That Dialogue on Opposing World Systems

Galileo, Copernicus
Galileo and Copernicus    (Gilgub/Flickr)

The title “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” certainly sounds like a heavy topic. It was heavy in 1632 when Galileo published it. The two systems were the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories of cosmology. It is less controversial and easier to understand today.

Ptolemy, following the tradition of Aristotle, believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything — Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — revolved around it.

Copernicus, on the other hand, posited that the Sun is the center of the universe, and though we seem to be standing still, we are in fact hurtling through space as we circle the star.

I used to have a quotation in my middle school classroom for my students that said “You are not the center of the universe” – Copernicus. Nicholas didn’t say exactly that quote, and he wasn’t specifically referencing my young teen students, but it was a good point-of-departure quote for discussion.

Galileo had spoken with Pope Urban VIII earlier and discussed his tide theory as proof that the Earth moved through space – not that the Sun was the center of the universe. The Pope granted him permission to write “Dialogue on the Tides” but that the Copernican theory should be treated as hypothetical in the book. Wisely, Galileo wrote the book as a series of discussions between two philosophers. One believed in Copernicus, one believed in Ptolemy, and a neutral but well-educated layman served as a moderator. That got it past the Catholic censors.

But Galileo was Copernican all the way and the popular book did not please Pope Urban VIII who had Galileo tried by the Inquisition. They ruled that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” and too close to endorsing Copernican theory and the book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Galileo was ordered to recant and recite weekly psalms of penitence. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and none of his later books were permitted to be published in his lifetime.

The Dialogue on Opposing World Systems remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1835. Change is slow in religion – but not in science.

Further Reading

The Essential Galileo

Being a Pilgrim

pilgrim on road
Image by Jose Antonio Alba

For most of my youth, if I heard the word “pilgrim” I thought of those English settlers we studied in school who came on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth Colony and had the first Thanksgiving. But a pilgrim had long before that been a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.

Coming from the Latin peregrinus, it meant a traveler (one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. The person wasn’t necessarily holy. The place was holy. Traditionally, this was a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the person or a particular religious belief system.

In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage became broader and sometimes figurative. It could refer to the experience of life in the world. It sometimes meant a period of exile or isolation. It could even be an inner journey from non-belief to beatitude.

Many religions still espouse pilgrimage as a spiritual activity. Hajj, the great Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (now in Saudi Arabia), is an obligatory duty at least once for every Muslim who is able to make the journey.

As in the Middle Ages, modern Christian pilgrims might go to Rome, where according to the New Testament the church was established by St. Peter, or sites in the Holy Land connected with the life of Christ (such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Sea of Galilee).

Places associated with saints, visions, and miracles, such as Lourdes, Santiago of Compostela, Canterbury, and Fatima, also get pilgrims.

I haven’t been on any pilgrimages associated with any religions. When I was in Kentucky I did go to the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton lived. His book, The Seven Storey Mountain, had meant a lot to me when I was in college. Nothing was open to the public that day – which I suppose is a kind of message from the universe. (I also love that their website is But it was Merton and not the place or their beliefs that made me want to go there.

In the summer between high school and college, I took a road trip north in search of something and one of my stops was that Plymouth of the Pilgrims.

Pre-pandemic we went on what my wife called the “dead writers road trip” as we made our way to visit friends in Maine. We went to Walden Pond and visited places where Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Herman Melville had lived. As with Merton, it was the people that drew me to those places, but I did feel something in being in the place. I can’t really describe what I felt looking at Melville’s desk and his window view of hills like a whale and Emerson’s bookcase and the Alcott girls’ writing and pictures on their bedroom walls or in walking into the “House of the Seven Gables.” Did I feel connected to those people, to the past, or to their writing and the images contained therein?

I studied for a time as a Zen monastery but the place did not feel “holy.” A pilgrimage in the Buddhist world might be to the historical Buddha’s birthplace and childhood home (Lumbini and Kapilavastu in Nepal), place of enlightenment (Bodh Gaya in northern India), and the place of his death in Kushinagar, India.

What do pilgrims hope to find or experience in these places? Does being in a holy place make you feel holy yourself? There is no reason why it should make you feel holier than before you arrived. I have seen the maxim that “life is a journey, not a destination” attributed to several people, generally Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it seems mostly true. The journey is surely where change occurs, but for pilgrims reaching the destination is an essential goal.

