When the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope were released in July, the public response was astonishment. What the Hubble Telescope had revealed faintly was now seen with unprecedented clarity – thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a grain of sand, some of whose light took over 13 billion years to arrive at the place of encounter with the telescope’s sensors. Gazing at these previously hidden lights is to look back in time to the ancient beginnings of the universe, and wonder at the immensity of it all. Amid all the chatter about the telescope’s early findings, however, someone shared with me a quote by the novelist Walker Percy, who wrote: “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?”
The human heart is a greater mystery than the ancient places in the sky. The depths of our interior life run deeper than the deepest regions of space. But we tend to leave them mostly unexplored, if we ever consider them at all. The Webb Telescope gives us a window into the heavens. Who will show us ourselves? No telescope or MRI will reveal motivations or ideas or desires. We require different tools for that. Great literature and art, works of philosophy, and studies of history – the treasures of tradition – help us to gain insight into the human heart. True friendship, family life, and being part of a larger community also help us to grow in self-knowledge. Centrally important is honest prayer, shaped by our Catholic faith, in which we take the risk of asking the Lord to reveal us to ourselves. It’s a risk, because He will show things to us that are painful to see. But He has always known the truth about us, seeing every detail of our soul with perfect clarity – and still, He chooses to love us and offer us mercy.
Silence is an essential tool for contemplation of the soul under the light of God. In the silence, we share with Him our life. In adoration we might ask at various times: “what happened there, Lord? Why did that hurt me? Why did I respond that way? Why am I so angry, resentful, and sad?” And we place all those things before Him in the silence of our prayer and ask Him to gently help us to see, to understand, to repent and be healed and so be given the strength to more clearly reflect and reveal His love and goodness into the world.
It takes a lot of work to put a telescope in space, to see and marvel at the beauty of the universe. It also takes a lot work to grow in self-understanding, which can only be done in relationship with others, especially in the Church, which was given to us by the One who knows us perfectly, who loves us totally, and who shed His blood completely to redeem us.