Re-igniting intelligent faith

Published on 12 Mar 2019
Paolo Beltrame against background of stars/telescope

Jesuit novice Paolo Beltrame gave up his career as an astrophysicist to join the Jesuits.  He tells his vocation story and reflects on faith and science.

Paolo Beltrame was born in Italy.  He studied Philosophy at University in Rome and went on to get an MSc in Particle Physics. He moved to Germany to study for a PhD in Particle Physics and then worked at CERN in Geneva, in Los Angeles and in Israel. Paolo was researching dark matter and teaching at the University of Edinburgh when he came across the Jesuits. He takes up the story of his vocation:

“It was September 2015, I got an email inviting the academic personnel of the University of Edinburgh to attend a series of meetings on the Laudato Si’ Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis, organized by the Jesuits of the Lauriston Centre. Driven by curiosity I said to myself “let’s go and listen to this stupid Catholic... At the worst, I waste one night”. However, what I experienced there was a totally unexpected surprise: my heart (or my soul) was soaking up water again; and like arid soil, I could ‘physically’ hear the creaking! 

At that time I had placed a strong and gloomy rock in front of the tomb where Jesus was buried, and I little interest in His making any kind of resurrection. Of course, I should have known that He was already risen: I had been a Salesian from 1997 to 2002 – novitiate, philosophy, internship, with all that involves; but then I got fascinated by physics, distorted by rational thinking and inebriated by vanity – to the point when I was telling God, “You are not there. And even if in the remote possibility You are there, I don’t really care: I put a super-impenetrable stone in front of Your grave”. Full stop.

So after hearing Fr Jim Crampsey talking about Laudato Si’ I thought, “Well done guys, either this is me becoming old and stupid, or you have actually reignited intelligent faith!  But… hold on for a moment, there is no soul! What are all these fantasies about?!”

Deer in snow Credit Annika Thierfeld via UnsplashDisoriented and confused, but gently and wisely accompanied by Fr Jim, I continued my busy science life, until the deer ‘knocked at my door’.

This happened in South Dakota at Christmas 2015. I was taking shifts for our dark matter research collaboration – the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located 4,850 ft underground in a disused gold mine.

I was in the middle of nowhere, alone – as my colleagues properly preferred to spend their Christmas with their families – in a sea of white snow broken only by the grey of the laboratory building and spotted with green pines, when I encountered a herd of hungry deer.

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. Ps. 42.

(Yes Douglas Adams was right: 42 is the answer to everything.)

However, I was not really seeking God, at least until that moment. The deer suddenly and insistently suggested to me the presence of the loving and living God in all Creation, surrounding and embracing me.

At Fr Jim’s suggestion I did an eight-day Ignatian retreat at Manresa (Spain) in July 2016.  After this profound, enlightening and consoling experience – sincerely wondering whether God was really talking to me, personally – I started to attend mass every day (again) and to offer voluntary work (again) with homeless people in Edinburgh.

Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory, said to me “Apply, apply, apply!” – so I applied to join the Jesuits in Britain and joined the novitiate in September 2017.

For 15 years I was investigating the dark matter content in our universe, working for various universities and international research centres, and God was seeking for me in everything, and in every way. Now – despite my little and fragile faith – I focus on casting light in the darkness of our hearts, to find the loving God in all His marvels.

What is the role of faith in scientific enquiry?

First I think we need to clarify what we mean by ‘faith’. In one sense all scientists are somehow believers: there is no scientific reason why the Universe should be intelligible to us. Why should we be able to understand natural phenomena using mathematical formulas? But this is what scientists do, built upon an ‘act of faith’... So, in one sense, every scientist has the ‘faith’ that his or her investigation of the natural world can be trusted if it is pursued in a proper and rigorous (scientific) way.

Lemaitre, the scientist who first proposed the Big Bang theory – who by the way was also a Catholic priest – used to say, “There are two ways to discover the truth: one is science and the other is religion.  I have chosen both”.

This does not mean that to be a believer you just need to be a scientist.  And it is obviously not true the other way round. The point is that faith in a personal and loving God can be quite difficult for a scientist.

In my own case, the faith in this Christian God was possible only after a deep encounter with Him.  This should be a daily encounter as you allow God into all aspects of your life.

Then, starting from this experience of God, the scientific research acquires new colours, it becomes an enriching and challenging dialogue with God telling us, “Come on, discover it! Understand what you are observing, I made you (humans) intelligent enough to do that”.

Sometimes I see God as the author of a detective story. He wants us to keep reading, understanding and savouring the story, as he points us to the heart of the mystery, so we must keep the book open and keep reading. 

I think that scientists nowadays are showing us a God that is more God-like than ever: the cosmos has expanded from just our solar system to hundreds of billions of galaxies (and God is bigger even than that).  The creation action has moved from a six days narrative into 13 billion years of evolutionary process (and God has much more imagination than that...)

Curiosity is crucial for scientists. I am strongly convinced that curiosity is also crucial for every good Christian, and for the Jesuits in a special way. Curiosity translates into an openness in understanding the human condition.

There is a phrase in quantum physics “constructing interferences” which speaks to me as I begin my journey as a Jesuit.  For me this is the juxtaposition between the Astonishment which scientists often experience when they make a discovery, and the state of Consolation which Jesuits seek for themselves and others following the teaching of St Ignatius.

Paolo Beltrame nSJ

Related resources