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and Sister Moon
8 © NOVA JUNE 2010
Galileo and St Francis of
Assisi point our eyes and
hearts to the heavens.
Adrian Glamorgan shares
their delight. One cold November night in
1609, Galileo pointed his
newly made perspicillum --
what we now call a telescope
-- to the disc of the moon. Through
magnifying lenses, he saw our moon
much closer than anyone had hitherto
observed. It was impossible. The view
defied everything known as certain. The
ancients such as Aristotle had promised
the moon was a perfect sphere. But
Galileo saw shadows, and what seemed
to be shiny ridges, valleys and mountains.
There was imperfection everywhere.
He did not jump to conclusions.
Galileo merely sketched what he saw,
night after night, as cold November
turned to chill December, gathering the
evidence of his eyes. Galileo's vision was
now 30 times closer to the moon than
any human observation had ever been
able before, the shadows of the moon
shifting across. Through this time, Galileo's
heart and mind were astonished and
delighted to observe what Creation had
sculpted beyond our own Earth. And
running through him the awareness that
the great Aristotle had been wrong. The
ancients did not encompass all wisdom;
there were new things to learn.
The evidence of Galileo's eyes was
challenged from the pulpit. Priests who
did not want to view for themselves
grasped easily there was a choice between
experiential Science, and the dogma of
the Church. Knowledge could not, must
not, be individually obtained. It was a
question of authority. People needed
to be told what to think, for their own
safety, the safety of their soul, for the
sacred order established below, as well as
But Galileo did not stop at the moon.
He pointed his spyglass at Jupiter, and
found four orbiting moons! He pointed
the telescope at Saturn, and what he saw
caught his breath. He saw that Venus
had phases, and came to the incredible
conclusion: Copernicus was right. The
Earth revolved around the Sun. We stand
on our planet, one among many. We are
not the centre of our solar system.
The Inquisition ordered him to Rome.
Galileo was charged with heresy, cleared
but told for his own protection he must
not state publicly the Earth circled the
Sun. Galileo could not help himself.
A passion for truth, for what his heart
knew from what his eyes saw, led him to
publish a work confirming Copernicus
was correct. We do not stand at the centre
of the solar system. This time Galileo was
found "vehemently suspect of heresy" and
placed under house arrest. Legend has
it, after being forced to recant and return
to the notion that Earth was at the centre
of all things, Galileo whispered, "And yet
admiration for the
imperfection of Sun and Moon had a
spiritual parallel, as the Inquisition well
understood. Neat and bound belief
systems that make theological abstract
models are no match for the rugged give
and take and spiritual strangeness of the
real world. Many modern Galileos today
do not like to call themselves religious,
but they are quite comfortable to see
themselves as spiritual -- seekers and
pilgrims on a journey finding out for
themselves on an individuated journey.
Galileo's telescope, and his courage to
face a discoverable world, paved the way.
Some 400 years before Galileo, a
Francis of Assisi, went further than the
astronomer by daring to bring the Moon
and Sun closer. Francis did not care so
much about how the Sun and Moon
moved around the sky; he just knew that
Brother Sun and Sister Moon were to
be praised and sung as if they were real
beings with whom he could be in real
relationship. It's an extraordinary thought:
to imagine that the inanimate objects
we commonly see in the sky might be
something we have a felt relationship with,
and a familial one at that.
'We can think that the Earth
stops at the outer layer of the
atmosphere, and a heavenly
body has no sway, but we
know we would be wrong...'
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