An Introduction, in which the reader’s attention is firmly
but politely grasped
It is out of fashion, to say the least, to speak of gentlemen. Perhaps that is why there are so few of them. As Aristotle, the gentleman’s philosopher, said somewhere or other, when they are not gentled, men are worse than beasts. It takes only a sad glance at our daily papers to verify how beastly men have become.
That brings me to what we in the writing business call the thesis (the word “thesis,” of course, deriving from the common Middle English phrase “Thesis whot I’m speakinge aboot”). What men need — and I mean the male of the species here, as opposed to the female — is a good deal more gentling, not in the namby-pamby sense of molding them into feeble marshmallows but in the best manly sense, where the restless and seemingly untamable elements of their souls are elevated and transformed.
I know that this is an odd — even heterodox — thing to utter aloud. But, like it or not, men are different from women. Many rousers of the rabble would have us believe that the only difference between men and women is that the latter are paid less than the former. Once the pay scale has been equally balanced, so the story goes, men and women will be indistinguishable to all but the practiced expert.
But while this may play well in Washington and echo nicely through the halls of academe, anyone else with a smidgeon of sense left by popular culture recognizes, at least dimly, that males and females are not cut of quite the same cloth. The Greeks put it down to an excess of thumos, or “fighting spirit,” in the male. This fighting spirit, they noted, is almost invariably found in the male of any species, a fact anyone with experience of other animals knows well. When I was a light-foot lad living in the country, I was often told that the cows won’t hurt you, but stay away from the bull; or again, the hens won’t bother you, but steer clear of the rooster.
So, like it or not, we are animals (though not merely animals), and that means, if I may be a tad indelicate, that ungentled men all too often act like a bunch of rutting bucks. What men need, however, is not the ineffectual scolding drone of sensitivity training: They need a good telescope.
Go ahead and laugh, my friend. When you’re sitting among the smoldering ruins of civilization in another ten years or so, we’ll know who was fiddling with noxious, ill-conceived notions of sexual equality while Rome was burning with thumos. As for me, I’ll be pulling a bead on you from high and away through the lens of my Meade ETX-90EC, and after focusing awhile on your baleful self-inflicted condition, I will turn my telescope back to the heavens with an I-told-you-so guiltless flick of the wrist. So, quit with the smirking and listen up.
Section, the first, where the heady theoretical aspects of the
argument are served for rumination
Here’s the point. If men would quit snooting about in the dirt looking for sensual titillation and lift up their eyes to the heavens and behold the wonders God has placed there for our joyful contemplation, they would realize that the human being is not some frenzied, passion-driven biped but that we are made in the very image of the Creator Himself.
But now for the ironic part. Odd as it may seem, the very type of person who denies that the male and female of the human species are different is almost without fail the kind of person who adamantly asserts that there is nothing special about the human species. And why is that? Because he subscribes to the religio Darwiniae and therefore holds fast to the belief that human beings are just another animal on the flat evolutionary spectrum
The irony, of course, is that if we do view ourselves as merely another animal, it should be evident that the male of the human species would be just as naturally spirited as the males of most other species. If we are merely animals, then there is no more use in trying to change men than there would be in hustling rutting bucks, surly bulls, or irascible roosters through sensitivity camp. But if, contra the intelligentsia, human beings are crowned with the distinction of being the only rational animal, then perhaps the higher parts of the soul could be awakened in males, and they would aim their spiritedness at the heavens, thereby elevating and transforming it.
As Aristotle noted long ago, a sign of the divine-like nature of human beings is that they alone of all the animals are built to look up at the heavens. Unlike cattle, dogs, and all the other four-footers, we stand upright, a position that allows us to view the splendor of the stars with wonder and awe. Merely standing upright, however, is not enough, or every gaping ape would be an amateur astronomer. We are the only rational animal, the only animal built to wonder about things, and hence the only animal with the wonder-full arts of mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.
To focus on astronomy, reason is awakened when we view the splendor and regularity of the heavens. We naturally want to know the causes of such beauty and precision and thus turn from earthly pursuits and passions to the divine-like search for wisdom. In this turning of the soul upward, the all-too-earthy passions of the human male are tamed and transformed, so that his animal spiritedness is lifted to a divinely inspired passion for knowledge of the highest things — not only knowledge of nature and the movements of the heavens but, even more, of the Creator of the heavens.
