Father Joshua sat on a rock and contemplated the dusty, red-orange desert in front of him. Chunks of basalt lay strewn about on one side, while the other side led down into what had formerly been a river or lake billions of years ago, but now was endless sand blown among the cracks in the sandstone. Father Joshua came here for solitude and contemplation. The restless wind was blowing gently, as if the desert, too, were contemplating.
Back in the American Southwest, Father Joshua would sometimes take long walks out into the desert and bask in the heat and stillness, fascinated with the red sandstone cliffs and various reddish hues of the rocks. But there, the desert was alive. We think of a desert as endless stretches of sand dunes, but most deserts are full of plants that have a wide personal space, maybe a yard or two per small bush, or a small stand of grass every foot. Sit still long enough and you will see a lizard or a chipmunk or an insect. Father Joshua’s desert, though, was completely dead.
This was a cold, dry desert, but it always looked warm, like the ones he was used to. It got down to about -70 °C at nights, although good days sometimes got to a balmy 10 °C, enough that he could turn off the heater on his suit. The desert fascinated him, too, because he could not really conceive of anywhere without life. So the desert had a mystique, where it seemed to be alive, and he always half-expected to see a lizard come out and sun itself. It never did, though. He was the only living thing within a mile, and the ten members of the monastery were the only living things on the entire planet. Nevertheless, the desert seemed to be telling him about its past times, quiet secrets, and dreams for the feature, in a language just beneath his comprehension. Even the desert was alone, and glad to have someone to talk to.
The walk back to the monastery went around several low hills, and every time he walked past, Father Joshua imagined them covered with grasses. He saw a medium height grass, maybe two feet high, colored a muted green with a hint of yellow. In season, the seed heads would be a muted wheat color. It complemented the red-orange Martian soil with the color of life. Most times he walked back he asked God to fill the dead planet with life, in particular, with his grass. It would take a miracle, though, because the soil was full of toxic perchlorates and the atmosphere was less than on the top of Mt. Everest.
The monastery was a traditional-looking monastery, made of reddish sandstone, with a small chapel in the front, all covered with a double-paned glass dome. The monastery had only been founded twenty years prior, but already it had a storied history. After Elon Musk’s SpaceX disrupted the aerospace industry with inexpensive launch costs (relatively speaking), the Americans had sent several teams to Mars to do science. It cost a lot of money, and while the science was interesting, the novelty wore off and the program was eventually cancelled. The Chinese also kept a base, to salve their insecurity by proving they were just as good as the West. Better, in fact, because they kept a continuously occupied base longer than the Americans. But eventually they left, too, since the resupply costs were (literally) astronomical. Rumor had it that some of the Chinese astronauts had complained that they had studied hard all their life to leave the countryside, and here they were subsistence farming again, albeit with a lot of expensive technology.
Some years after both nations scrapped their programs, Father Joseph, who had been an amateur astronomer ever since his youth, was looking at the Milky Way. Billions of galaxies, each filled with as many millions of stars as the Milky Way, covered the canopy of the heavens in luminous dust. Yet, on the planets circling those stars, nothing, and on the moons circling those planets, nothing. And in-between were millions of light-years of nothing, vast nothingness punctuated by droplets of matter.
“Why is there so much emptiness in the universe?”
So My children can fill it.
Father Joshua paused; he had not been expecting a response, and though it sounded like one of his thoughts, it was not. The phrasing sounded like God, though, so he asked the question again.
“Why is the universe so empty?”
You build magnificence with empty spaces and pillars of stone; I build magnificence with empty spaces and stars.
Then Father Joshua remembered that in Genesis 1, God told Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it." He remembered that at the time Genesis was written, the understood cosmology was that Earth was the extent of the universe, which God had hollowed out between the vault of the heavens that stored the rain waters above, and the foundations which stored the ground water below. He suddenly realized that when God had said “fill the Earth and subdue it,” he was saying “fill the Creation and subdue it"—the mandate extended beyond Earth and included all of Creation. Thus was born Saint Jesus in Mars Monastery.
Despite the persistent absence of the much-prayed for grasses, Father Joseph had seen plenty of miracles already—that his vision had even become reality was a miracle. The Dominican Order was excited about his vision of co-creating with God somewhere totally new, and about the powerful symbolism of redemption from taking a planet from death to life. However, the Order did not have the extra billions of dollars to send the necessary supplies and people. Father Joseph figured that if it was God’s idea, He’d provide the financing. A year went by, with much prayer, but no finances. So Father Joseph, an engineer before taking his vows, took a secular job to earn money. And he continued praying. Other Benedictines followed his example. The ones who both best lived out Christ in the marketplace and were excellent in their field joined Father Joseph’s team.
