Sunday, October 28, 2012

Christianity Crosses the Tiber

Today is the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Why is this so significant? Because this battle led to the end of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, paving the way for Christianity to became the dominant religion of Europe. St. Constantine and his brother-in-law Maxentius were fighting for rule. The Milvian Bridge crossed the Tiber; securing the bridge would help Constantine drive Maxentius out of Rome. According to at least two contemporary accounts, on the night before the battle, Constantine had a vision to fight under the name of the Christian God. The image of the chi-rho appeared with the message “by this sign you shall conquer.” So he had his men draw the chi-rho on their shields. Constantine defeated Maxentius and then entered Rome on Oct. 29, 312, giving him control of the western half of the empire.  

In 313, Constantine (of the West) and Licinius (of the East) issued the Edict of Milan, proclaiming religious freedom in the Roman Empire. This included granting Christians full citizenship and giving back their confiscated property. Christians were allowed to openly worship. In 380, the Edict of Thessalonica established Christianity as defined by the Nicene Creed as the Rome’s only authorized religion. So in less than a century, Christianity went from a persecuted minority, to publicly condoned, to the Roman Empire’s official religion.

I think we sometimes forget how truly amazing it is that Christianity spread so far so quickly. What began as an off-shoot of Judaism on the edge of the empire became the endorsed religion of Gentiles as far apart as Britain and Egypt. Clearly, the story of Christ penetrated people's hearts, regardless of race or culture. Christianity does not promise rebellion or relief. In that way, it is not that attractive. And for the early Church, rejecting your culture's old identity and religion to adopt Christianity meant losing your family, property, and sometimes your life. Yet the faith still spread.

Constantine was declared emperor while in Eboracum (York).
It's unclear what spurred Constantine's vision, whether he already had an inclination toward Christianity or not. He had previously changed his patron Roman god from Mars to Sol Invictus, so perhaps he was willing to try any god that could help him win in battle. However his conversion came about, he did become a truly committed believer. St. Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea, which established the creed followed by the Church today. He founded Constantinople as his new, Christian capital of the empire. Although a believer, he was not baptized until on his deathbed in 337.

Friday, October 26, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 49)

1. I’m going home to vote this weekend, because early voting didn’t start until the day AFTER fall break. I believe if you don’t vote, you forfeit your right to complain; and it’s not about feeling like your vote counts or trying to vote for the winner, it’s about being part of a democracy and saying what your conscious tells you.

2. Tennessee has a great program where you can dedicate your vote to a service member.

3. I came up with the term “preemptive bullying” during the last presidential debate. That’s now how I refer to Middle East policies.

4. I found out I can graduate a semester earlier than I was expecting if I take 5 classes instead of the 4 I was planning next semester. I don’t even want to think about the stress, but it will be for the best, even if my GPA dips. (Accidently having more hours than I think I did seems to be a habit of mine.)

5. I’ve learned that when the mood strikes me to write, I should obey it. I can put off homework until the last minute, because I don’t need inspiration to do it. When I’m inspired to write, I should drop everything to get as many words down as possible before the feeling passes, because sometimes it’s gone for months. It’s a little thing that when prioritized right, makes me exponentially happier. Number 5 is going to negatively affect Number 4, and I’m trying to figure out how to balance it.

6. I wrote a 3-part piece on space exploration and spiritual journey this week and only quoted Star Trek once. I do try to rein in my nerdiness sometimes. 

7. Yesterday I missed class because I was sick. I hate missing class, especially with tests next week. I may have felt awful, but I didn’t lose my “vomit free since 2008” card, so it could have been worse. Sometimes, it’s the small victories. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond (part 3): We Will Arrive Where We Started

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” -T. S. Eliot

When the Apollo 11 crew went to the moon, the President’s office prepared a letter to be read in case Armstrong and Aldrin couldn’t leave, remaining trapped on the lunar surface:
“They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.”

To me, the possibility of being condemned to death by being trapped on the moon is worse than other potential disasters of space travel. When polled, most people don’t want men to go to Mars until there is a method to get them back home. (It would be much harder to leave Mars’ surface than the moon’s because of higher gravity.) The ability to come home is a factor many people prioritize in regards to space exploration. Since Odysseus, the need to return home has driven the journey. 

I never paid much attention to the mountains where I grew up. It was the landscape I saw every day. Then driving back from college one break, I realized their beauty.  For the first time in nineteen years, I appreciated them. When I spent a summer overseas, I missed them. They were my mountains. Thousands of miles away, I created a connection to them that I had never experienced when I saw them every day. And now that I’m back, I can see them daily and appreciate them, the perfect combination. I’m not even much of an outdoorsy person, but my mountains give me some feeling of home, a comfort. 

Home doesn’t have to mean comfort or security. It is a starting point, an origin. Earth isn’t perfect: wars, poverty, disease, inequality, starvation. But it is home, so it’s important to try to solve its problems instead of run from them. By exploring and then returning, we can face our struggles refreshed and stronger. We cannot remain stagnant and complacent; we have to keep moving, keep learning, keep seeking deeper understanding, keep yearning for a better relationship with God and one another. 

As the prophet must descend from the mountain and Plato must return to the cave, we must conclude our journeys where we began. We do not triumph in isolation, but in the troubled world.  We explore so that we can strengthen ourselves for the fight. But the battle will take place at home, because it is the one place in the universe worth fighting for.

