Of heavenly conjunctions, the turning of the spheres, and astrological divination

Last night and the night before I went out into the crisp darkness to gaze for a while at a celestial conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and a sliver of a Crescent moon, all gathered directly under the Pleiades.

This spiffing display has led more than one person to wonder if perhaps we were being given a hint about Our Blessed Mother, since it fell on her true feast and her observed feast.

A nice, pious idea, but, no.

Can God make use of signs in the heavens?  Sure, He can.  He may have in the wake of the Apparitions at Fatima with the “miracle of the sun” and the aurora before the onset of WWII.  God can and does intervene to do meaningful things which, while not contrary to nature’s order, are nevertheless beyond our ability to explain according to the laws of science.

Not very long ago, as the ages of the world have it, very smart people thought that, because God, the First Mover, placed everything in the heavenly spheres with such order and guided by angels, all concentrically whirling about the stable Earth, therefore the position of the observable stars and planets must mean something.  Astrology was a common practice, and was in many cases undertaken with sincere piety.

Despite the fact that the theological wild-child Tertullian has interpreted the star of the Magi to symbolize the overturning of astrology, and despite the fact that Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine in City of God 8, inveighed against astrological divination, and despite even imperial condemnations, the practice stuck.  It is very hard to shake the idea that the world is the stable turning point of the universe and that the movements of the heavenly spheres means something.

Not long ago I read a great book (sent by one of you readers) about the period of the life of Galileo during which he was tried by the Roman Inquisition for his Copernican tendencies.  It is coauthored by a priest (who clears up from time time – you can tell when he is intervening – some points of theology and Church practice).  The book, Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius by William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas, gives a fair view of the historical context, the people and the issues.  One of the points explored is the role of astrology in the period.  I recommend the book also as a good preparation for apologetics. Whenever the matter of Church and science comes up, someone will throw the case of Galileo in your teeth.  Galileo was not entirely innocent in his own ecclesial and social demise: he had all the charm of a radial-arm saw.  He used satire and invective on people who had a hard time following his odd Copernican notions.  While some of them were jealous enemies, others were the very people who were his biggest fans.  The Pope was numbered among them, alas.  I’ll leave it to you to find out more about that fascinating person and period.

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31 Responses to Of heavenly conjunctions, the turning of the spheres, and astrological divination

  1. Blaise says:

    When my wife pointed out Venus and Jupiter to our three (and three quarter) year old son a few nights ago, his first comment was to ask “when can we go there?”
    He was sad when told that no-one has been to either yet and they are too far away to go to yet and too hot or too cold for people to live on. He told us that aliens live there. Children’s books with space rockets and aliens are probably to blame for that. But I think many people would see the stars these days more as unexplored territory than the instruments of divine providence in guiding the actions of men.

  2. Rouxfus says:

    The image of Our Lady above, standing on the crescent moon, certainly hearkens to the iconic image [marianbooksandgifts.com] of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as she is standing on an upturned waxing crescent moon.

    One of the interesting aspects of the tilma on which was created the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is that her blue mantle is adorned with stars. Some who have studied the matter have discerned that the stars are in no random pattern, but represent a projection of the orientation of the stars in heaven on that date when the image was formed. I’m not sure I see that, but the hypothesis [catholicplanet.net] is out there.

  3. ContraMundum says:

    I have a hard time asserting that the layout of the solar system is entirely meaningless. It would be much safer to say that whatever meaning God may have had for it, it is not what the astrologers claim, and it almost certainly beyond our comprehension.

  4. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    It was a really nice view. Did you see Mars trailing along the ecliptic?

  5. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Genesis: Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years;

    “Signs”

  6. ContraMundum says:

    @Blaise

    That’s a sweet story. Try to steer his interest in planets into an interest in real astronomy. He’ll eat that up — I certainly did!

    There are no aliens on Venus, I’m afraid, but there is an off chance that there is microbial life in the clouds of Venus.