Money came in from surprising sources, and SpaceX even gave them a discount on launch prices, since their founder’s original goal was a human colony on Mars. The idea of the monastery slowly materialized into a collection of supplies in the Martian desert. Getting people to Mars was more difficult; there was simply no way to do it with the Order’s budget. After several months of agonized prayer, one of the team members realized that the problem was the metal shell of the spaceship, which was heavy. But in space one does not need the structural strength of steel. So they used inflatable modules, which gave them a lightweight, but spacious interior.
Once they were finally on the surface, the monastery blossomed into a collection of collapsible buildings. After the 3D printer capable of printing with metal and glass arrived, work began on the glass dome (as well as the labor of mining sand, and later, ore and stone). Eventually work began on a stone church and cloister within the dome.
Still, despite the increasingly graceful monastic archways and church, the planet remained dead, full of dead deserts, and Father Joshua’s walks continued to be prayers for life, for the grasses. Father Joshua was not idle in seeking his vision. He bred different grasses in an attempt to create a variant that could live in the dead Martian soil, but while he became an expert in raising Earth plants and vegetables in Earth-like conditions, he did not succeed in finding one that would grow in Martian conditions. Every variety he tried would invariably go into drought response and die shortly afterwards when planted outside.
Even the gene programmers back on Earth could not find a solution. The Senior Research Programmer of Designer Genes, one of the first and most well-known gene programming firms, was excited to partner with Father Joshua, when he finally admitted that he had run out of ideas. Remote debugging is always frustratingly slow, but the opportunity to develop geneware for Mars was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! The engineers’ optimism turned into searching, then into frustration, depression, and defeat. They tried genes from Arctic Willow, which thrives during winter; Mt. Everest moss, growing at over 7,000 m; Purple Saxifrage, which blooms below freezing in the Alps; living rocks, succulents from the desert; lichens, which grow pretty much everywhere. Some geneware could withstand the cold, some could handle the long droughts, but nothing could handle the low atmospheric pressure and the ultraviolet radiation that an atmosphere would absorb.
Towards the end of his life Father Joshua finally gave up. He kept praying, but it seemed more out of habit than faith. It was not possible with anything that humanity knew, nor had he received any of the divine guidance or suggestions that the Pentecostals were so fond of talking about. And the failure bothered him, because while he could accept the failure of his attempts (and, indeed, he had not been very surprised when they failed), without even something as basic as grass, humanity could not possibly fulfill the command to fill Creation. Which meant that something had to happen. But, realistically, even if there were grass, there was still the problem that a monastery is not self-sustaining. Nor was adding a nunnery a viable option... So Father Joshua kept walking, but shelved his dream. That was the risk of pioneering, sometimes you just cannot do it, and it has to wait for someone in the future with a different set of skills or a different way of thinking, or maybe one of those miracle-working Pentecostals.
Father Joshua had done all he could towards the fulfilling the dream, but there was still the original purpose of a monastery: to live apart from the world to seek the presence of God. And that there was. Father Joshua had always had a contemplative streak, but in his later years it deepened into a pool that tended to spill over onto the others. Although Father Joshua had resolutely refused to accept the title of Abbot, he was the a leader that transitioned the monastery from survival to thriving. Over many years he supervised the development of systems of living that brought flourishing biological life and a fulfilling communion with God. As a result, the monastery became not only a lifeboat on the sandy waves of a dusty desert, but it grew into the center of life on a dead planet.
Finally, Father Joshua grew ill. Despite prayers for his health, he grew steadily worse and was confined to bed. His successor, Father James, took up his duties. He also took up Father Joshua’s habit of walks. One day several weeks later Father James returned from his walk earlier than usual, and excitedly rushed into Father Joshua’s room.
“Father, your grass experiment has
“Your planting on the south side of Little Hill has sprouted!”
“I never planted there. But you say there are sprouts?”
“Quite a few young blades of grass, yes.”
“Ah. The Lord has answered my prayer, then.” Then, closing his eyes, he said “Lord, you have answered my prayer, I may depart in peace!”
“Father, I will take pictures of them for you when they get bigger.”
“Thanks, but no need. I already know what it will look like.”
Hours later, Father Joshua died. A beautiful stand of grass developed and slowly spread out from Little Hill, medium height, maybe two feet high, colored a muted green that hinted of yellow, that nicely complimented the red-orange rock. Joshua Grass eventually spread over most of the Mars. The planet retained its color and both from space and from the surface, and retained a desert look; there was, after all, limited water. But now the desert had life. Yet, Joshua Grass did not grow everywhere, and there continued to be large swathes of pristine desert, where one could walk in true solitude.