The Grand Tour

If you have been following this journey of mine at all you know it started with a few short loop trips and then culminated in a coast-to-coast-and-top-to-bottom train trip that I refer to as the Grand Tour. You may have seen my map, my photo dumps, and other summary material by now. I’d like to tell you how it came together, more or less.

Y’all ready for this? Um, no.

One of the odd things to me about the Grand Tour is how elusive it was, how resistant to prediction and preparation. Now, if you have read any of this blog, you know that exact preparation is not really my strong suit any way, but I am capable of it from time to time. But the Grand Tour defied my best efforts in many regards. In the months leading up to my sabbatical I had to come up with enough of a plan to secure approval from the session (the congregation’s ruling board) and the presbytery (regional governing body), as well as procuring funding. In this I was successful, plotting the many observatories I wanted to visit, considering location, historical significance, scientific significance, and diversity of electromagnetic wavelengths being studied, as well as several Christian retreat centers adjacent to some of the scientific sites. I was able to imagine well enough a tour where I could travel by train to these various sites in windows that would allow me to catch their often very limited public tours. In fact, I had more than one plan for reaching most of my desired destinations. Further, I was able to construct a reasonable budget for the whole business. I put together a package comprehensive enough that it won the necessary approvals and members of the church made offerings of about 160% of my budget! So I can plan stuff, see.

Nevertheless, whenever I tried to get more specific about the tour, to really nail down where I was going to be when, the complexity of it was overwhelming. Perhaps it’s just the way my mind and spirit work, but I couldn’t for the life of me get the thing to settle down to a single equilibrium state, as it were. So, while I continued trying to do, other milestones started popping up, and I just had to roll with it. The last session meeting before sabbatical came, and no Grand Tour plan. Sabbatical began, and no Grand Tour plan. The Green Bank Star Quest came, and no Grand Tour plan. So I went on that first leg, knowing I still had time. Then I went on the second leg to NY-MA-NJ, knowing there was still time.

Here, let’s pick up from my journal entry for August 4, 2018, which begins with a description of my trip to the Allegheny Observatory and visit with my dad for his birthday at the end of July. Let’s listen in…


Had started arranging the Grand Tour earlier that week [July 23 or so], including a retreat at the Siena Center in Racine, WI, for Aug. 5-11 and the night program at Yerkes Observatory on Aug. 13 – looking through the 40″ Clark refractor. Got home Monday [July 30] and Molly said, when is your retreat? I said August 5. “Oh, Sunday,” she said. “What? No!” I said. “Oh yes, Sunday is August 5,” she said. “#@¶*!,” I said. As things had started to come together, you see, they had changed from “go to Yerkes and come home” to “go to Yerkes and keep going!” That meant I had 4 days to get ready for a six-week trip!

This is madness! This. Is. SABBATICAL!! (Kicks your settled ass down the pit.)

So here I am on a train to Chicago!


On the Capital Limited from Harpers Ferry to Chicago. In coach.

Pilgrimage is like that

And so it went. Chicago was the hub before getting to Racine for a week’s retreat. After the retreat, I spent another several days in Racine, much of which was spent making travel arrangements to get to New Orleans, get a place to stay, get a car, etc. While I was in New Orleans, I spent a lot of time arranging my travel to Arizona. While I was in Arizona I planned my trip to L.A., and while in L.A. I planned my travel to New Mexico. It was madness in some ways, and it took a lot of time and energy that I would have expected to be spending on reading the writings of the mystics and such, or praying, or seeing the less geeky sites, or just resting, or what have you. I do regret that a bit. But the funny thing is that everything fell into place just when it needed to. Particularly, I found nice places to stay at reasonable prices in usually expensive markets and in interesting residential, non-touristy neighborhoods. I had plenty of time for my observatory tours and got to most of the ones I wanted to see. I was able to stay pretty close to my budget. The other funny thing is how ironic it is that I had to do so very much planning the whole time when I always insist that I am no good at details and planning and that sort of thing. I don’t know, is that ironic or just a life lesson?