    Also, I tend to wonder if these planets, which are certainly too hostile for us to really live on at any time in the foreseeable future, may not be like sacred mountains that we’re not supposed to walk on. I could almost imagine the risen Christ going up to Mars to pray and meditate, the same way He did in the Holy Land during His earthly ministry. Then again, I find it hard to think of the surface of Mars without thinking of the Painted Desert from the Grand Canyon Suite, which seems to capture the timeless stillness and solitude perfectly.

  7. irishgirl says:

    What a cool picture!
    Whenever I see a crescent moon in the sky, I always call it an ‘Immaculate Conception moon’.

  8. mamajen says:

    I’ve never cared much for space, but I watched a Nova episode about fractals a while ago that was fascinating. I like to think there is some kind of reason or inspiration behind everything God has done, but I don’t believe he set about creating secret messages for us to unravel.

  9. anilwang says:

    In a related note, a while back I’ve received more than a few emails from people who believe that Google Maps has captured a Marian apparition:
    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/what-are-the-odd-figures-google-captured-in-switzerlands-sky-that-are-making-the-rounds-again/

    We really don’t know what it is. Jesus wasn’t frivolous with his miracles just to show off, so it’s unlikely anything of God. More than likely, it’s just a Catholic car ornament that got caught in the lens of the Google van. While it seems pious to interpret signs in the sky such as these as Mary and Jesus or Mary and Joseph, it’s really a distraction to the faith when you grasp at God where he is not and ignore God where he truly is. It is a weakness that the Devil can use to lead the faithful astray.

  10. ContraMundum says:

    @anilwang

    I’m betting it was none of the above, but some sort of optical problem with the camera picking up and distorting something just enough that, with a lot of imagination, it might look like a religious image. I’d think rocks or trees before a Catholic car ornament.

  11. Father Z, you’re not suggesting that astrology is a nice, pious practice are you? I would tend to think those who practiced it in ages past were mistaken, given that that’s pretty blatantly superstitious. It seems contrary to a well-formed conscience in the Faith. [How about READING what I wrote?]

  12. RichardC says:

    If there is anything heretical in the post, please correct me. In fact, I beg to be corrected if there is anything heretical in this post.

    This guy on the internet pointed out to me the most astounding of all astronomical facts: the total eclipse of the sun. The moon, sometimes, passes in front of the sun, so that only the sun’s corona is visible. If the moon, were a little closer to the earth, the sun would be completely obscured. If the moon were a little farther away from the earth, there wouldn’t be a total eclipse. If the moon’s oribit were a little bit different, the center of the moon would never pass over the center of the sun. People sometimes write books about the 10,000 coincidences that have to occur for there to be a universe with intelligent life in it. And then there is this bonus coincidence, for the intelligent people on the the planet with life on it: the total eclipse of the sun.–a coincidence completely unconnected to all the coincidences that people point to. To me the total eclipse of the sun is a Personal touch and an intimation of life before the Fall.

    Also, the sun and the sea help us to think about God. The are both unknowable, in a way. When we think about God, we have to think with boundaries that we know to be false. In the same way, we know that the visible boundaries of the sea are false. The sun can’t be touched, but we feel the sun’s warmth on our faces. Both feed life. The moon is a planet and planets are like people. Someone wrote a song called, “Another Girl, Another Planet”. This song is somewhat vulgar or uncouth, but we all understand the analogy.

    The sun and the moon lining up is an image of the divine nature lining up with human nature. But the moon is dead, so the sun and the moon lining up in a total eclipse is like a crucifix in the sky.–and there was an eclipse of the sun when He died. Is there anything wrong with these thoughts? Hope they help. A.M.D.G.

  13. cmcbocds says:

    Mamajen:

    My disinterest in things astronomy ended the minute my husband showed me Saturn through a telescope. Some days, I think he’s a wee bit sorry he got me hooked as it has cost him some money over the years (we now have four telescopes). But then again, he is never at a loss for gift giving ideas as accessories for telescopes are endless!

