The light in Death Valley


This summer I had the opportunity to share with educators a film that starts with the few stars one can see in the city sky and ends with the spectacular night sky above Death Valley. If you have never seen this sight, go to

Students have often asked me “Are we alone in the universe?” With eager eyes they listened intently. However, they really were not interested in the science I shared about distances between stars, matter, star classifications, and the statistical probability regarding the number of planets that might be at the right temperature to harbor life-sustaining water. 

What they really wanted to imagine and discuss was contact with the unknown. Gently, I would ask them how we were to recognize such life forms on other planets as our brothers and sisters in Christ when we humans still struggled so hard with this recognition among our fellow men. 

I believe recognition of that common essence of the life infused into each of us by God is what lies behind Jesus’ words against choosing the place of honor at the table (Lk 14: 7-14). 

The parable is a reminder that there is a place for each of us at God’s table. It is an invitation to look deeper at each of those around us. It is a call to view others with God’s (not society’s) eyes. The parable is a reminder that all those who set their value by downgrading others are in for a very rude awakening at God’s banquet.

At the Catholic high school, there were always a number of social justice programs running. With the idealism of youth, students had a great enthusiasm in general for assisting the downtrodden and the poor. The poor remained somewhere out there, far away. As a colleague said, “The challenge is getting them to realize the face of need is found in so many people in their own community.”

I have two examples to share from my travels this summer. I had finished my work with educators and had entered a restaurant. My cell pinged. A colleague and friend needed my help. Could I travel there tomorrow? 

With my plans suddenly changed, any leftovers would have to be discarded. This is the first time I handled things in this way. I asked the waitress if there were people in need who sometimes visited the restaurant. If so, was it possible to split my meal into two portions? She could share that second portion with someone. 

She definitely looked at me with the “What planet are you from?” question lingering in her eyes. She started to answer in the negative, but then checked her response. She said she knew exactly what I meant. She had me apportion my meal. She took the extra to the back. Her general attitude was that I was nice, but weird. 

My check came. The waitress was so bubbly that she seemed a different person. She wanted to tell me something. Wondering what was up, I listened politely. She explained a friend of hers had just stopped by the restaurant. Her friend was in tears. Without any warning, that friend had just lost her job that day. As part of supporting her friend, the waitress had passed my meal extras to her friend in need. She was explaining to me what a difference my small kindness had made to her and to her friend that day.

The second example had a sorrowful start to it. It seems someone had injured or killed themselves in the hotel room then assigned to me. All the tiny nuances finally clicked the day I was to leave. I privately mentioned to the manager my suspicions as well as something that remained to be fixed. He said, “Other than that, was your stay OK?”

A chill ran down my spine. Praying for the person, the car service to the airport, the flight, and the sunny skies in the new city all failed to quell my fearful and negative mood. 

The car service driver in the new city was talking to me. I complimented her honey bee earrings. The ride was long. We chatted the whole way. My mood broke. I realized she was a bright conduit of God’s love. 

There was a wistful look in her eyes. She shared with me that she too had wished to study for a Ph.D., but a car accident had taken that away. Almost half a million dollars in surgeries later, she was only able to work part-time each day. As we gave each other a farewell hug, I realized each of us had brightened the other’s day. 

The opportunity to discover new life isn’t just found in stars millions of miles away. It is found in the choices we make and in our exploring the lights of each of the stars God sends our way each day. 

Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.

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