For much of my life, being out in Nature has felt like a sacred place. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Henry David Thoreau. I’ve seen that misquoted as “In wilderness” which seems like almost the same thing, but it’s not.

I don’t need a huge wilderness to feel that sacredness. That is something that immediately appealed to me about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when it came out in 1974. Her nonfiction narrative was based on her journal writing about the little part of the natural world near her home in Roanoke, Virginia. The book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Dillard was 29 years old. It is still one of my favorite books.

I wrote another essay here about the word “anchorite” and the ideas expressed in the opening of that book. “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

Annie Dillard wrote about what she saw in her walks she saw. Obviously, that included animals, birds, and plants, but her observations also led to reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she had twenty volumes of journals.

My own little plot of land is 157 acres between two suburban communities and its edge is a twenty-minute walk from my house. It’s no virgin woods. Parts of it were once occupied and there are always walkers, runners, and cyclists somewhere on a trail. But I know the hidden, tangled places where people don’t seem to go. I know the several unnamed creeks that flow through it and eventually enter a manmade reservoir nearby. I have planted young trees in some places where others have fallen and have watched them over four decades grow. There are some large glacial erratic boulders that I like to sit on and have a drink or snack.

The place feels old. Ancient. I have no holy or religious associations with these woods, but I feel more connected to the universe here. The word “spiritual” seems too weak but I don’t know the word that defines it.

In Dillard’s small book, Holy the Firm, she writes about two years spent on an island in Puget Sound. Like a monk in her cell, she had a solitary window. Her company was a cat and a spider. The book is only 66 pages long but took her 14 months to write. It’s spare, which is fitting for a pilgrim who is asking herself big questions about memory, time, sacrifice, reality, death, and God.

One piece of writing advice she has given:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I don’t want to open my safe and find ashes.

Those Pilgrims we studied in school had leaders from religious congregations of Brownists (Separatist Puritans) who had fled religious persecution in England for the tolerance of 17th-century Holland. They weren’t that different from Puritan Calvinists, but they believed their congregations should separate from the English state church.

I have felt like a pilgrim for many years. My friend, Scott, says we are both seekers. I suppose I am also a separatist, though I’m not in any literal exile. I feel quite exiled from any organized religion. This past pandemic year I feel exiled from people and most of the world. My pilgrimages have been nearby and internal. I’m reaching for connection with what I call the universe. I’m no Dillard, so I can’t really describe it. Maybe that indescribability is what is most appealing.

Good Friday

rose window
The Rose Window at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, NJ by greeneydmantis, on Flickr

As a young Catholic boy, I didn’t understand the “Good” in “Good Friday.” It’s a religious holiday observed primarily by Christians commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his death at Calvary. How is that good?

The usage of  “good” is from the now obsolete sense of it meaning pious or holy. (Interestingly, the Old English version of good is gōd.) Today is also known as Holy Friday or Great Friday and is observed during Holy Week as part of the Paschal Triduum on the Friday preceding Easter Sunday, and may coincide (as it does this year) with the Jewish observance of Passover.

The Good Friday I remember most vividly was when I was ten years old. I had to go to a service on that day after school. It was a cold, rainy day. I was bored with the service (in that time, much of it was in Latin) but at about midway through the service thunder and lighting started outside. The lightning lit up the deep colors of the large stained glass window behind the altar.  Jesus on the cross lit up. The heavens boomed. It was dramatic, like a movie. It seemed like more than a coincidence to me. I paid attention.

The Catholic Church – and my mom – treated Good Friday as a fast day. Maybe my blood sugar was low. There is no celebration of Mass between the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening and the Easter Vigil and no celebration of the Eucharist. During this period crosses, candlesticks, and altar cloths are removed from the altar which remains completely bare. They emptied the holy water fonts in preparation for the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil. Traditionally, no bells are rung on Good Friday or Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil.
The vestments used on Good Friday were black back then.

It’s probably not a fair criticism, but going to church as a kid was never well staged for me. I liked the ritual but I wanted better lighting and better speakers and speeches. That aspect actually became less and less and mass seemed to me to be like going to a meeting. I’m surprised that PowerPoint didn’t become part of it.

I occupied myself by reading the book of Gospels during mass and trying to find poetry in the hymnal.

Eventually, I started bringing novels to church. I have a strong memory of reading The Grapes of Wrath in church and it seemed so much more relevant than what was going on around me. That novel has a number of Bible references and the main metaphor, the “grapes of wrath,” is a reference to Revelations and not a real upbeat message. “The cup of iniquity is full, the grapes of wrath are ripe, and now God crushes them in awesome judgment. Those who have rejected His grace feel the terror of His wrath.”