    I often wonder if there will be “tours” of the celestial wonders for those who make it to Heaven. I sure hope so!

  14. The Cobbler says:

    “and there was an eclipse of the sun when He died.”
    Before I say anything else I do want to note that the surrounding thoughts in the post this was taken from are very interesting if nothing else. But I want to ask, here — doesn’t Passover occur during (or, more precisely, just after — about within a week of) a full moon, i.e. when the moon is roughly on the opposite side of Earth from the sun and therefore unable to eclipse it?

    Granted, I have no idea _how_ the sun went dark when Christ died… I just know that, if my recollection of the Jewish calendar is correct, then if it was an eclipse by the moon, it most definitely wasn’t any more natural. ;^)

  15. ContraMundum says:

    @RichardC

    I don’t see how anything you said could be heretical, but I note that you say that there was an eclipse of the sun at the Crucifixion. I’ve heard this claim several times, but I don’t believe it. First of all, this is not indicated in Scripture; all that is said there is that the sun was darkened. Secondly, a total solar eclipse only lasts a few minutes, not three hours. Thirdly, the Passover happens at the time of a full moon, when there may be a lunar eclipse, but not a solar eclipse. In fact, at moonrise in Judea on the date many scholars think the Crucifixion actually occurred, there was a lunar eclipse.

    I would tend to associate both the darkening of the sun at the Crucifixion and the “long day” during the Battle of Gibeon to the same class of miracle as the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima.

  16. RichardC says:

    @The Cobbler and @ContraMundum

    My bible, the one my mom gave me when I was a kid, The New American Bible, Saint Joseph Edition, actually says, Luke 23 : 44-45: “It was now around midday, and darkness came over the whole land, until midafternoon with an eclipse of the sun. The curtain in the sanctuary was torn in two.” I looked up the Douay-Rheims translation and it reads, ” [44] And it was almost the sixth hour; and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. [45] And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. ” I accept the Douay-Rheims translaton. I didn’t realize that ‘eclipse of the sun’ was a translator’s invention. I do think, though, that a Fatims like total eclipse of the sun is a reasonable interpretation. If St. Padre Pio could bilocate, then God could certainly bilocate the moon.

    About the heresy crack: Father Z. was making a little bit of fun of people who look for meaning in astronomical events and I do see meaning in some astronomical events and so . . . that was a way to put out what I found as meaningful, while taking into account that I could be off base.–and if I am off base, I would like to be told so.

    Thanks for reading and finding my comment worth commenting on. ;)

  17. ContraMundum says:

    No problem, RichardC. I knew I had seen that before somewhere, too. Unfortunately it is just another example of what a poor “translation” the NAB is, something I’ve complained about at great length in the past.

  18. The Cobbler says:

    @RichardC: true, God may have taken the moon out for a little spin that day. But then, He could’ve done… just about anything. I always figured the whole self-contained fusion reactor simply refused to shine on its Creator’s death — not that it’s intelligent in the sense we are, but I have been given to believe that there were numerous pious medieval traditions about nature reacting to its Author in such a manner at that time, and it doesn’t sound all that implausible to me. (Then again… on second thought, I won’t get into my other pet theories at this time.) But it could’a been a brother-sister act on the part of the sun and moon, given the same sort of preternatural reaction of nature to supernatural events… I guess as an example of the tendency to look for meaning in nature and whether that’s good, bad or silly, we have to keep in mind what we just don’t know.

    In fact, as for heresy in general… I think there’s a big difference between noticing meaning in nature (whether it’s the stars or the trees), becoming dependent on such meaning (where one says not merely “that’s interesting if true” but “this must be so!” or “this is part of my Faith in God Himself!”), and again trying to discover some hidden meaning in order that the knowledge or foreknowledge may be of use to you somehow. Poets have spoken of what the trees and stars may tell, but it is dowsing rods and astrology that have been condemned. In between, you do see some Christians (including Catholics, but it’s not a specifically Catholic issue either) making a search for meaning in such things into a private revelation, which is (if I understood correctly) what Fr. Z was criticizing, and that can get particularly hairy/scary/silly when combined with the tendency of human beings in general to conflate private and public revelation… but doesn’t seem to be what you’re suggesting.