From this high vantage, the base pursuits of men below seem unworthy of being called human and their victories are as laughable as their defeats. The soul of such a man, viewing the denigration from above, has been tamed. This man has become a gentleman because his soul has been enlarged by its contact with the divine. He understands these words from Dante’s Paradiso: “Vidi questo globo / tal, ch’io sorrisi del suo vil sembiante” — “I saw this globe such that I smiled at its paltry semblance” — paltry, that is, not in itself but in regard to the meanness of the goals that consume the lives of most men
Section, the second, wherein the author betakes these heady thoughts
and puts them into action
Just such lofty thoughts filled my bulging head as I scanned the descriptions and prices of telescopes on the Internet. I was not going to let such perfectly good cogitations stay bottled up and merely theoretical. Words without deeds are like soil without seeds — or is it, deeds without words are like featherless birds? In either case, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, reeking with grand sentiments but sunk indolently in an armchair.
And so a few clicks of the mouse and it was on its way. A squab little beauty of a spyglass, the Meade ETX-90EC, Astronomical & Terrestrial Telescope with Electronic Controller. Built like a mortar, effusing power, yet delicate and exacting, capable of seizing whirling galaxies, smoky nebulae, and fleeing comets. In a couple of weeks, my children and I would be soaring through the heavens.
During the anxious wait, I remembered the first time I had really viewed the heavens — not with a telescope but with a very ordinary set of binoculars. I was living in southern California at the time, which — even though a 300-square-foot house there costs half a million dollars — provides an excellent view of the sky because (unbeknownst to the people who live there) it is actually a desert, and there is little if any annoying atmosphere to cloud things up.
Anyway, there I was in our front yard at about 9 p.m. with a pair of binoculars, and there was the moon overhead beckoning me. I gave in to her siren call and hoisted the lens upward. And what to my wondering magnified eyes should appear but a very large, spherical object floating in the sky. I stared for more than half an hour, unable to believe that the flat, uninviting disc at which I had only occasionally cast a glance was actually — pardon the repetition — a very large, spherical object floating in the sky.
Utter bewilderment. Complete dry-mouthed astonishment. How could I have been alive these last 37 years, and never have seen this… this magnificent orb, this dreadful specter of loveliness hanging overhead. Until that point the moon had been merely a two-dimensional nightlight plugged into the black dome. Seeing it for the first time as a three-dimensional object hanging there, dangling overhead like a Christmas ornament, nearly drove me mad with wonder. Quite suddenly I knew — not in the dry and distant textbook sense but in the real sense, the sense of one who has witnessed a near-miracle — that Earth was surrounded by space, and space was filled to overflowing with myriads of such three-dimensional wonderments.
Meditate on this lesson in humility. For 37 years I had never seen the heavens for what they were. What had I been doing? Alas, I must admit to my disgrace that, like so many of us, when I was young, I was watching not distant lights in the night sky but that pulsating, gibbering, soul-numbing light blinking and bellowing in the living room. Rather than losing myself in wonder at the heavens, I had been (oh, shame!) watching I Dream of Jeannie, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dating Game, Hawaii Five-O, Bonanza, The Brady Bunch, and a thousand other vapid idiocies, the names of which I cannot bear to recall.
I am not alone in my shame. The jittery glow of this electric Polyphemus has all but cut us off from the heavens, replacing the moon as the first light of wonder. We are therefore unaffected by the seleno-serenity of the lunar pageant because a circus of violence and crudity has invaded our houses, casting its hypnotic glow over us, making us both listless and restless. With our souls thus shrunk, washed daily in the mud of the basest passions, what wonder is it that males especially have turned more and more to violent pastimes and mad pursuits?
As I got older, even with no television, I was still bent down at other tasks and amusements, nearly oblivious of the reeling heavens. But now I knew. The heavens were really full of the glory of the Lord. So there I was, stung by the night sky, smitten by the moon, and ready to leap into things astronomical. Another five years would pass, and we would move back east, out to the Ohio countryside, before I would make that fateful click of the mouse and buy our very first telescope.
Two weeks dragged on. Still no telescope. More time to reflect. I recalled my near brushes with astronomy as a child, not gazing at the shimmering stars but slouched back in a padded chair at the local museum’s planetarium, looking at a lighted metal ball speckled with holes through which artificial stars were shined onto the planetarium’s dome just over our heads — a thousand indistinguishable dots, dead and uninviting, at which the curator stabbed his penlight as he mumbled out the names of constellations.
Enough to bore the face off a dead dog, as my wife says. There’s nothing so deadening to real wonder at the heavens than the half-hour presentation at the local planetarium. Never would I make my children suffer such howling boredom. Only the real thing for us.
Back to the present. The package arrived. The UPS truck came rattling up the road and pulled into our drive. We snatched the box and ran inside. Carefully the lid was lifted, and there it was — even more gorgeous than we imagined! What edge of the universe could escape this great mechanical eye?
Out of the house and into the yard we spilled to test it during the day. Sighting lens in, then the precious Super Plössl 26mm LP multicoated eyepiece (the little tubular jigger, just so you nonastronomical types know, that you actually see things through). With a ceremonious swish, I removed my glasses and bent down to have the first look.
