The Black Hole: “Darkness Visible and Ignatius’ Vision of the Universe?
Wow! Awe-some! Amazing! As I looked on the first ever picture of the black hole of the galaxy Messier 87, my reaction was, I suspect, like millions of others in the world who saw it – WOW! THIS IS AMAZING! We finally see the evidence of what was a theory since Einstein’s theory of Relativity but never seen.
I am mesmerized by this image and haven’t stopped reading articles on how 200 scientists – including a woman computer scientist who worked out the algorithms to construct this photo image – and 8 telescopes around the world, all in collaboration, made it possible to offer this image to the rest of humanity.
I am awestruck by how scientists describe this black hole and its gravitational pull so strong to engulf anything, even light, into itself. Maybe it’s that gravitational power that is drawing me to find out what this black hole means on another level!
So, I asked myself: what has the reality of this black hole got to do with the Mystery of the universe, that we call GOD? What does this photo of a reality (its shadow, to be exact) that we know exists and is so powerful to be able to draw into itself space-time-matter, even light, mean for believers? Could this “black hole of darkness” be a new symbol of the infinite Source of the universe?
I am not an astrophysicist! Physics and mathematics were my poorest subjects in high school. But I have always been fascinated by the stars and planets floating above and around our earth with the sun as our centre. The extraordinary photos we now have of our earth and galaxies because of space research and travel and the technologies that have ensued have given us extraordinary photographs not only of our solar system but of other galaxies as well.
In the last 50 years or so, we have seen so much more of the wide wonderful universe! Right up to this breakthrough photo of the black hole of the galaxy Messier 87, 57 million light years away.
How might St. Ignatius, if he were writing the Spiritual Exercises today, speak of or use this photo of a part of the reality of creation – “darkness visible”, as the New York Times called it? St. Ignatius spoke of God present, immanent in all creation, though always as the transcendent Mystery that we are called to praise, reverence and serve in our created universe (Principle and Foundation # 23, Sp.Ex.).
At the end of the Spiritual Exercises he invites the retreatant to a Contemplation on the love of God (Sp. Ex. # 230-237) present, active, working in all the gifts God gives to us, beginning with creation. In the fourth point of his Contemplation, he uses the image of the sun which like a source pours out its rays on all creation, on all humanity, on me. In his day, the sun was the most powerful image of the source of light and life. And it still is a commanding image for us today.
The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, expressed this presence of the active God thus: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Would St. Ignatius use this new photographed image of the black hole – this “darkness visible” – in some way to help us grasp, however limited, the transcendent reality of God, the Totally Other? Can “darkness”, such as the black hole, be a symbol of God’s reality for us today?
Looking at this photo of the black hole, I was reminded as well of Rudolf Otto’s famous dictum of the “numinious”, of the Totally Other, of the Holy: mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the experience of something or someone that is awesome, overwhelming, even “scary” but at the same time fascinates us, draws us, pulls us into itself as inviting – two opposing movements.
These two movements describe one’s experience of the Holy, the awesome Mystery far and beyond us, yet close to us “seducing” us, as it were. There is something about the photo of this reality of the black hole that connects me to Otto’s saying. I think Ignatius’ vision of God present and active in our universe is not so far from what Otto says.
Can the image of darkness, like the image of light be a symbol, image or metaphor of this transcendent Mystery? St. John’s first letter affirms that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Yet in the Hebrew scriptures we find phrases that speak of darkness in relation to God:
Exodus 20: 21: (Moses had brought the 10 Words -Commandments to the people amid thunder and lightning and he told them not to be afraid…) Then the people stood at a distance while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. In Psalm 97:2: Clouds and thick darkness are all around him. Again in Psalm 139: 12: Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
From the rich tradition of the Fathers of the Church and the mystical tradition, we have learned that the image of darkness and the reality of the transcendent God can be related. Some of the Fathers spoke of the soul approaching more and more to union with God and being plunged into “divine darkness” (e.g. in writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and Denys the Areopagite).
St John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul” is a familiar theme in mystical theology. Even if we have not had those kinds of experiences, perhaps the description of the crucifixion of Christ gives us an image of darkness and the unfathomable mystery of God side by side: From noon on, darkness came over the whole land, until three in the afternoon….and Jesus cried with a loud voice,…. My God my God why have you abandoned me? (Mt. 27: 45-46)
If we look at the many forms of “darknesses” in our world – natural calamities, ravages of war, etc – does it simply overwhelm us or can it invite us to see and respond more deeply……?
Even our faith in the Risen Christ begins with the evidence of the darkness of the empty tomb!
The black hole that we see in this new photo of Galaxy M87 still is for scientists a great “unknown” that they are just beginning to try to unravel. Can we as believers share with scientists in the wonder, awe and reverence in the face of this awesome reality?
Can it be viewed and appreciated as a symbol, like the sun, of the One who is beyond anything we can imagine or conceive – The GOD who is greater than either light or darkness? Who knows how the transcendent Mystery will be revealed through this new image of a “darkness visible”? St Ignatius’ vision of the universe is one that seeks to find God in all things – even black holes!