    Of course, I too would be glad to be corrected if I’m wrong on any of the above.

  19. Marine Mom says:

    While on a cruise in the western Caribbean the night sky was spectacular. One evening, Venus was very low on the dark horizon, but so bright that it actually illuminated the water. Orion, kept his watch with us most nights. Also caught a glimpse of a shooting star. (Messengers on the wing)

  20. Doug says:

    Z’s blog says:”Astrology was a common practice, and was in many cases undertaken with sincere piety.”
    I recall a Scientific American article years ago which featured photos of some of Galileo’s papers. Writing in the margin of one was ‘Galileo’s horoscope for a priest friend of his’!

  21. Doug says:

    Dr. Edward Peters says: “It was a really nice view. Did you see Mars trailing along the ecliptic?”
    Perhaps Dr Peters read, as I did, the incorrect view of the heavens for that week: ‘One can see five planets with the naked eye in one evening.’ I saw six, myself.
    Mercury set first, near the sun. Venus and Jupiter visible in the west. Mars “trailing along the ecliptic”. Saturn rising later in the east.

    And, looking straight down, I saw Earth. :-)

  22. Doug says:

    mamajen says: “I like to think there is some kind of reason or inspiration behind everything God has done, but I don’t believe he set about creating secret messages for us to unravel.”
    A message, yes, but not secret: “The heavens show forth the glory of God, and the firmament declares the work of his hands. Day to day utters speech, and night to night shows knowledge. There are no speeches nor languages, where their voices are not heard.” Ps 19:1,4, Douay
    Therefore that blunt ol’ Paul was moved to state, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. His eternal power also and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.” Romans 1:20, ibid

  23. Doug says:

    Blaise says: “When my wife pointed out Venus and Jupiter to our three (and three quarter) year old son …”
    Well, not on Venus, probably, but there are alien creatures out there (with “the truth” as the TV show had it).
    “And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the living creatures and the ancients (and the number of them was thousands of thousands),” Rev 5:11
    “But you have come to mount Sion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the company of many thousands of angels,” Heb 12:22
    … and many other places.

  24. Doug says:

    Richard C writes: “To me the total eclipse of the sun is a Personal touch and an intimation of life before the Fall.” The ratios of distances-from-Earth and diameters are both about 400:1. That’s the math; I’m inclined to agree with you about the “personal touch”.
    Another: Gen 2:9, ” And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of:” God could have given them ‘hospital food’- nourishing but sometimes not so palatable or appealing. He did not, because … God is love! (I read that somewhere.)
    Add eclipse: But the earth’s distance from the sun—and thus the apparent size of the sun—is more than simply a factor in the forming of a total eclipse. It is also a vital condition for the existence of life on earth. “If we were a little nearer or farther from the Sun,” Gonzalez says, “the Earth would be too hot or too cold and so uninhabitable.” Taken from a magazine article quoting Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle.
    And the giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are thought to be “conveniently” placed [by evolution?] to serve as ‘shields’ against incoming objects.

    Richard C also writes: “Is there anything wrong with these thoughts?”
    My thought is that the further one has to reach for an analogy, the weaker it is. In religion, “further” can = heresy. But that’s for your fellow Catholics to say. :-)

  25. Doug says:

    Contramundum and Richard C write about the “eclipse” at our Lord’s death. Indeed, “darkness at noon” [the title of a well-known book BTW] is a better version of the Greek.
    The redoubtable Edward Gibbon (of Decline and Fall fame) noted that he could find no coeval records of such an event happening in Judea, much less ‘over the whole earth’. He was a careful historian, a Roman Catholic (when he wasn’t an Anglican!), and a believer in Bible-as-history, so one senses his disappointment in his own report.

