however, I realized that my path between office and computer lab was not so different from the monks’ paths between garden and chapel. Both the monks and I had been called to our paths by our natures, experiences and the subtle workings of the Spirit in our lives. Their work was chanting the Liturgy of the Hours; mine was understanding one small aspect of the world’s greatest telescope.

In the reverence for my job that suddenly welled up, I recognized the God of the oil-lamp-lit monastery mornings. God was indeed as present at the observatory as at the monastery. God was present in the wonder of the metals forged in the explosions of giant stars, in the creative genius of those who had discovered radio waves and built and refined receivers, in the labor of those who mined the metals, constructed the antennas, soldered the wires and scrubbed the floors. And God was present in me, bending to the task of writing V.L.A. Technical Memo No. 155 to make my small contribution to our understanding of our own creation.

Under the Machine

As I lay beneath the hulk of the X-ray machine, I took comfort from it the way others find solace in a stuffed bear, a poem, a song or a phrase from Scripture. The sudden collapse of my body from anemia was frightening, but the machine represented the incredible wonders of the universe and of God, who had challenged me and comforted me along my journey with astronomers and monks.

The X-ray machine did its work. The doctors determined the source of my bleeding and have now controlled it. Without the refrigerators maintaining the blood supply, the X-ray machine and the camera-tipped probes revealing my inner workings, I might very well have bled to death. Now I can add to the reasons I love machines the fact that I am alive to write of them.

Aileen A. O’Donoghue is the Priest Associate Professor of Physics at St. Lawrence University in northern New York. An active astronomer, she is also a lay minister in the Diocese of Ogdensburg, N.Y., and a regular contributor to Living Faith:

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