Things looked closer.
After a half-minute, I straightened up. “Things look closer,” I reported with a certain scientific air. Immediately, my older four children all fell to scrapping for a look like a pack of jackals at a lame gazelle.
“Hold it! Hold it! One at a time!” I could feel my blood starting to simmer, as I peeled them off. Alas, astronomy didn’t seem to be having quite the taming effect I had in mind. I prayed that the night viewing would fare better.
The Lord provides. That night the moon rose, coyly trying to make us believe she was merely the same bland lighted disc we had so often overlooked. Little did she know we were armed, or better eyed, with our Meade. And oh, she proved far more beautiful, more majestic than any picture we had studied in preparation.
That night we repeated the experience of Galileo when, first among mortals, he saw the jagged landscape of the moon nearly four centuries ago. Each of us — taking our turns in a most civilized way, mind you — saw not only the glorious sphericity of the moon but, even more astonishing to us, witnessed the shadows cast by the sun on the inside of the moon’s craters. For the first time, it became not merely some light in our sky but a place in and of itself, marked by its own happily irregular terrain.
We also found that by the time half the children had gotten a turn, the moon had moved, and we had to chase it a bit with the hand controller. Of course, I had been told that the moon moved, but as with all too many people in our time, I was rarely outside at night. Even when I was, I didn’t gauge any motion in my all-too-occasional glance upward.
But when the moon is magnified, its motion quickly becomes apparent, and to see it, to feel it in your bones as an eyewitness, is a dizzying experience. A large, round object, dear incredulous reader, is moving across our sky. I have seen it quite clearly. Nothing is pushing it. There are no strings or wires. Will wonders never cease? How much strangeness can a man bear?
Yet the sky was not finished with us. We noticed, while waiting turns, that a very bright star or planet, which had been higher up when we’d come out, was now just touching the tops of the trees on the western rim of the dark sky.
A sudden revelatory flash. They’re all moving! The whole lot of them — turning, marching, wheeling, rising, setting, whirling around the axis of the North Star. How could I have missed it for so long? What excuse was there for never having experienced such an ethereal, sidereal truth — a truth known by the rudest shepherds lying on their backs watching the hypnotic dance of stars millennia ago? I, a modern, had traded the stars for merely artificial lights, and my soul had shrunken accordingly.
No more time for revelations that night. I herded the children into the house, past their sleeping mother, and into their beds. And then I settled into mine, with visions of spiral galaxies, supernovae, and marbled planets dancing in my head, all of which, I was quite sure, would soon be hanging on the trophy wall.
Section, the third, wherein the author, disappointed by the stars, retreats and regroups
and attacks the sky again with a more powerful eyepiece
The telescope’s box is covered with pictures of streaking comets, marbled Jupiter adorned with satellites, the rings of Saturn, a spiral galaxy, and a rather volcanic-looking nebula, all of which lead the amateur astronomer to the mistaken belief that he can pop the telescope out of the box and effortlessly snag a look at any of these fair beauties.
So it was that, giddy with the success of our first night, we began stalking bigger game the next. We warmed up with a few easy shots at the moon, and then I took over the controller and aimed it carelessly into the bath of stars in the western sky. I bent down to have a look.
Little dots of light.
So I pushed the controller. Wheeeeeeeemmmm, sang the precision gears of the telescope as it crawled up the sky. More dots. Wheeeeemm. Dots. Perhaps the upways bit was just a dry patch, I consoled myself. So I hit the sideways button. Wheeeemmm. I scanned a quarter of the sky, swinging from west to south. It was no better than the planetarium.
“Dad, can we see?”
I surrendered the controls disconsolately. Each child in turn experienced the same deflating discovery. What we saw with the telescope seemed to be the same as what we saw without the telescope: thousands of indistinguishable dots of light.
It hit me like a dank sandbag. The Super Plössl 26mm LP multicoated lens, the one that comes in the box, is not powerful enough to see all the amazing stuff on the box. Stars and planets are really far away. The 26mm eyepiece magnifies things 48 times — no mean feat — but once you are beyond the moon, the other heavenly objects, even the ones in our own solar system, are so far away that peeking at them magnified four dozen times merely removes (to quote Galileo) their “adventitious rays,” the false sparkle caused by the atmosphere. The fact is, they look smaller — if only because we are seeing them without their peripheral glow.
Additional eyepieces ain’t cheap, my friend, and although my aspirations were still high, my purse was still noticably light after the purchase of the $500 telescope, and so it was a few weeks of moon-gazing before I decided to upgrade.
Another fateful click of the mouse, and a No. 126 2x Telenegative Barlow lens was on the way. Just bolt it in below any eyepiece and the little heifer doubles the magnification. When yoked to our 26mm Super Plössl, the wonders of the universe would be magnified 96 times!