Let me wrap this up with some more from my journal from later that same day. Having reflected on my experiences and lack thereof in prayer during the sabbatical so far, I went on to record…

… So I prayed before bed Thursday night [8/2]. Again, [as during prayer at Miller Chapel in Princeton,] gratitude upon gratitude! Awareness of the rarity of this opportunity and experience, and its sacredness. I prayed, thankful for the privilege (with all that word carries these days); for protection for me and my family while we are apart; for providence while I’m on the road, that things will continue to fall into place; and for a pilgrim’s heart – that I not fall prey to tourism, but make this a truly sacred journey for the glory of God. This last became a powerful theme and led me at last to pray for great peace of heart, that I may be open to all who are around me and to opportunities to glorify God at every turn.

Last night I prayed with Molly before bed, and prayed much the same way. I feel like it really helped me in reframing this departure. I am a pilgrim now.

At the same time, I will be away from home for longer than I ever have been. I’lll be away from Molly for longer than I ever have been. I’d be lying if I said I’m not anxious about that. But why? Not any fear about our relationship. Just being away from home and heart for so long. Having things so unsettled for so long. Being out with strangers in strange lands for so long.

But then, isn’t that exactly what pilgrimage is about? Perhaps facing this, more than all else, is a lesson worth carrying back to the Church. Well, let’s maybe see how it turns out before we write that sermon, but yeah, keep it in the hopper for sure.

I did preach that when I got back. Might be time to revisit that theme of leaving the comfort of home for the wilds of the next destination where God is leading us. If for no other reason than I need to remind myself how good that can be.

Enjoy the ride.

Observatory 4 – Allegheny

To begin with, here is the link to my pictures from the Allegheny Observatory over at the Googles, taken on my trip there Friday, July 27, 2018. There is some commentary there that will likely overlap with this entry, the core of which was itself written on August 4, 2018, on the train to Chicago at the beginning of the Grand Tour. Here we go.


It has been a wild week or two. I went to Pittsburgh last week for Dad’s birthday and went with Meredith to the Allegheny Observatory. That all came together suddenly, of course. I arranged to go to a Pirates (baseball) game with Dad and Meredith, and in communicating that to Dad, he sent me a note reminding me about the tour schedule at the observatory – Thursdays and Fridays only. Well, the ballgame was on Saturday, so…. I called and left a message Thursday hoping for room in the Friday tour. How popular can this be? I thought to myself.

An Unexpected Journey

Went hiking with Ken K. in Harpers Ferry on Friday morning and heard from the observatory at 1:30 that there was no room on the tour that night. Huh. Not expecting that, but oh, well, okay. I lallygagged around the house a bit, thinking there was no urgency to get to the Burgh. Then I got a call from the observatory at 4:30 that there was a cancellation, and they had spaces available at 8:00! Well, it’s a four hour drive, but yes, of course I’ll take 2 please!

I threw myself and my stuff in the car and drove like crazy to get there. I called M. to have her meet me there. When I hit the turnpike I realized I didn’t really know where I was going. This will end up being a recurring theme, as I had the same problem finding the Holmdel Horn, you may recall. I didn’t have an active smartphone, just my flippy, and I didn’t even have a GPS box in the car. Turns out I didn’t have a PA map in the car, either, let alone a Pittsburgh map. So I stopped at one of the rest areas along the way and set about to buy a map. By the time I found one, about 6 or 8 people had lined up at the counter ahead of me. Ugh! I don’t have time for this! So I opened the map and took a couple pictures of the area around the Allegheny Observatory, and hit the road. Not really proud of that, but it got me there. Except for the part where I missed a turn and ended up going over the Fort Pitt Bridge and through the tunnels toward the airport instead toward the Northside. A little looping around, back across the Westend Bridge, and I was back on track with minimal panic. I arrived about 8:20 p.m., so Whoohoo! Don’t do the math; I was driving fast. Even so, I missed all the introductory lecture and history. The group was just starting on the tour of the building, and M. saw me at the door and let me in.

The Observatory

The large dome of the Allegheny Observatory in sunset and clouds.