    No matter; to us believers it’s clear that something happened. At any rate, the important thing is that Jesus died “perfect”- that is, with his integrity to God intact. Thus he qualified to offer his life for Adam’s sin (and ours). 1 Pet 2:22; Romans 6:22; Hebrews 9:12 ff.
    For that reason- the importance of the redeeming sacrifice (Mr 10:45)- Jesus gave Christians a command to remember that sacrifice in a formal way, tied in with and replacing the annual Passover: “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you …” 1 Cor 11:23 ff. This year that anniversary, determined by the cycle of the moon just as it was then, falls on Thursday, April 5, after sunset. (the start of every Jewish day). As usual, we Jehovah’s Witnesses will be celebrating that Memorial in a scriptural manner, and all are invited to attend and observe. No collection is ever taken. Hope to see you.

  26. ContraMundum says:

    @Doug

    If you’re appealing to the fact that the universe is surprisingly beautiful, I agree with you. I think the argument from beauty is more powerful than the argument from order, which is actually much more difficult than many people think.

    As for the necessary distance from the sun for life to exist, that argument is very problematic. It depends on a number of things: the class of star that we have for a sun, the size of the planet, the thickness of the planet’s atmosphere, where life lives, and the chemical nature of the life. I don’t know of any reason why we couldn’t have been made intelligent squid-like beings living near hydrothermal vents under an icy crust covering a planet like Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    If you really hope to see me, go to Sunday Mass (but don’t attempt to receive Communion).

  27. ContraMundum says:

    @Doug

    There are non-human intelligences: angels. Angels, however, are non-corporeal. They are spirits only, which makes them more different from us than any other corporeal intelligent life (should any exist) could be.

    Yes, angels sometime appear to have human bodies. At other times they may appear as animals; the account Josephus gives of the death of Herod Agrippa implies that the angel that “struck” Agrippa appeared in the form of an owl.

  28. Doug says:

    Contramudum extends a kind invitation.
    I’ll have to update my wdtprs profile. Relevant points: My first wife was RC- decades ago; not the Church’s fault the marriage failed. To get married in a Catholic Church I was required to attend sessions with a priest (at a local Newman Center), which I enjoyed. I can tell you that out of that alone I acquired more knowledge of doctrine than many lay Catholics, including my Xmas-and-Easter wife. Since then I’ve done much more research because of my interest in history, and later because of my increased religious study as a Christian Witness of Jehovah.
    As to attending Mass, I did that more or less regularly, including one Christmas Midnight Mass which was very impressive. (I never partook of the bread and wine; wasn’t asked to.) I doubt it has come any closer to Bible standards since then. My standard for religious teaching now is God’s word itself, not “Mass”, “magisterium”, “sola scriptura“, “protestantism” or any other man-made teaching.
    I’m aware of the RC view of John ch. 6. Our Bible says also, “Accordingly Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, Unless YOU eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, YOU have no life in yourselves …” A good objection to the literal interpretation is, of course, the anti-cannibalism view. ‘But [says the Catholic] Jesus changed many things about the old Law and laws. And the literal view speaks for itself.’ True, but a Christian of great learning and great humility, who got his information straight from the source (1 Cor 11:23), takes the symbolic view without fear or favor: Heb chapter 9 and 10, especially 9:12, 25,26, “Neither by the blood of goats or of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption … Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest enters into the Holies every year with the blood of others: For then he ought to have suffered often from the beginning of the world. But now once, at the end of ages, he has appeared for the destruction of sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And many similar “interpretations” in Hebrews and elsewhere. Once for all time. You can find a fuller “interpretation” here:
    http://www.watchtower.org/e/rq/article_11.htm

    Back to evolution: In a letter to the editor of NewScientist magazine, a [no doubt atheist] scientist objected to those of us who say, ‘If the sun were 2 feet closer … therefore there IS a God.’ I agree with his sentiments. He agrees with your squid analogy, but he closed by admitting ‘we don’t know just what [those squid] would have been like.’ True enough. So far, so good.
    Our material on these topics is available here http:
    http://www.watchtower.org/e/archives/index.htm#science
    and is worth your time, if only to pick up some talking points. A major subtopic is that MANY factors combined to make our universe; change any one and we’re dead!

