The other night I went outside late with the dog, and while she was policing the area for errant squirrels or neighbors’ cats my eyes turned skyward. I saw an astonishing phenomenon: among the stars that usually fill the night sky there was one star that was glowing a brilliant orange. I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but each time I looked up, there was that orange star. I’d never seen this before, so I went indoors and googled “What’s the bright orange star up in the sky?”
The answer came; it is a star named Arcturus. I can usually pick out the planet Venus, which is often so bright that you can see it before nightfall, and I saw it almost immediately. I’m not good at defining the constellations, usually only finding Orion and Ursa Major, known commonly as The Big Dipper. I cannot name other constellations, planets or individual stars, which is why this new discovery caught my imagination. I learned from my brief research that when you see a star low above the horizon, you’re seeing it through a greater thickness of atmosphere than when it is shining high overhead. The atmosphere refracts or splits the star’s light to cause the star to shine in what appears to be various colors. There are three stars visible to us in the Northern Hemisphere that appear in color, but Arcturus is the only one I’ve seen.
Arcturus is much larger than the sun, but much farther away. The sun is 93 million miles from the earth; Arcturus is 37 light years away. A light year equals roughly 6 trillion miles, which would put Arcturus about 222 trillion miles from the earth. If NASA were to send me up there in the rockets we have available today, the journey there would take around 74 years. Assuming I arrived there, planted a flag and returned immediately, I’d be 215 years old upon my return. Arcturus should be visible in a clear sky for the entire month of October. To find it, first locate the Big Dipper. As you follow the Dipper’s curved handle, keep following it in a curve beyond the final star and you’ll find Arcturus in an almost straight line from there.
While walking back into the house, I thought I’d recite that little ditty, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…” but I had actually already seen many others. What came to mind instead was the second stanza of the hymn, “Let All Things Now Living.” It begins, “[God’s] law He enforces... the stars in their courses… the sun in its orbit… obediently shine.” What little I know of astronomy is that the heavenly bodies never veer from their courses, all is planned by God. Now and then a meteor might crash into a planet or moon, but otherwise there is perfect order in the Universe.
God’s imperfect Creation is Man. Yet He created a perfect place for Man to live, beginning in Eden. Our hope is for Heaven, which is also God’s perfect Creation, which thinking in an anthropocentric manner, we imagine as being up above the sky. This is no doubt based in the manner in which Saint Luke describes the Apostles experiencing Our Lord’s Ascension: “When [Jesus] had said this, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as He was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen Him going into heaven.’” (Acts, 1:10-11)
Heaven is mentioned only briefly in both the Creed (“Creator of heaven and earth”) and the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father who art in heaven.") Heaven is described nearly as briefly in the Catechism as “a communion of life and love with the Holy Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the Blessed. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.” As Saint Ambrose wrote, “Life is to be with Christ; where Christ is, there is life, there is the Kingdom.” Something to keep in mind when stargazing… all the while hoping for eternal life.