The building is a mix of Art Deco, Greek revival, and 20th century scientific lab. We saw some of the museum pieces and labs and such before seeing the two big refractors, which were both very cool: the 30-inch Thaw refractor, which is f/18.8 with a 47-foot long optical tube (!) having been designed and built by Brashear Optical in 1912 (according to the website), and the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor. This latter was originally designed and built by Henry Fitz Optical of New York in the 1860s. There is a fascinating story of how the objective lens was stolen and held for ransom, but the director wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. It was eventually returned, but it was ruined in the process. The observatory hired Alvan Clark to refigure it, which he did, making it a greatly improved instrument. Hence, it is the Fitz-Clark. The tour was quite interesting. Our docent was knowledgeable, having worked or volunteered at the observatory for something like 25 years. He did have an odd verbal tic of sighing dejectedly in the middle of most of his sentences, but otherwise, he was quite good. We got to see how the Thaw scope slews and how the floor is actually an elevator to line you up with the instrument so as to avoid ladders and falls and broken bones. This was fascinating and some brilliant engineering, considering everything was designed to be run without electricity!

The Observing

We got to take turns looking through the Fitz-Clark at Jupiter, as Jupiter was the only thing peeking through the clouds. [Clouds will also become a recurring theme.] Beautiful view, nevertheless. Some detail on the disk, and Ganymede was just on the limb about to disappear. There were about 40 people on the tour, so there wasn’t much chance to hog the scope, unfortunately. Any way, it was very fun to be there with Meredith, and she enjoyed it, too.

My sketch, ex post facto, of Jupiter and Ganymede as seen through the Fitz-Clark refractor.

Epilogue

Just a couple weeks ago Jacob and I watched a documentary about the Allegheny Observatory and some of its key figures on Netf… a movie streaming service. It’s called Undaunted: Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory. It was fascinating! It made up much of the knowledge I might have gained in the lecture if I had lived an hour closer to Pittsburgh, or if I had better planning skills.

Pictures from My Siena Retreat

I have so much to write about, and I’m so far behind! I hope you took opportunity to look at the pictures at the links I posted last time. I hope you enjoyed doing that, because I’m sending you another set the same way.  But not at the same place.

I got a new phone for the Grand Tour. A smart phone. My first smart phone. Yes, I know, but my old flippy was just fine and no one ever tried to hack it, I’m pretty sure. Any way, the new phone is also my new camera, of course. And in a major breach of Douthett etiquette, it’s not an iPhone but an Android-running Samsung thing. It cost about a third of what an iPhone would have been, so I got it. Fine, I’m cheap. I can live with that. But I digress. Any way, since it’s an Android, it syncs with Google Photos, so that’s where my pics are going at this point.

After a stupidly long train trip from Harpers Ferry to Chicago (6.5 hours late arriving) and another hour train from Chicago to Sturtevant, WI, I arrived at the >Siena Retreat Center< on Sunday, August 5. Siena is a ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Racine, and it’s a really lovely facility. There is still a convent there with a fairly small group of sisters who are faithfully living out their vows and their mission of praise, blessing, and preaching. I chose Siena fairly early in my planning process for the Grand Tour, as it is only an hour from Yerkes Observatory, and it looked like a beautiful site right on Lake Michigan with some interesting retreat offerings. These observations turned out to be accurate. It’s a beautiful place, a lovely setting, and I chose an interesting and challenging retreat.

The retreat I signed up for was about the only one I could fit into any plan for the Grand Tour that was open to men and Protestants. It also intrigued me. “Painting and Praying with Icons: Our Lady of the Sign” is what I selected. I remember when I was in seminary and we studied the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1050 AD, which in no small part focused on the proper use or lack thereof of icons. It was the culmination of what I remember being called the iconoclast controversy. I sided with the iconoclasts, the side that believed icons were a violation of the second commandment. As with many things, I have mellowed on this issue a good bit. Nevertheless, the idea of actually painting (or “writing” as it is said) an icon and praying with it was definitely going to be a stretch! Spoiler, I did paint/write my icon, but its future in my prayer regimen remains in question.

