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Glimpses of the Heavens


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I interviewed John Kartje in early September in his office at Saint Ben's on West Irving Park Road. The photo is a digital montage by Paul L. Merideth.

My name is John Kartje, and I'm currently the associate pastor at Saint Benedict's Church. I'm 37 years old, grew up in northwest Indiana, came to Chicago for college--Hyde Park, University of Chicago--and I studied physics and mathematics there and went on to get a graduate degree in astronomy and then worked at the U. of C. for a couple of years as an astronomer. I entered Mundelein, the seminary for the archdiocese of Chicago, in 1997, and was there for five years. I was just ordained to the Catholic priesthood in May of this year.

I was always interested in nature. As a kid I'd go out leaf collecting. In the fall the flesh of the leaf begins to rot away and you can see the little skeleton underneath, and I was fascinated with stuff like that. I was fascinated with dinosaurs, as probably all little boys are. I went to high school in Hammond, Bishop Noll. And I enjoyed physics, enjoyed chemistry. But the interest in astronomy really goes back I think to the earliest times that I can remember. My dad would come home from work and I used to like to lie on the hood of his car and just look up, for hours even, and wonder, what is all that?

Another thing I would point to, when I started high school was the year that Carl Sagan's series Cosmos was launched. I actually lived in his dorm at the University of Chicago; that's where he was a college student. Not by choice--I mean it was just coincidence. He was a good astronomer, but the guy was a real poet. He used Beethoven for his sound tracks. This was music I hadn't heard before, and at Bishop Noll I began reading Shakespeare, who uses a lot of astronomy in his writing. And everything kind of opened up there for me. By the end of high school I knew that astronomy was what I wanted to do.

So I did OK in college, got a NASA scholarship to pay for grad school, and then worked as a postdoc for two years. What I worked on, in the broadest sense, was the formation of galaxies. What we believe now is that at the center of most galaxies are very massive black holes. As stuff falls into the black hole it radiates energy. Think of rush hour, everyone trying to get into the entrance to an el platform or something. As people get closer and closer together they bump into each other, and if you had a thermometer and took the temperature of the crowd right by the doorway, you'd find it's hotter than it is two blocks up Wabash Avenue. As dust and gas and stuff begin to fall into the black hole, they do the same thing: they come together, they knock off each other, they create friction and heat. But instead of just being a few degrees hotter, the temperatures are just enormous. I mean millions of degrees, billions of degrees. And so when we look at very young galaxies, we oftentimes see microwave radiation, visible light, X rays, gamma rays--some of the most energetic particles in the universe we see coming out of these things. They often look like a jet coming out of the center of the galaxy.

We can measure this radiation. From about the late 1980s on, a whole battery of new satellites went up, measuring X rays, measuring gamma rays, measuring microwaves, and we were able to image these baby galaxies, in a sense. What I did, with my colleagues, we would use that observed radiation, and we'd use the laws of physics to basically say, well, what if you had gas and dust around a black hole, falling into it? Based on what we know of ordinary physics, can we make a model of how you might produce that kind of radiation pattern? Let me give you some of the variables: the size of the black hole, the composition of the gas--probably mostly hydrogen but containing other elements as well--the density of the gas, how close it is to the black hole. What combination of these things could produce the radiation pattern we were observing? And that's all you could really say--the galaxies were way too far away to discern what the actual structure was, I mean you'd just see a tiny little blip of light. And that for me has always been the most exciting part of the field--how do you take an observation on a light sensor from a satellite in space, a tiny little blip of data, and then try and do all the archaeology, if you like, of saying now what caused that to be?

I had a brother who died when I was in seventh grade. As a part-time job he worked in a grain-processing factory. He fell off one of those silos. He was just beginning his sophomore year at Indiana State University and he was studying broadcasting. If he had lived I have no doubt that he would be a sports announcer. He used to tape Cubs games and he could tell you anything about Jack Brickhouse and his mannerisms. And he'd turn down the sound and he'd rebroadcast the game and my other brother Steve and I would be giving the stats. Of course I idolized him, he was my oldest brother. He was 19.

