Stars to Look At, Stars to See

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
December 7, 2003

[Follows a sacred dance troupe performing to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" by the LA Guitar Quartet]

Ever since I took a college elective Astronomy course in 1980, taught by an infectiously excitable professor, I've been awakened to the night sky and its twinkling stars. For over 20 years now, I've been conducting informal tours of the constellations—with almost anyone who will listen—and have tried to explain to folks what little I can grasp about our evolving understanding of the shape and structures of the universe, writ large. It all holds great fascination for me.

I'm thoroughly an amateur, which is important to acknowledge in this neighborhood of the Goddard Space Flight Center, but it's always surprising to me how easy it is to know more about the sky than most people I meet. In my younger years at this, I would check out the sky outside a party to see what zodiac constellations were visible and then come back in and inquire loudly, "Is anyone a Gemini or Leo here? Wanna see your zodiac sign in the sky?"

This might sound like a reasonably good pick-up line, but I found that most people have never looked up at the actual constellation that represents their birth sign—and I was merely offering an educational service.

But then I also remember well one occasion when I was flying back to Berkeley, CA, to continue my seminary studies and I noticed the fellow sitting next to me reading a most intriguing textbook. Using discreet peripheral vision, I could see that it contained all manner of complicated formulas and diagrams, but it didn’t look like any math or physics textbook I had ever seen.

So I inquired politely and discovered he was a grad student in cosmology at the University of California, also in Berkeley, and was returning from South America where he had been busy on an observatory project "mapping the universe," perhaps for extra credit. I dropped a few key words that I thought might impress him with my cosmic awareness, but he was not very interested in satisfying my curiosity or my ego. So I went humbly back to my crossword puzzle.

Meanwhile, once a year, almost like clockwork, along comes the Christmas story, featuring the star power of an impressive celestial event. Sure, there are lots of important characters in this story—various animals and angels, royalty on a mission, a poor young family in a manger, etc. But the "Star of Bethlehem"" is what has always drawn my attention the most.

Naturally, as a rational Unitarian Universalist, I determined early on that it was probably somebody's imaginative rendering of either a single bright star or perhaps a conjunction of a star and a bright planet. In recent months we were treated to the extreme brilliance of the planet Mars, which could easily have been confused with an airplane headlight coming in for a landing, only it didn’t move. Venus gets that bright sometimes, as well, and is always low on the horizon. So, I figured, the "Star of Bethlehem"" could have been like that, brightly luring the Wise Men in its direction.

I know how stars can be beacons. I know the urge to follow an alluring celestial invitation beyond reason. Sometimes when Barbara and I go out at night to walk our hound dog, and I look up at what's directly above the street as it stretches out, I will say to her, "Y'know, if we keep going in this direction, we'll get to the moon," or to Venus, or Scorpius, or whatever happens to be up there, calling me toward its brilliance.

I can well imagine the part of the Christmas story with a star in it. Stars are alluring, especially the bright ones, like Sirius, the Dog Star, who sits obediently at Orion the Hunter's feet. Sirius is the brightest star in our northern skies, just barely above the horizon, when visible at all. Only a few wandering planets get brighter than Sirius. And because it's bright and usually low, it twinkles more than most.

Those are, in fact, the two primary conditions for the best twinkling. As I'm sure you realize, when a bright star is low in the night sky, we're seeing it through more of the Earth's atmosphere, which affects its appearance. Sirius often seems to be winking at us, perhaps with a "come hither" effect.

Ancient stargazers attributed a wide range of emotional qualities to the planets and stars, often based on the characters they or their constellations are named after. Another winking star with a powerful story is one not particularly bright in magnitude, with the rather guttural name Algol. Algol may not be very luminous, but it nonetheless has a lot of energy going for it mythologically. It has long been considered a wicked or at least very unlucky star, connected to the Greek figure of Perseus, in which constellation Algol is the second brightest star.

Perseus the Hero is pictured in the night sky as holding the hair and decapitated head of the menacing Gorgon Medusa, whom he slew because her mere glance would turn people to stone. (Now, I'll acknowledge this perhaps classically violent male reaction to strong women in those days, but not without also noting the genuine threat posed by this character who had snakes for hair and truly embodied the expression "evil eye.")

The star Algol represents the eye of this disembodied head of Medusa. Algol translates from the Arabic as "demon" or "ghoul." The Hebrews knew this winking star as "Satan's Head" and in the Latin world it was "Caput Larvae" (Spectre's Head).

Algo the Demon star appears to wink at us menacingly in the night sky, but not as a quick twinkle and not because of the Earth's atmosphere. No, it's usually seen way up overhead, so we see it through the least amount of atmosphere. Why would it be winking, then? Well, about 300 years ago, astronomers discovered that Algol is what's called a variable star: its apparent magnitude changes. (Apparent magnitude is how bright a star looks to us, as opposed to how bright the star actually is in its specific radiance, which is called absolute magnitude.)