So I have a collection of pictures from the retreat that are primarily showing the progression, step by step of my icon writing. It is a fascinating process, but a bit grueling for beginners to fit in a week. I expected that it would almost a paint by numbers process, and that there would be vary little room for variation from the proscribed structure of the icon. At our level of competence any way, this turned out not to be the case. While all (there were 17 of us in the retreat) of our icons are essentially the same, they are also wildly diverse in their style and detail. This is due to different levels of skill and experience in part, as some of us had never really done any painting before and some were 30-year art teachers. But it also was a product of choice and preference, and maybe also theological emphasis. Any way, in the end, the icons were as unique as the people in the room. I think this was a delightful outcome for our group and is also generally acceptable at the casual iconography level. If we were doing icons for a church installation, I think the rules are more rigid.

Let me say just a word more about the group. It was predominantly women and predominantly Catholic, but there were a few Protestants and a few men. Well, about three of each out of 17. Still. Quite a few of the women were sisters/religious, but only a couple were from Siena. One of the Protestant women was a pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Despite being in the minority in religious tradition, gender, and geography, I felt very much included in the group as a rule. Indeed, the group seemed to gel really well, being very supportive of one another and enjoying one another’s company. You know how in groups like this there is often that one person who is a thorn in the flesh? Well, unless it was me and I didn’t realize it, that thorn was not present.

Now, I did feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land in as much as many of the participants knew each other or knew the same people and places. Perhaps more than that were the distinct theological difference of belief and experience between Catholics and Presbyterians. The icon was of Mary and Jesus (more on that later), and my relationship with Mary is pretty academic. Meanwhile, for most of the Catholic folks, Mary is a present and active player in their daily life. For example, when we were finishing up, some of the women were complimenting my icon, and when I said I had never really painted before they were all the more impressed. One said, “She was really working through you, you can tell that!” I was caught completely off guard by this and had to spend quite a few moments figuring out who “she” was that was working. Of course it was Mary, but it never crossed my mind that Mary was as much author of my icon as its subject.

Okay, well, let’s get to the pictures. The link below will take you to an album full with some additional commentary on the process and the meaning of the icon itself, so I encourage you to go have a look. I say more about him in the album, but our instructor was Drazen Dupor from Croatia, and his website is >here<. Enjoyed getting to know him a bit.

Alright, alright. Enough talk. Let’s look at some >Platytera pictures<. There are a lot of near-duplicates, and some differences from one step to the next are pretty subtle, so you’ll have to pay attention. I’ll be glad to take your questions when you’re done.

And tomorrow, it’s on to the Yerkes Observatory, home of the largest refracting telescope in the world.

The Journey Begins

post

Thanks for joining me!

“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.” — Izaak Walton

The above was actually a default starter post, but I’m using it anyway, because I like the picture and I like the quote. 

Welcome to “A Pilgrim of Earth and Heavens!” I’m going to attempt to journal my 2018 sabbatical and probably other things along the way. My sabbatical will be a pilgrimage of sorts. If you know me, you know I am a Presbyterian pastor serving the Catoctin Presbyterian Church in Waterford, Virginia, and an amateur astronomer who loves spending time under a clear night sky. After fourteen years at CPC, I’m on my second sabbatical, which runs from July 2 – October 8, 2018. (You can find accounts of my 2010 sabbatical here.) When I was starting to plan this time, many of my colleagues had been going to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, and several encouraged me to do the same. I thought, “Meh. Not really my thing.” Then a friend suggested that I should do an astronomical pilgrimage instead. Ah! Now that’s something I could get behind!

So this sabbatical will be a pilgrimage to many of the great observatories in the United States, mixed in with periods of reflection at Christian retreat centers. The observatories will include very old and very new, small and large, and covering wide bits of the electromagnetic spectrum. Because I find a sense of awe in my study and practice of astronomy that leads me to worship God, awe will be a recurring theme, as I will be reading some writings of Christian mystics or other spiritual writers. I also hope to interview people working in astronomy and other fellow travelers I may meet to ask them about how they experience awe and wonder in their life and work. I hope that part will be as interesting as I imagine it.

You are welcome to join me on the journey through my writings here. Some of the posts will be about my own astronomical observing. Some will be theological reflections. Some will be accounts of travel or encounters with humans. Whatever it is, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.