Monday, October 22, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond (part 2): We Came in Peace

“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place— What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?” -Psalm 8:4-5

In the first post, I mentioned the feats of unmanned exploration like Voyager, but I think it is important to look at manned missions as well. When the first men landed on the moon, they planted an American flag on the lunar surface. But the triumph was beyond American. The plaque they left read: “We came in peace for all mankind.” And a silicon chip held messages of goodwill from 73 countries. The feat was too momentous to let one group within an arbitrary border claim. 

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide
Beyond earth, humanity stands united against the vast unknown of space. Science fiction commonly has the assumption that by the time we have the technology to travel great distances from home, we’ll have overcome wars and poverty and national borders. We will present ourselves as one people. Whether overcoming our conflicts will unite us as one or uniting as one will make us overcome our conflicts, I’m not sure. Does defeating sin reunite us with God, or does reunion with God defeat sin?  In either case, there is the promise that someday we can transcend greed and bigotry, that in the end, we will be worthy of inheriting the stars. 

I read that President Nixon had the plaque changed to the past tense (“We come in peace…” to “We came in peace…”). I like the past tense better. It accounts for that one moment in history. In July 1969, we did come in peace. Should we diverge from peaceful endeavors or should we cease to exist, there is a record to our memory telling the future that we came in peace. It’s a cry that can be heard when we no longer have voices.

I’ve heard that astronauts have powerful reactions to floating above the earth, watching all of humanity condensed into a blue dot. The crew of Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968; they took turned reading from Genesis:

"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth..."

When the Eagle landed on the moon, Buzz Aldrin partook in communion. His Presbyterian church back home had prepared a small communion kit with bread and wine. When in the crucible of an epochal event for all humanity, these men could only express themselves through religion.

When we face glimpses of infinity, our observations and words are meaninglessly small. We rely on well-worn verses and rituals, because they connect us to the bigger picture. The moment is no longer singular, but part of the story, the only story. We become a part of the whole, in sync with those before and those after who have also floated in the black and been witness to the paradoxical nature of humanity: insignificant and important. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Earlier today at the Vatican, there was a canonization ceremony for seven new saints. One particularly stands out to North Americans, as she is the first Native American saint to be canonized by the Church.

Called the Lily of the Mohawks, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in what is now upstate New York. Her father was a Mohawk and her mother was a Christian Algonquin. As a child, she lost her parents and brother to smallpox. The disease also damaged Kateri’s eyesight and scarred her face. In fact, the Mohawk name Tekakwitha translates as “one who walks groping her way.” She was adopted by her aunts and uncles. 

She was baptized on Easter 1676 by French Jesuit missionaries. Missionaries were not welcomed by the Mohawks, because of the obvious tensions between the French, Dutch, and natives at the time. The Mohawks blamed French Jesuits for bringing disease. Kateri’s tribe was hostile to her conversion, so she moved to a colony in Qu├ębec made up of Christian Indians, where she took care of the sick and elderly. She took a vow of chastity and also subjected herself to self-punishment. She died at the age of 24. It was said that the scars on her face vanished, and soon after, people reported seeing visions of her. She is the patron of environmentalists, ecologists, and exiles. Her feast day is July 14.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond (part 1): We are Explorers

“It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching, not just for answers to our questions, but for new questions. We are explorers.” –Commander Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 

From NASA: Galaxy NGC 3344
Last weekend some friends and I went to a corn maze. It was a fun fall activity, and we wandered the maze aimlessly, just enjoying being out together. It grew dark as we were in the maze, which added to the fun of each wrong turn. When we finally reached the center, we stopped and took the time to look up.  In the dark field, I was able to see the night sky in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It’s sad that I have to go out of my way to find a place with enough darkness to see the curve of the galaxy. 

When I look up at the stars, I feel powerful in my insignificance. I’m a speck stuck on a rock spinning around a small star in an unimportant corner of the galaxy. Thousands of stars burn in the sky, and I’m overwhelmed by the tiny taste of the vastness of space. But I’m here, I exist, and I’m reacting to the universe, and that makes me feel big, like a valued cog in the wheel of creation.

This summer I got caught up in the Curiosity craze. It was exciting to watch something man-made reach another planet and land so precisely, and in less than 14 minutes, I could see a picture sent from Mars. It is feats like that that make me realize I live in some crazy future where modern technology is almost magical.  We’ve landed objects on Venus, Mars, and our moon. And this fall, Voyager I, in its 35th year of its expected three-year mission, left this solar system. We have reached out, looking for something beyond our everyday experiences. We want to find the unknown and explore the specks of light in the night sky

I won’t pretend that exploration is always pure. Exploration of the world used to mean conquering civilizations and stealing resources. The Space Age is a child of the Cold War. But it has grown up. Americans and Russians now work together on the International Space Station. We search space not to conquer anything, but to know what’s out there. That curiosity, that spark to explore and to better ourselves, is a defining human trait. It shows our belief that there is more to find, to know, to experience.

I believe our human longing to seek knowledge in our physical universe is the same longing that makes us seek understanding of God. We see glimpses of infinity and reach out to grasp it. The universe and God are too big to comprehend, so we study the little pieces that we can, slowing working our way out toward knowledge more complex and more amazing than could ever have been imagined had we stayed on the ground and refused to look up.