That was certainly a defining moment in our family. But I think it was also a defining moment for me personally, in the sense of realizing that life comes with no guarantees. Not in a gruesome way or a macabre sense, but just that none of us know when our number is up, so to speak. And that attitude was kind of fixed at that point, and it's always made it if not easy at least easier for me to do things like make changes or face decisions. It'll sound a little strange to say, but it was kind of a liberating experience, having that perspective on time, or a lifetime. When I made decisions to do things like, number one, go to graduate school for science, when I knew the odds of being able to actually support myself in that were probably relatively slim, it didn't feel like such a risky thing. And then similarly the decision to do this, to walk away from that and go to seminary. While it wasn't the easiest decision I ever made, I didn't have the baggage that I sometimes sense with other people.

This kind of relates to a mathematics analogy: if you have true infinity, it would be ludicrous to ask what's going on 20 miles down the road. There's no 20 miles down the road, there's no 20 miles back; wherever you're at is as privileged a perspective as wherever anybody else is at. And I'm not going to sit here and say I totally know how that translates into our spiritual journeys, but it's helpful at least for me to say that I do believe we're engaged in something that is an infinite expanse. And then it is helpful for me to say live in today and look at what's here; look at what you've got. Not in the sense of you might lose it all tomorrow so enjoy it today. I'd say it's more like, well, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, tomorrow will take care of itself. And when tomorrow comes, you're just as invested in that as you are invested in today. So you'll get there.

Why do you believe that there is infinity?

For me the question is not why are things the way they are, but why is there something rather than nothing? I think of God as being the source of everything that is--not just a source for the stuff, the atoms and the earth, but the source for being itself. To me, at least, it seems both comforting but also believable, rational, to say that whatever is the source of being itself, the source of time itself, is not subject to temporal constraints.

Now, is our experience of God--which I think is first and foremost our experience of love--is that also free of temporal constraints? And for me I would say that it is. Yes, we love people, and people begin at a moment, they live their lives and they die in these bodies, but I think people have experiences of love that transcend those moments, whether it's the birth of a child or the death of a spouse. I've had the experience of accompanying dozens and dozens of people in hospital rooms, intensive care wards, as they're saying goodbye to loved ones or maybe leaving this earth themselves. I would just say none of those experiences for me has contradicted my belief that we have souls that are eternal, that there is a God who--that there's something bigger than just all of us here.

Even with those of us who are living I think there's a sense that we're tapping into something larger than ourselves. And again I go back to the experience of love. I mean, we say that God is love, and that's a Christian insight; we don't say God is loving, we don't say God is the best lover, we say God is love. I'm the youngest of seven children. One of the advantages of being the youngest is you get to watch all your siblings go through everything ahead of you. And as each one of them became parents, I can't even begin to describe the transformation that I saw in them. What does it mean to live for the sake of others? I think parents, good parents, that's a never-ending road for them. And I can see it in other things: you know, what are marriages that really seem to do well? It's when no one person is doing all the giving or doing all the taking. The people can sacrifice for the sake of each other.

That's one dynamic that always seems to work, at least for me: it's that life of service, or life lived for the sake of others. In graduate school I started getting involved at the Catholic Center at the University of Chicago, and very quickly I was involved as a minister at that huge hospital complex down there--I was taking communion to patients, visiting with them, volunteering with the little kids in the children's hospital, tutoring kids. When I started doing some of these things in and through the church, the experience, for me, was as good as, if not better than, what I was experiencing in science.

Now why should that bring you happiness? Living a life in the service of others, why is that a blueprint for a happy life? It should just be if you're big enough and strong enough, you shouldn't have to serve anyone. You can make other people serve you. But our faith says that this is what it means to be a human person, in a sense. If you're not giving of yourself to others, you're not a complete person. You know, we are made in the image and likeness of God. We're modeling ourselves on the one who is perfect self-giving love.

I don't always have the happiness of service. I mean my experience of it right now is very imperfect. I get hints of it, I get tastes of it. And it's those hints or tastes that make me hunger for an even fuller experience of it.

Yeah, it's amazing to look at the first bit of satellite data coming back and you're seeing something that no human being has ever seen before. But there's a lot that's very similar in pastoral ministry to getting those few blips of information and then, you know, asking yourself what's producing that, what's going on there? I've stopped taking count--I've probably been at the bedside of 40 or 50 people as they leave this life. I've been in people's homes right after a family member has committed suicide. And also joyful things, weddings and baptisms. And I can kind of compare that to the joy of cracking a really tough equation or something. You know, we've been here talking, the phone's rung three times. I'll punch those three messages, and one of them might be something that I can't even imagine. And I liken that to the interest in, you know, what's out there at the edge of the universe?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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