A colorized image of dust as seen through an electron microscope, including strands of fibers and some things with tentacles!

Dust, through an electron microscope.

In a comment on Fritz Bauerschmitz article a month ago on scientific language in prayers, my friend Michelle Francl challenged us,

Why shouldn’t the poetry of our liturgical language reflect the fullness of the world — in which scientists are not evil figures in secret labs hidden in volcanic craters, but in which discovering the world around us, they not only discover God, but point Him out to the rest of us?

As she pointed out, as well as a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College, Michelle is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Vatican Observatory, “a not-so-secret lab in a volcanic crater,” where liturgies are regularly celebrated by Catholics who are suffused both with a scientific worldview and with faith.

A week later, Michelle posted a longer response on Quantum Theology, her theological blog, articulating her scientific reverence for the created world and her faithful gratitude for the scientists who study it:

May we pray for “scientists,” but not for “computational chemists,” or for “galaxies” but not “Bose-Einstein condensates”?  On the telescope domes atop the old papal summer palace are inscribed the words, Deum creatorem venite adoremus, come adore God the Creator.  The laws of physics are as much God’s creation as the dewfall.  Dew and rain, bless the Lord.  Bosons and fermions, bless the Lord, too.

Science is not a merely secular pursuit, I would argue it’s very much a dialog with God about creation.  In that sense, it’s prayer.  Contemplative prayer.

Before I became a theologian, I did my undergraduate degree in mathematics and chemistry. Photons, oxidation-reduction reactions, and enzymes evoke more wonder for me than do rainbows. (Actually, in my one class on quantum physics, the Schrödinger equation caused me more wonder, and more difficulty, than anything else I’ve studied except Galois theory, otherwise known as the most tragic result in mathematics. My favorite chemistry was organic and inorganic, which rely more on geometry than differential equations.)

It seems to me that if scientific language feels irreverent and laughable in our prayer, it might be because it isn’t our native language as it is the scientists of the Vatican Observatory. But then we have a problem, because scientific language is the native vocabulary of most educated laypersons. In general, Americans have studied science and are comfortable speaking of ecosystems and atoms; they have generally not studied theology and may not be comfortable speaking of dewfall and angels. Recovering our shared Biblical imagination is only a partial solution; we also need to infuse the scientific world with our faith and gratitude to its creator.

In this respect, we would do well to listen to Michelle and to Guy Consolmagno and our other faithful scientists. As she promised, Michelle finished a book this week and returned to the question of science and prayer. In an essay for Ignatian Spirituality on dusting her office, she demonstrates how science can infuse the ordinary with sacramental, cosmological, and theological meaning:

As the dust flies, my mind drifts back to a walk along the Irish cliffs, the waves pounding so hard against the rocks the water is ground into a mist, the salty crystals of which I’d wipe from my glasses hours later….

Nelson’s poem—and my dusty office—reminds me that the unpolished and ordinary is cloaked in the extraordinary. Even as I settle back into my everyday life, in that dust, tiny tokens of the universe have settled into my office. Should I be able to sort through the motes, I expect I would find fragments brushed from the cliffs in Ireland, blown into the air by storms in the Pacific, and burnt off comets that blundered into Earth’s atmosphere. Crumbs of the infinite lie scattered across my desk. I’m suddenly hesitant to pick up my dust rag and wipe it all away.

Just as a telescope can turn reddish-white light into a message from an unimaginably large planet with four – no, five – no, thirteen – now 67 moons, a microscope can turn the mundane irritation of dust into tidings from the world across the seas and across the centuries. As liturgy proclaims the infinite in the infinitesimal, so too can science. Come, let us worship.

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