Algol is in fact a binary star; two stars very close to each other spin around each other in a very short mutual orbit. This is not an uncommon stellar phenomenon, but these two are positioned at such a direct angle to our view of them that every three days the dimmer of the two eclipses the brighter one almost completely, creating the most significant drop in brightness of any variable star in the northern sky.

We know this fact now, but perhaps the ancients noticed such suspicious stellar winking and attributed it to the evil eye of Medusa, whose decapitated gaze might even still affect them adversely. It was a fearsome image. Homer in his Illiad described "the Gorgon's head, a ghastly sight, deformed and dreadful, and a sign of woe."

Were we in dark enough skies at the right time of year—and if we dared—I could show you Algol one night and the next night we could look again with pretty good odds that we'd notice it either brighter or dimmer. We might get frightened by this stellar inconsistency too, if we didn’t understand all we do today about the nature of such things.

We know a lot more, certainly, AND there is still a whole lot we don’t know yet, so in our own ways we today are still projecting our own cultural assumptions spaceward, trying to comprehend the vast expanses that surround us, struggling to grasp the truly astronomical distances that, so far, measure for us what we can barely see of this universe.

I love to read and tell about celestial characters, how people all over the planet—ever since there were human eyes to look upward—have projected their culture onto the stars and planets, hoping to make meaning out of this huge, seemingly two-dimensional canopy of traveling pinpoints. Indeed, some ancients did believe that above them was just a big spinning shell with some holes poked in it.

The very multi-dimensional nature of the universe as expressed in the night sky helps me shift to my next point. I've told you about the brightest star in our night sky, twinkling Sirius, the Dog Star; and I've described one of the more brilliantly dramatic stars both in behavior and mythology, winking Algol.

Bright and dramatic stars are worth pursuing, certainly. But what I really want to tell you about this morning is actually one of the dimmest sights we can see with the unaided eye, because it is nonetheless my favorite spot in the whole night canopy. And in order to see this spot, because it is so faint, one must use a viewing technique almost like what's required to examine those "Magic Eye" pictures—in which if you intentionally cross your eyes and defocus your vision just right you can see an otherwise hidden shape or image.

I have failed at finding the Magic Eye shape many more times than I've succeeded, but this stargazing technique I'm about to describe is much easier and more reliable, with no magic required. It does take an intentional eye maneuver, however, called "averted vision," which is the way to see faint some relatively celestial objects without a telescope. By using averted vision, we look near but not directly at a desired but dim object, and lo, it appears in our peripheral vision. Stare right at it and you can't see it, but avert your gaze just a bit, and it can be seen, off center.

This is how I've come to love looking at the only thing visible in the northern night sky that is not a part of the Milky Way Galaxy. You may or may not realize that everything else we see up there is all part of our own galaxy, which, as we're learning, is just one of billions and billions of other galaxies spread throughout an astoundingly large universe. But when we look up at night with our so-called naked eye we can only see objects that are part of our own galaxy, with one notable exception.

Telescopes can see much, much farther than our naked eye, of course, but the farthest we could normally see without such aid is about 75,000 light years, which would be to the far edge of our Milky Way galaxy. From that edge, now imagine two million more light years of basically empty space before the object of my affection comes into view. That's about 25 times farther out into deep space, which is where our neighbor galaxy Andromeda is.

There is a wonderful National Geographic map that shows the relationships between the various levels of galactic structures in the known universe. I think it is a stunning piece of work, one that helps me locate myself, literally, in space and time. We in the Milky Way and our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, are just a tiny fraction of what all else is going on up there, but it's our 'hood, so it holds great importance to me and my cosmic identity. Plus, I know I can find Andromeda with my naked eye, best seen in the summer and early fall, and doing so never fails to stir my soul.

Andromeda is named for another mythological story, also involving the hero Perseus—and yes, in this plot the female is in trouble and the male rescues her, what'd'ya know—but the full telling of that tale will have to wait for another sermon. I'm locked in here on the more definitional aspects of this spot in our night sky, which can be seen with the unaided eye, but often only by using averted vision. (In very dark skies, or with binoculars, it can be viewed directly, but usually we have to peer through a lot of light pollution, which obscures much of the observable night sky, alas.)

I could go on and on about viewing Andromeda, an experience which has significantly shaped my world view, again quite literally, but I don’t want to get two far away from the averted vision technique, which is my ostensible theme here. Let me just say that this fuzzy little patch that you usually can't even see directly is another entire galaxy, approximately twice as large as our Milky Way. And it's over two million light years away.

That means that the light from it that I look at with my naked eye (albeit using averted vision)—that light left Andromeda two million years ago, when our species was just beginning to evolve. And light, as we know, travels at 186,000 miles a second! So what am I really seeing? It's a projection of the ancient history of another whole galaxy. And Andromeda is one of our nearest neighbors in the universe.

I don’t know about you, but this personal encounter with the reality of space and time is at once humbling and empowering. I do not feel like just a tiny insignificant speck of sand on a cosmic beach. When I can actually see such a stirring example—firsthand, with my own eyes—of my true relation to the astronomically huge cosmos, I feel much more connected to it all, and this expands my identity, even as it tempers my ego.

