Upward and Outward


Astronomy and the Vatican

By Guy Consolmagno, S.J.

Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2009

232 pages, $39.95

To order: osv.com

(800) 348-2440


For the International Year of Astronomy, Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory has compiled The Heavens Proclaim, an extraordinary coffee-table book. Loaded with stunning images, this volume combines a fascinating history of the observatory with the latest science about our universe.

The Heavens Proclaim opens with a spectacular photo collection of a solar eclipse, a cluster of galaxies, a spiral galaxy, the colorful Helix Nebula and more. These astonishing images complement the inspiring scriptural meditations that set the tone of the book. As a Jesuit priest friend of mine says, “If more people would spend time gazing into the vast expanse of space, there would be fewer atheists.” Looking at these remarkable images, it is easy to see why someone would spend a lifetime studying the stars and galaxies.

Organized by seven major categories — including “Stars and Galaxies,” “Seeing Stars,” “Pondering Stars” and “A Star’s Companions” — each subject has one or more topics. These topics are written by an impressive array of experts: a mathematician, a physicist, a specialist in celestial mechanics, an expert in galaxy morphology and many more. Do not be intimidated. The articles are written for the layperson with the technical lingo kept to a minimum, while still explaining the intricacies and depth of the topics.

The topics covered are wide and varied: astronomy, calendars and religion, stars and the Milky Way and meteorites. Brother Consolmagno does not shy away from controversial topics such as Galileo, the Big Bang and whether astronomy comes into conflict with Scripture.

One section answers typical questions about the Vatican Observatory. In answer to “What is the mission statement for the Vatican Observatory?” part of the response includes: “Pope John XXIII once said that our mission should be that of explaining the Church to astronomers and astronomy to the Church. We are like a bridge, a small bridge, between the world of science and the Church. … Thus, the observatory has this mission: to be on the frontier between the world of science and the world of faith, to give testimony that it is possible to believe in God and to be good scientists.”

This book will lead to a greater desire to observe the night sky because the heavens do proclaim the glory of God.

Elizabeth Yank writes from South Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Shedding Light on the Mysteries


by Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.

St. Paul’s/Alba House, 2009

97 pages, $39.95

To order: albahouse.org

(800) 343-2522


Romano Guardini wrote in his book The Rosary of Our Lady that we all need a “place of holy tranquility,” and he added, “We are always in need of this place, especially when the convulsions of the times make clear something that has always existed, but which is sometimes hidden by outward well-being and a prevailing peace of mind: namely, the homelessness of our lives.”

The Rosary, he explains, is that place where we can “find the core of things.”

Father Benedict Ashley’s new book on the Luminous Mysteries explains how these “new” mysteries, just as the old, get to the core of things — and does so with much wisdom, sound biblical scholarship and clear exposition of the documents of Vatican II. His book is less devotional in nature than Guardini’s; he discusses the Luminous Mysteries in a more theological way, explaining what we know from the Bible and Vatican II about them and reassuring those who are more traditional that although the Rosary and the way Mass is done have changed over the years in response to changing times, they are still the same.

For instance, he points out that when the practice of the Rosary became widespread in the 15th century, there was no “fixed list of mysteries.”

And Father Ashley, especially when writing about the Fifth Luminous Mystery, the institution of the Eucharist, spends much space addressing the concerns of traditionalists and does so in a balanced but firm way, neither denying abuses nor jettisoning Vatican II.

“While it is certainly reasonable to criticize the details of how this simplification [of the Mass] has in fact been done in the present missal,” he writes, “the principles stated by the council were certainly sound.”

But he does address the reader’s devotional concerns: “ … the Dark Nights of the Soul and of the Spirit may sometimes overshadow us as we regularly say the Rosary meditatively. Sometimes we are spiritually ‘dry’ and it seems that we are just routinely fingering the beads, and sometimes doubts and temptations against faith may be raised by the mysteriousness of the mysteries. This must not discourage us or lead us to give up Rosary meditation, but should encourage us as a sign that we are making progress but must try harder. Mountain climbers know that the way does not get easier as you get nearer the top but seemingly harder.”

Though Father Ashley sometimes writes in long and awkwardly phrased sentences which cause one to read them over just to get the gist, these are minor complaints.

For those who were disturbed when John Paul II introduced these new mysteries and have never taken to saying the Luminous Mysteries on Thursdays, Meditations on the Mysteries of Light in the Rosary might convince them to give them another try, in order to ponder with Mary these things in their hearts and to keep dwelling in the place where they can find the “core of things.”

Franklin Freeman writes

from Saco, Maine.

Alcohol, Mercy, Perseverance


A Story of an American Monk

By Mark Delery, OCSO

Christendom Press, 2008

36 pages, $8.50

To order: christendompress.com

(800) 621-2736


Tom Whalen was a drunk. As Alcoholics Anonymous reminds its members, you will not overcome the bottle without a Power greater than your own. Whalen believed that. He seized God’s mercy and held it tight. God does not disappoint.

Born in 1911, Whalen started drinking as a teenager. He was a “hobo,” spent time on a Southern chain gang and avoided dishonorable discharge from the Army after World War II by the skin of his teeth.

By the grace of God, he managed to turn his life around, kick the bottle and, in 1952, was admitted to a Cistercian monastery. At first, his vocation grew.

But the constancy of divine grace requires our constant cooperation. It was, I think, the Orthodox thinker Theophan the Recluse who suggested that God is like an alarm clock, but the best buzzer cannot replace one’s own decision to get out of bed. By the early 1960s, Whalen had fallen off the wagon. His downward spiral led to flights away from confreres and friends in pursuit of an open bar or bottle. By 1964, Rome granted him an indult of secularization.

Layman Whalen was buffeted from one odd job to another, mostly in the Worcester, Mass., area. He did a stint as an assistant cook in a friary in Puerto Rico, where he discovered the regular cook was also an alcoholic. On his return, his old confreres agreed to pick him up at the airport — and then literally had to pick him up off a bathroom floor after an elaborate scheme at a local restaurant where the waitress kept covertly supplying him with drinks. Eventually, he got menial work at a local factory where, one day, he lost sight in one eye and was put on permanent disability.

Amid all these trials, Whalen never gave up on God, his spiritual practices or his former community. And that perseverance paid off. “Over the next two years, he received the grace to give up alcohol. Before our very eyes, against that background of all his previous failures, we monks saw the workings of pure grace. Feeling somewhat like Simeon in the Gospels, we could declare the truth of the words in the canticle we chant at the close of each day, ‘My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.’ Because of what they had seen happening in Tom’s life, his request for readmission [to the abbey] received unanimous approval by the professed monks of the monastery.” In 1977, Whalen again re-entered the Cistercians, made his solemn profession in 1979, and served as a faithful monk until his death in 1988.

Jonathan Swift once told the story of a servant who did not want to bother washing his boots because they would only get dirty again. If we all applied that philosophy, life would be pretty grungy. Tom Whalen got pretty dirty in life — but he kept getting up to wash in Divine Mercy. Although this booklet would benefit from more detail, especially about Brother Tom’s second return to the monastery, it recounts a great story of struggle and conversion. That story should inspire us all.

John M. Grondelski writes

from Bern, Switzerland.