Historians who look at the details of the Canonical gospels say the Crucifixion of Jesus was most probably on a Friday (John 19:42). They estimate the year of Good Friday as AD 33. It is AD 34 according to Isaac Newton who used the differences between the Biblical and Julian calendars and the crescent of the moon to make a calculation. Another astronomical approach is based on a lunar Crucifixion darkness and eclipse model (see the Apostle Peter’s reference to a “moon of blood” in Acts 2:20) points to Friday, 3 April AD 33.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Archangel Gabriel
Statue of Archangel Gabriel (15th century), on a pillar of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

Yesterday, I wrote about meeting the Devil at the crossroads, so I thought I should counter that today with something about a tutelary. That’s a word that may not be familiar. It means a deity or spirit who is a guardian, patron, or protector of a particular place, person, nation, culture, or occupation.

In late Greek and Roman religion, there is a tutelary deity called the genius who functions as the personal deity or daimon of an individual from birth to death. More familiar is a personal tutelary spirit from European folklore – an angel.

Many people associate angels with religion but the word “angel” comes from the Greek angelos, which means “messenger.”

In Christianity, it is said that “angel” refers to their mission, not to their nature. They are personal, immortal, non-corporeal spirits with intelligence and will and entirely other.

As a child, I thought that when you died you could become an angel. A priest told me that was not possible but in heaven, I would be equal to the angels. I was also told that I had my own Guardian Angel.

A guardian angel is assigned to protect and guide a particular person, though it could also be assigned to a group or even a nation. For example, Portugal has a Guardian Angel.

Tutelary beings run all through antiquity and angels played a major role in Ancient Judaism, but in Christianity, a hierarchy of angels was developed in the fifth century.

An angel of high rank is an archangel from the Greek roots meaning “chief angel.”

The Archangel Raphael protects healers and helps with the healing of bodies, hearts, and minds.

The Archangel Michael is the leader of all angels and his main purpose is to rid the earth and its people of all toxins associated with fear. He actually is supposed to work with humans, called lightworkers, who can also perform healing. Michael carries a dazzling sword and in modern times has somehow also become associated with fixing electronic devices.

My mother really liked Archangel Gabriel. Maybe it was because Gabriel is often portrayed as feminine and she brought Jesus to Mary and now Gabriel guides parents from conception onward.

There are some angelic inconsistencies. They are typically depicted as masculine but in Christianity, they are supposed to be without gender, and in the Quran, God rejects feminine depictions of angels. It also didn’t seem right when I was told that a non-Christian can’t have a guardian angel.

Abrahamic religions often depict angels as intermediaries between God or Heaven and humanity. I was comforted as a child by the thought of something powerful protecting me. My mother put a guardian angel statue over my bed. It looked like most angels in artwork that look like quite attractive humans and have wings, halos, and are bathed in a divine light. (My little statue glowed in the dark!)

Yesterday I referenced the Devil and many Christians believe the Devil was once a beautiful angel named Lucifer who defied God and fell from grace. Some biblical scholars say that Lucifer isn’t a proper name but a descriptive phrase meaning “morning star” the Devil is often referred to as Lucifer.

I was confused when I met up with Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who earned his wings when he helped George realize that life was worth living. He didn’t fit any of the descriptions I had encountered, though he was bumblingly likable.

Are people still interested in angels? A search on Amazon for the word turns up 80,000 items.  A Google search shows 2,030,000,000 results. That’s 2+ billion.  (though some of those angels play baseball). So, the answer is Yes.

“If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”  ― Tennessee Williams

“Every angel is terrifying.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

The Center of the World

Mt Fuji Full moon
Mt. Fuji under a Full Moon

In certain beliefs and philosophies, there is a center to the world. It is called by some axis mundi and it is the connection between Heaven and Earth. In astronomy, axis mundi is the Latin term for the axis of the Earth between the celestial poles.

It goes by other names: the cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar, center of the world, and world tree.

We don’t know the origin of this idea. There are psychological and sociological interpretations. One interpretation is that it is a natural and universal psychological perception. That is the idea that the particular spot that one occupies (You Are Here) stands at “the center of the world.”

The name of China means “Middle Kingdom” and expresses an ancient belief that the country stood at the center of the world. However, within any sacred place is a specific spot that is the actual center of the center, the axis mundi.

