Jesuits and eclipses


Total solar eclipse
Total solar eclipse

As North America goes into a solar eclipse meltdown, gazing upwards at the heavens may prove to be a blessed relief from recent tensions and confrontations.  Ten years ago, NASA identified the small town of Hopkinsville as the ‘point of greatest eclipse’ during the first coast-to-coast eclipse in 100 years.  This rural Kentucky town will experience an unrivalled 2 minutes and 42 seconds of totality. Huge crowds of tourists, astronomers and religious groups are expected; hotel rooms within a hundred-mile radius have been booked; and the town is expecting a $30million influx. One of the visitors is the director of the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno SJ. He agrees that this rare experience may help change the ugly mood in the country. He hoped that many would, ‘wake up and be aware of a universe that is both rational and beautiful and bigger than questions of politics, bigger than questions of what’s for lunch, bigger than questions of who I’m mad at, who I’m happy with … All of those are insignificant compared to a universe that continues to maintain itself in rationality and beauty and which is an expression of God’s love for us.’

Br Guy is just one in a distinguished history of Jesuits who have used the phenomenon of a solar or lunar eclipse to focus a sense of wonder in us.  In 16th century China, pioneering missionary Matteo Ricci was able to gain credibility because of his astronomical knowledge, amongst other things.  The ancient world was very sensitive to astronomical phenomenon as being portents of great events, particularly around the birth and health of their rulers, most famously, of course, the Star of Bethlehem.  China was no stranger to this fascination and predicting eclipses was an important part of anticipating the fortunes of the emperor or ‘The Son of Heaven’.   The main duty of the emperor was to get blessings from heaven for good harvests. Predicting seasons was a way of establishing authority and ensuring prosperity. In Beijing, the largest temple is neither Buddhist nor Confucian, but the Temple of Heaven.

After mastering classical Chinese and being accepted as a scholar, Ricci was able to act as a bridge between the West and East. His appreciation of the writings of a famous Chinese teacher lead him to translate much of those writings into Latin, thereby ‘Master Kongzi’ became the familiar Confucius.  Marvelling at the sophistication of the ethical and religious culture in China, Ricci was persuaded that Christianity was not new to China but a fulfilment of what was already there. His classic book ‘The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven’, was an attempt to show the similarities between Confucianism and Christianity, and would prove to be the Jesuits’ downfall as jealous competitors, particularly the Franciscans and Dominicans, felt that they had gone too far in accommodating Chinese beliefs.

Jesuit astronomers with Kangxi emperor

Ricci was able to command so much authority partly because of his abilty to accurately predict an eclipse, unlike the Chinese scholars, which was of pressing importance in the late Ming dynasty. When he successfully predicted a solar eclipse on 22 September 1596, in their eyes he proved that he had better contact with heaven and more advanced science.  A surprisingly meritocratic court gave him the opportunity to work on reforming the Chinese calendar system. Thus he was the first Westerner to be invited to the Forbidden City and appointed as an advisor to the Chinese emperor. The new calendar provided more accurate predictions of eclipses of the sun and the moon, and better guidance for planting and harvesting. This calendar reform marked the first major collaboration between scientists from Europe and China and paved the way for successive Jesuits such as Adam Schall von Bell to work closely with the Chinese.

It was a rich time of collaboration between the East and West, and led to the middle kingdom opening out to the wider world. Jesuits were instrumental in the signing of the first foreign treaty between China and Russia, the Treaty of Nerchinsk.  In an unsettling time of hostility, and with Donald Trump threatening a trade war with China and a nuclear war with North Korea, we might hope that the experience of a solar eclipse will, in Br Consolmagno’s words, ‘remind us of the immense beauty in the universe that occurs outside of our own petty set of concerns. It pulls us out of ourselves and makes us remember that we are part of a big and glorious and beautiful universe.’