  29. ContraMundum says:

    I don’t think this discussion is likely to be profitable for anyone. You are not convincing, nor are you willing to be convinced. It’s likely we will just end up frustrated with each other.

    As a result, you don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want to. I’m not asking this to be obnoxious, it’s something I genuinely wonder about: How do you distinguish the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses from those of the Judaizers that St. Paul so often condemned? Earlier groups with similar beliefs, such as the Ebionites, resolved this problem by rejecting St. Paul and his epistles, but the JW do not do that.

    As long as we’re revealing backgrounds, I should admit that I am a physics professor at a small (~10,000 students) state university. Last semester I taught an astronomy class for current or future high school science teachers, and I gave them a semester-long project related to exobiology. Specifically, they had to find a space art picture of an exoplanet and use it as the basis for a plausible fictional life-bearing planet they would describe. They had to describe the place and history of the planet in its star system, the biochemistry and ecology of the life on that planet, and what would be necessary for the life to be detected. It was actually a lot of fun, it was thought-provoking, and it was something they could really use in a high-school setting.

    To get the flavor of what I was doing, here are some excerpts from a sample entry I gave students on a worksheet about the biology and ecology.

    T. Rex is one mean bacteria-like single-celled life form! It feeds by taking a “nip” out of the cell wall of other gaarubacteria (the main kingdom of life on Yum-yum) and digests their genetic information; at the same time, it inserts its own genetic code. This is how Tyrannococcus Rex reproduces.

    Like some terrestrial chemotrophs, Patatadulce Cazuela grows in great abundance near submarine hot springs, where it oxidizes iron(II) to iron(III), by which means it is able to drive its metabolism. When cellular division occurs, it splits into three pieces: two “nymph” gaarubacteria that only need to grow to resemble their parent, and one spore, which may drift hundreds of kilometers before settling near another hot spring and developing into a nymph.

  30. Doug says:

    ContraMundum asks: “How do you distinguish the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses from those of the Judaizers that St. Paul so often condemned?”
    Wow! That’s a new one to me. I wasn’t aware it was possible to match us up with Judaizing Christians. We don’t teach mandatory circumcision or any of the 600-some rituals of the Law. (You’ll know, of course, that Paul spent much time on the circumcision issue alone, even after the wide promulgation of the letter of Acts 15. “Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.”)
    We do baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”. We consider marriage to be ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’, and to be for life; divorce only possible in case of adultery. All these are found in OT, but that hardly makes us Judaizers.
    Our one direct tie to the Law is the observance of the memorial of Christ’s death, as mentioned earlier. Since Jesus and Paul tied this to the Jewish Passover- also an anniversary remembrance- we do ours once a year on the Passover as determined by lunar astronomy. That’s why we have it tomorrow, Thursday after sunset. (It’s 14 Nisan, the middle of the lunar month. The full moon is ‘Jehovah’s flashlight’ for the fleeing ‘great mixed company.) Due to varying methods of calculating the proper new moon our date usually differs from the Good Friday of Christendom, and may even differ from Passover dates set by modern rabbis. If this doesn’t answer your question then I misunderstood it.

    An interesting assignment for your students. You might tie in Job’s offhand, poetic description of our own ‘earth-like planet’s’ position in space: “He stretched out the north over the empty space, and hangs the earth upon nothing.” Job 26:7, Douay. Scientists who know of this are nonplussed, because Job is considered one of the oldest stories in the Bible- long before Newton or even the Greeks who knew the earth was round. As I often put it, “Job 26:7 shouldn’t be in the bible!”