Again, we waited. Again, the man in brown delivered a hopeful package. And again, full of aforesaid hope, we marched out into the night. I slipped in the Barlow and then the 26mm. I bent over and saw…
Nothing. Smudgy blackness. Not even a measly dot of light. Feverishly, I focused while I swept the sky searching for something, anything. And then: blurs of light. Aha! I adjusted the focus, and saw…
Little dots of light.
Wheeeemmm, wheeeeemmm, wheeeeemmm. Up, down, sideways at full speed, half speed, quarter speed, the merest crawl. More little dots of light, and worse, they didn’t even seem twice as large.
I straightened up. Unfortunately, we had not even the consolation of looking at lady moon, for she was rising much later that night.
Backed into a corner, I was compelled to think the thing through. As the children each wheeemmmed to and fro across the speckled blackness, vainly searching for a sight more arresting than the monotonous pinpricks of light, I looked up at the heavens with eyes unaided and quite suddenly understood my prideful error.
More ignorant (I repeat) than any shepherd, I realized that I hadn’t the faintest glimmer where anything was. Big Dipper aside, the night sky was an impenetrable, unpatterned flurry of dots. I had a wavery textbook memory of the names of some of the constellations but no idea where they actually were and nary a clue as to how to go about finding them. I had never stared in wonder long enough for the seemingly chaotic dots to reveal their patterns, and no amount of frantic wheeeemmming could make up for this humbling lack of rudimentary knowledge.
The stars were not friendly to an impatient man, not even one packing a high-tech telescope. They would not reveal themselves to someone who was so crass as to probe the resplendent panorama as if he were channel-surfing. To become astronomers, we would have to humble ourselves to the level of the humblest apprentice to the stars and strip back to the naked eye. Then, only then, could we search the heavens more deeply. So we humbly began to look for constellations.
Start simple: the Big Dipper. Follow up the side that points to the North Star, Polaris. The Milky Way — how could I have missed it! And there is Cygnus, the Swan, although we cannot seem to make out the star Deneb, a blue-white supergiant that forms its tail. And there she is, queen of the Milky Way, Cassiopeia (vainly coifing her hair, we are told). Aha! The Great Square — the body of Pegasus.
Now we could finally look through the viewfinder to locate the constellation, and then see its constituent stars magnified through the 26mm eyepiece. Finally, we could compare naked-eye observation with telescopic observation. The first thing one notices is that although the observed star is no bigger (because it is so, so far away and because the magnification removes the twinkle caused by the atmosphere), there are more stars, stars that were invisible to the naked eye. The beautiful puzzle of space is ever deeper; more treasures appear as one increases the eyepiece power.
The night sky, we discovered, is a great book, a masterpiece that becomes richer the more one reads it. It is written by a Master of unsurpassed genius.
Section, the last, wherein the author draws out
the lessons learned
Reflecting on our astronomical adventures thus far, I am convinced that it was no accident that our celestial journey began with astonishment at the moon. I do believe that we were given a moon so that its strange and remarkable beauty, all too little marked these days, would awaken our divinely ordained capacity to wonder. The moon is our primer, a large letter written for beginners; it can’t be ignored. Once our attention has thus been turned to the heavens, we notice the fainter but no less magnificent glimmering of the stars. At first, they seem randomly scattered over the heavens, yet if we return night after night, patterns begin to emerge, and these become sky-marks enabling us to navigate from the familiar to the unfamiliar. The night sky acts, in this way, as a teacher, revealing itself slowly and proportionately to the student.
The student must be patient, however. Or better, since we are speaking about the gentling effect of stargazing, the student must learn to be patient. This virtue arises, most providentially, within the context of wonder. Wonder is an intellectual emotion, evoked as a response to the recognition of something beautifully contrived, the sudden appearance of an unexpected and marvelous order, the glory of which sends a thrill through our entire being, body and soul. The natural response to the thrill of wonder is religious, for it is both a recognition of the genius of the Great Contriver of nature, and a spontaneous feeling of gratitude at being able to witness so great a contrivance. Such a feeling of gratitude carries with it a reverence for what has been so wonderfully made, including the strangest gift of all, the gift of being able to know. To recognize ourselves as knowing beings made in the image of the Great Knower whose marvelously wrought order we are fit to know also reorders our souls. We understand the foul inversion of having our reason so deviously feed our passions, dragging what is most divine in us through the mud of worldliness.
I knew all this to be true, in some vague way, before I started. But as with so many great lessons, the truth is only written on the heart when we throw ourselves into the actual experience. Happily, the lesson is not over yet, for again, the night sky is a great masterpiece, and our family has only just begun to read its wonders.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Crisis Magazine.