It helps me find meaning in my life and my world—a world of concentric rings stretching out and out, way beyond what I can touch, but at least I can see something of it with my own eyes when I look at the tiny fuzzy patch of night sky. I enjoy all the astro-photography and stunning color pictures of celestial objects that come from using filters and giant lenses held open for hours at a time. But even though I'm not from Missouri, you gotta show me something firsthand for me to really absorb it and own it. Me and Andromeda, we're like that.

And this has mostly been accomplished because I learned how to use averted vision to see that little blot of ancient light. It continues to be a highlight of each summer for me, when I can locate—and point out to others—this special, tiny, dim, meaning-full spot of immense power, throbbing with 200 billion stars—at least I know it was two million years ago.

So maybe my message this morning is that good things come in small packages, which would be a timely reminder, given the season. But no, the averted vision thing has taught me that one can find important value by not just relying on the direct, frontal view of something. Looking from an altered angle—especially by shifting your gaze slightly and staying open to what might emerge in your wider periphery—this can provide a sense of fulfillment one might not have expected.

I think it's that way with the Christmas story, for me at least. There's this all-but-admittedly fictional tale we tell each year, and of course it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. From the direct, frontal, literal view, the truer, deeper definition eludes us. Much like Christianity as a whole, in a way. If big, obvious parts of it don't work for us—anymore or ever—we might wax skeptical or sarcastic and look away altogether. I grew up in a very humanist UU congregation that never held Christmas Eve services.

But now I enjoy applying averted vision to Christmas. I turn my gaze, even slightly, from the orthodox, the commercialized, the trivialized aspects. I look past or around the thin pieces that can obscure a more subtle and humane spirit, one that breaths life into and through this season.

At times I intentionally cross my eyes and defocus my vision so I can see an otherwise hidden shape or image embedded in the traditional portrayals. Often I just squint at all the candles and lights and make great designs out of the sparkles that filter through my eyelashes. Meaning sometimes comes in odd packages, big or small.

I look off center, beyond the literal implications, maybe, and I see…an enduring story with characters——various animals and angels, royalty on a mission, a poor young family in a manger, and a "Star of Bethlehem"" that was maybe more brilliant then than now. But we have other, similar stars today, metaphorically at least—stars of New Bethlehem, beacons that call to us, "come hither."

And we lean in, we follow, in ways we may or may not even think about. The Advent season, to me, is a call to pay attention, become more aware of what I'm doing, prepare for what I truly hope will enrich my life in the most meaningful of ways. What star am I following these days? We're all heading toward the New Year, rounding another solstice corner, understanding that we might have to leave some things behind so that other things may be born or reborn.

In the darkness of this time of year, may we center ourselves—off-center as appropriate—and rise up to follow the stars of our own powerful perception. As the Christmas story unfolds all around us once again, may we honor the deeper truths and beauties it speaks of in language we all translate through our own lenses. May we raise our sights and not just look at the wonderful bright lights but also see deeper into the heart of things infinite and eternal, and into ourselves.

CLOSING WORDS —

This reading from my colleague Clarke Wells will help us close this service. ["You Be Glad At That Star"]

Several years ago and shortly after twilight our three-and-a-half-year-old tried to gain his parents' attention to a shining star. The parents were busy with time and schedules, the irritabilities of the day and other worthy pre-occupations. 'Yes, yes, we see the star—now I'm busy, don't bother me."

On hearing this the young one launched through the porch door, fixed us with a fiery gaze and said, 'You be glad at that star!"

I will not forget the incident or his perfect words. It was one of those rare moments when you get everything you need for the good of your soul—reprimand, disclosure and blessing. It was especially good for me, that surprising moment, because I am one who responds automatically and negatively to the usual exhortations to pause-and-be-more-appreciative-of-life-unquote. Fortunately, I was caught grandly off guard.

There is a notion, with some truth in it, that we cannot command joy, happiness, appreciation, fulfillment. We do not engineer the seasons of the soul or enjoin the quality of mood in another, and yet, I do believe there is right and wisdom in that imperative declaration—you be glad at that star!

If we cannot impel ourselves into a stellar gladness, we can at least clean the dust from the lens of our perception; if we cannot dictate our own fulfillment, we can at least steer in the right direction; if we cannot exact a guarantee for a more appreciative awareness of our world—for persons and stars and breathing and tastes and the incalculable gift of every day—we can at least prescribe some of the conditions through which an increased awareness is more likely to open up the skies, for us and for our children.

It is not always the great evils that obstruct and waylay our joy. It is our unnecessary and undignified surrender to the petty enemies: and I suggest it is our duty to scheme against them and make them subservient to human decree—time and schedules, our irritabilities of the day, and other worthy preoccupations. Matters more subtle and humane should command our lives. You be glad at that star.

As found in "100 Meditations: Selections from UU Meditation Manuals," collected by
Kathleen Montgomery (Clarke Wells — "The Strangeness Of This Business," 1975)

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