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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A Comet and a Painting: can Philae inspire us to face the apocalypse?

Regulars know that I take to blogging as a way of responding to what has stimulated my imagination. I can't complain of a lack of material this month.

1950 was a good year for Comets (the capital 'C' is meant). Late in 1949, the De Havilland prototype jet aircraft 'Comet' that some of us remember was rolled out to great acclaim. Tests began in earnest in 1950. Meanwhile in the altogether vaster arena of the Solar System, two key theories about comets were first proposed. One was the 'dirty snowball' concept about a comet's make-up; the other that comets originate in an obscure region beyond the planets in the Oorst Cloud that surrounds the Solar System. The next year, the theory that a comet's tail is caused by the solar wind acting upon it was also put forward. All three are now established as central to our understanding of what comets are and how they behave.

All this in the year I was born....

What's prompts this recollection is of course the news in the past hours that the Philae-Lander has settled on the surface of Comet 67P. While the status of the landing craft's security and functionality is not yet certain, everyone agrees that it is a momentous achievement on the part of the European Space Agency.

Two years ago, I blogged on the journeys of Voyager One and Two (it's still on this site: 28 October 2012, Now Voyager! Travelling the Solar System). These journeys to give us stupendous images of the Solar System's outer planets were already the stuff of dreams. But Philae's landing on her - and surely now our very own - comet makes Voyager seem like a sight-seeing trip. I tweeted that the bouncy landing, not at all wanted by the scientists, had something of a jump for joy about it. Maybe that echoes what many of us were feeling: the sheer exhilaration and gratitude that we are alive to see this day. I said that it would take a Thomas Hardy to do justice to the poetry of this event.

There's a metaphor here. 

I don't know whether Philae will help change the consciousness of the human race. We dared to hope as much of humanity's first steps on the Moon. We were right: extending horizons has always been a goal of human exploration not primarily as an act of colonisation or possession (whatever was intended at the time), rather enlarging the imagination and learning to see ourselves in new ways. 'Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp' said Robert Browning in Andrea del Sarto: whatever else he means, it must be to do with our potential to transcend and renew ourselves, take hold of a larger vision of life; 'or what's a heaven for?'

As a person of faith, I still want to say that events like today's still have the capacity to change minds and hearts. Science is God-given, even if God isn't always recognised in scientific endeavour. But I am a lot less sanguine than I was in those heady days of the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969. When I saw today's image of a leg of Philae perched under what seemed like a rocky cliff, I didn't grasp the distortion of perspective. Simply as a photograph, it reminded me at once of something very different: those vast apocalyptic canvasses painted by Northumberland artist John Martin of Haydon Bridge (whatever had that lovely little village done to him to beget a son of such morbidity? Maybe in our retirement we'll walk the John Martin trail through the woods and gorges of the South Tyne and Allen Valleys and find out). In his darkly grand vision, human beings, all our civilisation and achievement, is depicted as transient and insignificant compared to the mountains, rocks and cliffs that rear up on all sides only to fall on and crush hapless men, women and children. See for example The Great Day of His Wrath, the third painting of his famous Last Judgment triptych. (If you Google it you'll find his paintings online.)

Why, when I saw the Philae image today, did I associate to that painting without hesitation? I think because in my mind from a few hours earlier was yet another shocking report from Syria about the plight of millions of innocent people in despair at the cruelty of their fellow human beings. Philae delights us and excites nothing but admiration, yet still there terror on every side. It's the shadow that falls across us all, even in our best, our most ecstatic moments. We are perched precariously under a huge and ominous cliff.

But then I mused: if ESA can pull off such a feat on a far-distant comet through concerted international collaboration, surely the four deadly Horsemen of the Apocalypse could be tamed if there is the will to do it? It's a stupendous ask, but as Advent approaches with its bitter-sweet themes of Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven, the world's peoples should galvanise one another to find the same intentional energy and collaborative focus to apply ourselves to constructing a better world. People of faith are already taking a lead. We may think that the Philae-Lander mocks our inability to make any lasting difference. But I believe it can also inspire us to act collectively to save our planet and its peoples. We must make sure it does. There isn't an alternative.

Isn't this what God calls us to as we gaze on a remote comet and marvel?

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