The God of My Universe

The Sky Is Not a Ceiling
An Astronomer's Faith

Orbis Books. 180p $18 (paperback)

Astronomers love to wander in the dark because it is often the darkest skies that radiate the brightest stars. An award-winning astronomer and the Priest Professor of Physics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., Aileen O'Donoghue has spent years searching the heavens of the physical universe and the spiritual labyrinth of her own life. Her book provides a healthy antidote to the popular atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whose books debunking religion have topped the bestseller lists. Although O'Donoghue clearly has struggled to make sense of her faith, vacillating at times between belief and unbelief, she clings to faith as an existential anchor and displays a deep love of the Christian tradition, despite the difficulties she finds with the institutional church.

The Sky Is Not a Ceiling contains 18 short chapters, but the work itself is defined more by themes, some of which recur repeatedly throughout the book. Among them are the struggle between faith and reason, the quest of meaning and purpose in the universe, divine transcendence and immanence, patriarchy and sexism in the church, and the church as the Body of Christ. O'Donoghue's reflections are colored by a traumatic experience of sexual assault as a young girl, an experience that left her deeply lonely, frightened and hating her own female body. She recounts the meaningless mechanics of faith learned through the Baltimore Catechism of her childhood and the years of atheism in graduate school before gradually discovering the God of Jesus Christ. "This God that slipped into my universe is very different than the one I banished," she writes. "The God that did slip through seems to know nothing of rules, but continually casts me adrift in my own freedom while stuffing wonders in the gaps between what we expect the universe to contain and what we find." This is the language of a mystic, one who has experienced God "in the vastness, the weirdness, the abundance, the seeming nonsensicalness, and even the violence of this incredible universe." Although she writes as one who has seen the face of God in the heavens, at times she pauses to wonder if the face of God can reveal itself in a burning star.

O'Donoghue's book is a journey into love and back again. Her story shows the tension between the rational mind and the human capacity for God, between the mind that analyzes the data of science and the heart that longs for spiritual freedom. The book’s recurring themes make it a spiral of self-knowledge and discovery of God amid the fact-finding world of science. Although The Sky Is Not a Ceiling bears a likeness to the work of the well-known religious scientist John Polkinghorne, O'Donoghue distinguishes herself as a mystic of light and darkness: "I see the path of my life as it moves from light to darkness and back again, rising in every growing circle toward the God of light who is also God of the darkness." The strength of her book lies in its honest search for truth and integrity. The ebb and flow of doubt and faith on the shores of her own inner soul remind us that self-knowledge is the basis of truth or, as the medieval theologian Bonaventure wrote: "Lack of self-knowledge and failure to appreciate one's own worth make for faulty judgment in all other matters." O'Donoghue clearly seeks to know herself as a beloved of God in this vast, unfolding universe.

In an age in which scientists are deified, one cannot help admire O'Donoghue's humble integrity as a believer. But it is a struggle, as she writes: "Though I choose to practice belief that there is a God, I recognize that it is entirely possible that there is no God.... I practice my faith in full light of the possibility that it's wrong because it helps me live better." While honesty marks O'Donoghue's journey, she also has a real sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. Perhaps from years of gazing on the different galaxies of the universe, she knows that community is the stuff of life. Her faith deepens as she discovers the life of Christian community, in a small parish, among the Jesuit scientists at the Vatican Observatory, and in the friendship of the late retreat director Father Tom Clarke, S.J. To be a follower of Jesus, according to O'Donoghue, is to belong to a community of faith. The church lives best when it is lived as a family of life-giving relationships.

But the author's search is colored at times by a tinge of anger, especially about the church ("I think the structures of the church are human inventions, not divine decrees"), and she gets caught on the hook of institutional structure, power and control. Indeed, after an amazing exploration through self-knowledge and discovery of the heavens, she devotes her final chapter to the intransigent sexism of the church, concluding her story on a bittersweet note of hurt and hope. While O'Donoghue's mind struggles to make sense of her fidelity to the institutional church, her heart remains open to mystery and grace. She does not adopt Pascal's wager, but faith gives her a reason to live.

The soul-searching of this woman astronomer is inspiring, refreshing and at times deeply poetic. Anyone who seeks to make sense of science and religion as two sides of the same conjugate will appreciate O'Donoghue's story.