Another interpretation is that the center is a natural object, such as a mountain or even a tree. A mountain or other elevated place where earth and sky come closest is often seen as the true center. The peak of a mountain is often regarded as sacred. Mount in China is such a spot. For the ancient Hebrews, it is Mount Zion.  Mount Kailash is holy to Hinduism and several religions in Tibet. Denali in Alaska is sometimes portrayed as sacred. In Australia, it would be Uluru. Mount Fuji in Japan has many legends and powers attached to it. It was considered sacred by the Ainu people, the indigenous inhabitants of ancient Japan,

Another secular interpretation is that it can be a manmade object, such as a pole, a steeple, a mound, obelisk, lighthouse, a monolith. The secular mixes with the religious in ancient Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians and Babylonians erected artificial mountains on their flat plains. The pyramids of the Middle East and Central America carry his meaning. The Sioux beliefs take the Black Hills as the axis mundi.

Some religious interpretations say that proximity closer to heaven is key. This explains the heights of manmade sacred places, like a pagoda, temple mount, minaret, cathedral, or pyramid.

Yggdrasil, the World Ash in Norse myths
Yggdrasil, the World Ash in Norse myths

There is a shamanic concept that a healer traversing the axis mundi can bring back knowledge from the other world. You can find this in the stories from Odin and the World Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, an immense mythical tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. It is also present in the stories of the Garden of Eden and Jacob’s Ladder. It probably figures into fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

In The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the hero’s descent and ascent through a series of spiral structures through the Earth’s core takes him from the depths of hell to celestial paradise.


Travelers to the axis mundi are often depicted carrying a staff that represents the axis itself. The Rod of Asclepius (an emblem of the medical profession that comes from Greek mythology) and the caduceus (an emblem of correspondence and commercial professions) features a staff with a serpent(s) who acts as a guardian of, or guide to, knowledge.

There are also those who believe that the center of the world, or even the universe, is within each of us.

In the Words of Voltaire

“I may not agree with what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire, pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, born November 21, 1694, in Paris, France. His nom de plume is an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinized spelling of his surname, and the first letters of the phrase le jeune, which means “the young.”


During his lifetime, Voltaire wrote nearly 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. I don’t recommend that you follow his writing habits.  He was said to have enjoyed nearly 40 cups of coffee every day, all while in bed, dictating his writing to secretaries.

But I would recommend reading him if you never have before.


Quotations are not like reading Voltaire in context, but they might pique your interest in his writing. I’ve been seeing a lot of his quotes online lately as they seem to be relevant to current situation. The one above is a good example of that.

Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. His fame is based on his wit, his criticism of Christianity (especially the Roman Catholic Church) and his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

He wrote plays, poems, novels, essays, histories, and scientific expositions., and he was one of the first authors to become renowned and commercially successful internationally.

quoteThe account of the end of his life, according to Wikipedia, is unconfirmed. What we do know is that in February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in over 25 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The five-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” You might think that “adoring God” would be an odd thing for him to write, but he did not have a quarrel with God but with organized religions.

He recovered, and in March he saw a performance of his play and was treated by the audience as a returning hero, but became ill again and died on 30 May 1778.

The accounts of his death are varied and we can’t precisely know what occurred. Some of his enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites from a Catholic priest. Others said he wouldn’t repent and so died in agony of body and soul. His adherents told of his defiance to his last breath. A story has developed in modern times that is likely to be true but fits with his views and wit. When a priest urged him to renounce Satan, he replied, “This is no time to make new enemies.”

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” is one of his famous quotes and he meant that though he believed in God if someone proved God didn’t exist, people would have to invent God. Christopher Hitchens  disagrees: “Thus, though I dislike to differ with such a great man, Voltaire was simply ludicrous when he said that if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. The human invention of god is the problem to begin with.”

A few others:
“God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”
“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”
“God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”
“If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.”


Then again, Voltaire also said “There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night” because he recognized that a belief in God could lead people to morality. His belief seems to have fluctuated. After a natural disaster that killed many people, Voltaire wrote “God’s only excuse is that He doesn’t exist.”

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne. His heart and brain were embalmed separately.

In 1791, the National Assembly of France, regarding Voltaire as a forerunner of the French Revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris and enshrined in the Panthéon. An estimated million people attended the procession and an elaborate ceremony.

Voltaire’s tomb in the Paris Panthéon