The Pale Blue Dot and Centering Prayer
In addition to Valentine’s Day, I want to reflect on two lesser-known anniversaries we also commemorate this February 14.
In the fall of 1977, NASA launched the Voyager I space probe; its primary mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn, which it successfully did in 1979 and 1980, respectively.
In addition to Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager also captured images of Venus, Uranus, and Neptune; its pictures of Mars and Mercury were lost in the sun’s glare.
But what Voyager I might be remembered best for in the popular imagination is the task it performed 32 years ago on Valentine’s Day. 3.7 billion miles from Earth, it was taking a series of pictures of our Solar System, photographs that came to be known as the “Family Portrait” or “Portrait of the Planets.” As it was completing its mission, leaving for the outer reaches of our solar system, astronomer and cosmologist, Carl Sagan, asked the NASA engineers to train its camera back to take one last picture of the Earth.
And thus it came to be that the Voyager I spacecraft took a photograph of planet Earth, appearing as a mere speck about a tenth of a pixel in size and caught in the midst of a series of rays of light.
This photograph became the inspiration for Sagan’s 1994 Pale Blue Dot.
Sagan ponders that “pale blue dot,” reflects upon the mystery of human existence and our place in the Universe.
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joyand suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Last year, on February 14, 2021, Trappist monk, William Austin Meninger (OCSO, Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance), died at the age of 78. Unless you follow these things, you may not have heard of him. Meninger, along with his two fellow monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, Abbot Thomas Keating and Fr. Basil Pennington, are credited with reviving the ancient Christian practice of “centering prayer.”
Son of an Irish mother and Quaker father, Meninger, the young priest, worked on an Indian reservation in the State of Washington and with Mexican migrant workers. Sometime in the early 60’s, after he entered St. Joseph’s Abbey Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, he came across The Cloud of Unknowing, written by a 14th century English hermit, to which he attributed renewing his prayer life, his contribution to the creation of “centering prayer.”
From The Cloud of Unknowing:
I want to start off by asking you a question. What is the essence of human spiritual perfection, and what are its qualities? I’ll answer this for you. On earth, spiritual perfection is only possible through the union between God and the human soul in consummate love. This perfection is pure and so sublime that it surpasses our human understanding, and that’s why it can’t be directly grasped or observed. But wherever we see its consequences, we know that the essence of contemplation abounds there…. Contemplative prayer, when done right, is respectful love and ripe fruit. It is the cloud of unknowing, the hidden love-longing offered by a pure spirit.
Contemplative prayer has a long history within the Christian tradition. You can find centering prayer’s roots in the devotional lives of saints like Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and more recently, Thomas Merton, whose prayer life was influenced by Buddhist and Sufi devotion.
Meninger, Pennington, and Keating were inspired by Vatican II’s exhortation to be in dialogue with other religious traditions and to renew the practice of contemplative prayer, as they had begun to experience an exodus of Catholics from the Church. So the three monks began a series of dialogues with leaders of other faith traditions – retreats focused on Buddhist meditation, yoga, transcendental meditation, and others.
Keating posed the question: “Could we put the Christian tradition into a form that would be accessible to people in active ministry today and to young people who have been instructed in an Eastern technique and might be inspired to return to their Christian roots if they knew there was something similar in the Christian tradition?”
Slowly a practice, began to emerge, “centering prayer,” prayer that is, in Merton’s words, “centered entirely on the presence of God.”
You can find some of Meninger’s writings, Messages from Fr. William, here:
Meninger ended his preaching, his teaching, his writing with the simple prayer:
May you be happy,
May you be free,
May you be loving,
May you be loved.
The life of the mind, of reason, of Science.
The wisdom of the heart, the inner life, of Spirit.
Sagan and Meninger both ponder the great Circle of Life – Sagan, its circumference and beyond, and Meninger, its center. In their singularly-focused pursuit of Truth, both are led to the depths, to the heart of human existence, and its Source, our place in the Universe and our relationship with all sentient beings, and what is expected of us with the few brief moments we are here, our lives as Gift. What a ride, this life of ours, both exhilarating and humbling, a journey into Mystery.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a day dedicated to Love than to join them both in that quest.