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2010 Border Meeting encompasses the universe

A mild evening in early autumn. We gather in the peaceful grounds of an old monastery, staring in wonder at a starry sky. A prominent Quaker astrophysicist stands among us. Patiently and expertly, she helps us to identify the planets, stars and constellations we are seeing. We ooh and aah. We point and ponder. Science meets religion and they reach a mutual understanding: Awe.

This northern Border Meeting – an annual tradition since the 1960s – usually involves Friends from Germany, France, Luxemburg, Belgium and the Netherlands, with Quakers from Great Britain often joining in as well. This year we expanded our borders to encompass the known universe. As guest speaker, Jocelyn Bell Burnell led us through a fascinating slide presentation which helped us to understand the latest scientific thinking about the origin, development and possible future of the universe, and our own place in it. We learned that we are truly made of star stuff. “All the atoms of carbon, oxygen, calcium, and iron in our bodies have been created inside stars and made available through the explosive death of large stars,” Jocelyn told us. She shared a list of the names for the Milky Way which she has gathered from various cultures, such as The Backbone of the Night (Kalahari), The Place Where Lightning Rests (Setswana) and The Celestial River (Chinese). In the course of her talk we found out where we came from – the Big Bang (not just a colloquial description, but the official scientific term!) – and where we’re headed – possibly towards the Big Rip or the Big Crunch. “Sooner or later,” said Jocelyn, “the universe will exterminate life, if we don’t do it ourselves first.”

Despite these dire predictions, our faith endures. But what is it, exactly, that we believe in? These questions were explored in small group sessions. Jocelyn paved the way for an intimate exchange of views by recounting to us her personal faith journey, her beliefs, doubts and abiding questions. The struggle to balance deep scientific knowledge with strong Quaker faith was very honestly expressed. We all felt privileged to share it.

A question and answer session allowed Jocelyn to give us a remarkable insight into the recent decision by scientists to demote Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. She was very much involved in the dramatic events which led up to this decision and had the opportunity to apply Quaker principles to the conduct of the debate. Jocelyn is a gifted and entertaining storyteller and had us on the edge of our seats until the final resolution. It was a wonderful “insider view” on these momentous events.

The weekend at Nikolauskloster in Jüchen, Germany included time for socializing, too, and several participants took advantage of the proximity to a local park to take a stroll on Saturday afternoon. The weather was kind, granting us sunshine by day and a clear sky later for star-gazing. We were made to feel very welcome at the kloster, and the building itself has great charm, though like any monastery it can tend to feel a bit drafty. But as a Friend observed after our last Meeting for Worship on Sunday, shortly before it was time to go back to our respective countries, “It’s cold here, but I’m totally warmed up by this weekend!

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