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My father and the Father of space and time

Father and son enjoy a sunset together

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John Burger - published on 02/13/23

Not every truth of the faith has to be learned in Sunday school.

[Note: An Aleteia editor came across this article about learning to parent from our parents, and started to muse about how we learn to believe, often, from our parents. The Pope likes to talk about how his grandmother was instrumental in his faith. So over the next few days, the Aleteia staff is sharing an anecdote about our believing and our parents’ role in it. We hope you enjoy them! Here’s the first, from John Burger.]

There’s lots of time and space in which to ruminate when one is walking one’s dog at night. Sometimes, as I take him down our dark rural road, an old Appalachian Christmas carol comes to mind. 

“I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die…”

Often, the sky is full of stars, with the lights of jets speeding northward. Depending on my current nostalgia level, the reverie might take me back to the evening walks I took with my father when I was a kid. After dinner, we set out to the nearby Twin Lakes park, following a well-worn path encircling the two-conjoined lakes. We passed by benches and tufts of cattails. A French Gothic-style high school predominated the scene, behind which a sunset might fill the sky with shades of red, orange, or pink. 

How the conversation came up, I’m not sure now, some 50 years later. It was a time when it was natural to think about the sky and what lay beyond. Apollo missions were reaching the moon and sending back images of our “blue marble” hanging in black space. Moviegoers tried to figure out the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and David Bowie sang about Major Tom. A new jumbo jet known as the 747 was beginning to ferry many more people across oceans than ever before. All these years later, a child’s wonder and awe remains with me: that a huge machine could break the bonds of gravity and go into space – whether it was a quarter of a million miles to the moon or merely 35,000 feet above earth’s surface – and be in a completely different place in comparatively-speaking “no time.” 

So Dad and I were thinking of space – outer space, mostly. And whether it was his imagination or mine that started it, I’m not sure. But the question was raised: What if you could keep going, well beyond Neil Armstrong, into the deepest recesses of outer space. What would you encounter? Would there be an end at some point?

Well, Dad reasoned, if there was an end – a wall, perhaps – you’d have to wonder, What would be on the other side of that wall?

That question has stuck with me all these years. It’s mind-blowing if you think about it for too long: Is there an end to the universe? If so, what is beyond the end? 

And one can just as easily apply the question to time: Was there a beginning? If so, what was before that? Is there an end? If so, what comes after?

Dad was not alone. A few years later, one of my religion teachers in Catholic grade school contemplated the question about eternity. “If you really think about it, it’ll blow your mind.” 

His 1960s parlance brought us back down to earth a bit.

But both questions lead to an even more basic one: Where did all of this come from? Is it even possible to speak of creation, when reality already existed and always will? 

Our finite minds are so fragile that they really can be blown. I’ve gone to the edge of contemplating these questions and stepped back when I felt like something was about to snap, that the circuits were working so hard that a conflagration could easily erupt in my brain, that I could actually go crazy thinking about it. 

But I need not go too far into that space, I need not name the frightful reality, to know in my heart that God does exist. 

Not far from those Twin Lakes we walked around, enjoying the beauty of creation, stood the halls of a Catholic college where my father had received a good education in Thomistic philosophy. Perhaps our little discussion that evening was meant to introduce me to the idea of God as the First Cause – the uncreated Creator. 

It remains a source of contemplation and wonder.

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