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Perseid shower: celestial display is great way to celebrate a summer saint

Perseid meteor shoots across the sky

Sofoklo | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 08/09/16

One of the best sky shows of the year, and one with religious implications, is the "Tears of St. Lawrence."

Meteors and meteor showers are not uncommon, but the celestial event that seems to get the most attention is the Perseid meteor shower that occurs in early August each year. Perhaps that’s because it’s a time of year when more people can watch: many are on vacation and can stay up late and sit outdoors under the stars.

In 2016, astronomers were predicting a greater intensity of “shooting stars” than normal. As The Washington Post reported that year:

In any given year, when the dark heavens cooperate, the Perseids could peak at 50 to 100 shooting stars an hour. This year, the International Meteor Organization thinks that number may increase to about 150 meteors an hour. Other astronomers are calling for up to 200 meteors an hour.

These are not stars, of course—they are fragments falling off comets. They light up when the friction of entering earth’s atmosphere at a high speed ignites them. Most burn off by the time they reach the earth, though there have been, of course, some well known meteor strikes.

The Perseid Shower, so-called because the fireballs seem to emanate from the constellation Perseus, are also known as the Tears of St. Lawrence because the event takes place on and around the August 10 feast day of the third-century deacon and martyr.

If you have a clear sky, it sounds like this might be worth staying up late for, and here are some suggestions on how to enjoy this phenomenon even more:

  1. You can go out to watch any night beginning August 9-10, if it’s not cloudy, but the peak night should be August 11-12. Get away from artificial lights as much as possible and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Sit facing Perseus, but let your eyes wander around the heavens. You’ll see comets darting through the sky from every direction.
  2. St. Lawrence was executed in AD 258 by being roasted alive over an open fire. (He is said to have quipped, “I’m done on this side, turn me over.”) Centuries earlier, as recounted in the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar tried to kill three innocent Jews in a fiery furnace when they refused to worship a golden idol. Pray aloud the prayer of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, whether alone, or by turns with another. One line from that prayer is “O ye stars of heaven, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.”
  3. If you have a place to safely burn a campfire, in the spirit of St. Lawrence, you might roast some beef over hot coals, or enjoy some s’mores.
  4. If it’s possible for a young person to sacrifice some sleep, it’s a wonderful opportunity to share a little bit of the wonder of creation with a child. A religious sense can grow from contemplating the heavens. Keep a running count: who can spot more meteors? Perhaps it’s a good time to talk about the mystery of infinity, the vastness of the universe.
  5. For obvious reasons, St. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks, and for his glib remark to “turn me over,” the patron of comedians. This might be a good night to tell some wholesome jokes.
  6. On the more serious side, here is an ancient sermon about St. Lawrence, by St. Leo the Great.

Happy Feast of St. Lawrence!

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