The Point of Wonder

Certainly there are such things as definite settled answers – perhaps no permanently settled answers, but at least answers that are definite and our best so far. There are times in life when such answers are to be preferred. At such times, of course, science is much better than theology.

When you’re not feeling well, and you don’t know what it is and you go to the doctor, you don’t want your doctor to relish the wonder. You want an answer. That’s appropriate. And often your doctor can give you one. Of course, you’d also like your doctor to be honest about what she doesn’t know, but if she doesn’t know you want her to feel somewhat rueful about that, rather than delighting in the mystery.

At the same time, there’s a lot more to life than figuring things out.

Wonder – the type of wonder I will now be talking about -- is a kind of falling in love: with our world, with ourselves, with the experience of being alive. Wonder is typically expressed in the form of a question, which might fool us into thinking an explanatory answer is being sought. It is not. The point of love is to love, not to explain it, figure it out, or solve it, and the point of wonder is likewise not to get an explanation, solution, or answer. The point of wonder is to wonder – to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe -- bounded by humility, by gratitude, and by joy.

You might have felt a touch of such wonder on the night of Sun Sep 27, gazing at the lunar eclipse. Or any time you can get away from the city lights far enough to see a truly star-filled sky. Thomas Merton was seized by powerful wonder right in the middle of a bustling city at mid-day – at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky in 1958. He described it in his journal:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness,...The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream....This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.’ It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes:...A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. They are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers! Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
That’s a powerful wonder. How did that happen to Thomas Merton? Why doesn’t it happen to more of us more often?

Writer Raymond Tallis wonders why wonder isn’t a constant, or at least greater proportion, of life. Why am I not “for the greater part of my life transilluminated with awe?” he asks. Why do I not “pass through the world open-mouthed with amazement and joy”? (Video of Tallis' sermon: HERE.)

We are surrounded by, submerged within, wonders of sight, and sound, and smell, the wonder of every single thing, and of all things together – of what Philip Larkin called “the million-petalled flower of being.” Is not our proper state of mind one of “metaphysical intoxication”?

So many wonders and yet so little wondering. Why is that? Is that itself the sort of question which can be figured out and a definite and settled answer determined? Or is our failure to live continuously in deep wonder a mystery to be lived rather than solved? We can, at least, make some conjectures about the things that hinder wonder -- as The Liberal Pulpit will do in the next part.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Wonder of Wonders"
See also:
Part 1: Two Kinds of Wonder
Part 3: Wonder Hinders

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