October 16, 2020

Sight Unseen / Brandon A. Evans

The light from Iota Orionis

Brandon A. EvansAbout 140 years ago, a little girl in France looked up at the night sky, and upon seeing a cluster of stars—likely those of Orion’s belt and sword—recognized the shape of the first letter of her name.

It caused her, in childlike wonder and awe, to imagine that God himself had written her name in the heavens.

Tens of thousands of years before that event—before even the dawn of humanity—two hydrogen atoms fused in the heart of a distant star: a blue giant in the cluster we call Iota Orionis.

That bonding created helium and energy—an energy which crawled and bounced around inside the great furnace, eventually winding its way more than 11 million miles from the core to the surface, bursting out into the cold of space as a single photon.

By then, the year was 422 B.C.

Darius II of Persia was Pharaoh of Egypt, the fourth of the plays of Aristophanes debuted in Athens and the Jewish people were again living in their homeland after the Babylonian exile.

The world turned, and history moved on. Empires rose and fell, artistry and languages flourished, and in the fullness of time the Son of God became flesh and saved all mankind.

And so his story began, and those who loved him spread out across the world to etch into its very foundations the history of salvation.

All the while, that spark of light from the bottom of Orion’s sword flew on its way. It was not alone. In the same second that it was born into the cosmos, so were 68 quindecillion other photons; that is, 68 trillion trillion trillion trillion others, all from the same star.

They spread in every direction, and to all parts of the sky. Most are still out there and will find one day their terminus at the edge of the universe. Others collided with pieces of dust and rock and ice along their journey. Some made their way to another star, or even a planet.

But this photon was different. All along its way, God watched it, as he watches all things. He saw as it bridged the gap of the outer spoke of the Milky Way and entered our solar system, diving all the way through and into the spinning path of the Earth.

Down through the atmosphere it went, avoiding both cloud and creature; down until, of all places and against all celestial odds, it fell precisely into the open eye of a 5-year-old child: little Thérèse Martin of Lisieux.

This ground-based image of the Constellation of Orion shows the “belt” and “sword” that together loosely form the capital letter “T.”  The fuzzy, red star near the middle of the sword is actually the Orion Nebula, and the bright light at its the bottom is Iota Orionis. (Photo credit: Akira Fujii)

This ground-based image of the Constellation of Orion shows the “belt” and “sword” that together loosely form the capital letter “T.” The fuzzy, red star near the middle of the sword is actually the Orion Nebula, and the bright light at its the bottom is Iota Orionis. (Photo credit: Akira Fujii)

It’s light, and those of the “golden pearls” around it, enamored her; it drew her close to God and gave her delight.

Grasping her father’s hand, the child asked him to guide her as she flung back her head and, traipsing blindly along the path home, drank in the full beauty of the night sky spread above her.

If God intended St. Thérèse to see the light from Iota Orionis that evening—and he most certainly did as she recorded the moment in her famous autobiography, The Story of a Soul—did he not also will all those other stars to shine their light on her as well?

If so, then as she looked, there came to her the beacons of a thousand distant worlds carried by beams of light from stars seen and unseen, little and large, golden and blue; sent from every corner of the sky, from distances of a few years to a million. All their journey’s end came at the same moment and in the same place: the eyes of a little girl. All their wealth, all their wonder was poured down through the miracle of atomic alchemy that powers the universe and was given freely to her.

We are offered the same thing on a clear night, and it is a frightening prospect: billions of photons from countless origins in time and space, all hurtling through the darkness yet marked with our name.

All meant just to sparkle in our eyes, and maybe to make us look beyond them in love to the one who holds all things together.

We live in a cold age: a time of definitions and explanations and endless opinions, but even all that noise cannot fully tarnish the luster of the twinkling call of the stars. With grace, we can see the sky as the ancients did: a place of fullness; of light and design, mystery and movement.

We can begin to see the heavens as its Creator does: a place made with great care to be the delight of a fallen race, and with such generosity that words can barely grasp it.

With hushed realization we can dare to say that if all the lights of the sky were hung there simply to earn the smile of even one child, then the ages of unending stellar creation would have been worth the cost.
 

(Sight Unseen is an occasional column that explores God and the world. Brandon A. Evans is the online editor and graphic designer of The Criterion and a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.)

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