When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
What are we that you should be mindful of us,
mere mortals that you should seek us out?
— from the St. Helena Psalter
Today in the calendar of the saints we remember Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, who added to our knowledge of the heavens and in particular of how celestial objects moved relative to each other. Although born nearly a century apart, their work challenged the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe—that it stood still and everything celestial object in the universe glided around our planet in perfect circles, like an ice skater with hands clasped behind her back, measuring her way around a frozen pond, some sort of cosmic Hans Brinker.
Copernicus took what was then a bold first step, proposing that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. However, he still believed, like the ancient Greeks, that the orbits of planets and moons could be traced in perfect circles. It was Kepler who proposed that planetary orbits were actually ellipses.
It is my theory that there are two kinds of people when it comes to math: algebra people, geometry people, and people who can’t count. Now, not being a particular fan of geometry, I had to look up exactly what an ellipse was, to be certain. Ah yes—like a circle being flattened by a giant invisible hand from the top. Got it.
So the problem that led Copernicus to question the belief (church-sanctioned, by the way) that the Earth was the center of the universe was the fact that there were times when planets in the night sky would engage in a maneuver called “retrograde motion”—when they would actually reverse direction and loop off on an opposite course through the night.
Copernicus and Kepler’s work frightened many, who saw their search for knowledge as a challenge to biblical truth, such as that contained in Psalm 8, because the church at the time believed that humans had to be the center of attention. Yet God is so great that even the smallest creatures are held and treasured within the force of divine love.
Regardless of where the center is, there are forces of attraction that hold it all together, even as galaxies expand, suns cool, stars are born, and meteors die. Some of the light we see in the skies at night is a mere echo, travelling billions of miles across space like an arrow to land upon my particular eye as I notice it. The wonders of creation continue to amaze, as God is making the heavens and the Earth.
Lately, even in the advent of spring, which leads to my favorite season of summer, I have noticed that our family has been cycling through a series of retrograde motions. Green life is sprouting up everywhere, and then one of our precious dogs, who was playful and joyful and mischievous, suddenly sickened and died three weeks ago, and we are all still mourning. Another school shooting has brought back feelings of helplessness and fear. We have the joy of watching our son graduate, made bittersweet by his leaving in a few short weeks for college.
And yet we hold on, because while we know we are not the center of the universe, yet there is also the reminder that we don’t have to be. The ellipse will spin out again: of this we are certain, and through it all God is with us. We are captured in the pull of love, and it holds us with the force that cannot be broken, knit together by the fingers of God. Psalm 8 reminds us, especially on the day we remember Copernicus and Kepler, that we have the reassurance that the stars overhead remind us of: we are all made by God’s hand, known tenderly, each by name, and God is mindful of us, seeking us out with a love that never fails.
And that is enough.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is former teacher and priest in the Diocese of Missouri, currently hanging her vestments at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis when she isn’t serving as a supply priest. Her blog of prayers and other writings is Abiding In Hope.