by Mike Gyulay
While on vacation last year in Florida, I happened to see a notice in the newspaper for an event at a Knights of Columbus council near Cape Canaveral, a town famous for its connection with the United States space program. My eyes hitched at the name given in the notice: “Our Lady of Space Council 5667”. Now, I know that the Blessed Mother goes by many names, but seeing outer space added to her list of titles was quite interesting. I suppose if you wanted to lay claim on her behalf to the rest of creation outside Planet Earth in one fell swoop, that would probably be the way to do it.
I was reminded of this curious nomenclature recently when I was watching a video of the astronauts on the International Space Station. They were floating around doing something, I forget exactly what, and then – I saw her. Mary. No, I didn’t imagine her likeness appearing in a group of weightless water bubbles or floating food bags – it was really her. And Jesus too. It was like a Nazareth home reunion, right there on the back wall of the Russian segment of the space station. A group of icons had been placed there by the crew. It took me a few moments to process the scene, and then I realized that although it was certainly unexpected, maybe it actually wasn’t so strange. After all, it would not be unusual for someone to put icons or other religious objects in their home – even if their home is 250 miles above the ground and moving at 17,000 miles per hour.
Whenever viewing conditions allow, I try to catch the space station as it flies overhead. I imagine it’s what the Christmas Star might have looked like – but one that even a camel on steroids couldn’t have kept up with. It’s very bright, moves very smoothly and steadily – and very quickly. Sometimes it’s visible for just a minute, sometimes five depending on the angle – and then over the hip of Mother Earth and gone. I often think to myself, “Seven billion people down here…and only six up there.” Now, I also think of those icons of Jesus and Mary, circling the globe, especially the eyes of Mary encompassing the world in a single glance while she points to her son, as if repeating her famous last line: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Because we are human, we bear the stamp of the eternal, whether we explicitly acknowledge this reality or not. The very fact we have broken the fingers of gravity and flung a fleet of metallic messengers skimming across the black ice of space is testament to our need to reach out beyond ourselves…in order to better understand ourselves. At this moment Voyager 1, the farthest human-made object from Earth, is near the verge of interstellar space some 1.2 billion miles away, sailing about 20 times faster than a bullet, and still sending back data. And whether it’s the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve in lunar orbit, Buzz Aldrin taking communion in one-sixth gravity on the surface of the moon (using elements provided by his Presbyterian pastor), or Russian icons in low earth orbit, we also carry with us the presence, expressions, reminders, of our eternal home, the beginning point and destination, the key that helps us truly make sense of the voyage we take. Put another way, if one wishes to laud Mary as Our Lady of Space, that’s because we bring Mary into space with us.
As the vast void is punctuated by accretions of gas, rocks, and dust that have been drawn together to stand out against the emptiness (although, as we are becoming increasingly aware, what we formerly thought of as strictly “empty” space may not be so after all!), we too are drawn together as fundamental creatures of relationship. However, whether the binding force we submit to is one of love, selflessness, and solidarity, or hate, fear, and domination is a process conditioned by our choices. Sometimes, because of the way the sunlight slides off the solar panels, the gleam of the space station passing above my house will suddenly wane and wink out, like a spark quenched by dark water. That’s exactly what the presence of God in my life feels like sometimes – until I realize that has nothing to do with God, but everything to do with me. Sometimes I feel like I’ve painted the windows of my life shut, and I have to heave, strain, and sometimes punch to break the seals. And at other times, all it takes is a gentle and unexpected touch of another person to cast them open. But either way, once I am again exposed to the breeze of the Spirit, the clutter and clouds are swept away, and I again see the reflected Light in the face of Jesus.
So when I look up at night and see the orbiting outpost of humanity that is the International Space Station, I am reminded of the restless drive for exploration and discovery implanted in the heart of who we are – and of our need to root that restlessness in the One who is restless for the reunion of all things. And for those times when I doubt or fear, I am reminded that no matter how far the distance we must travel…the dwelling place of God is indeed among us.