Let’s go marveling.
“This felicitous phrase is taken from the great Methodist preacher Fred Craddock, who tells of the ancestral practice of taking walks every Sunday afternoon and finding things to marvel at and to share with others” (Wm. P. Brown).
A sense of wonder is essential to the attitude of thankfulness. It is when we go through life “marveling” that we find ourselves most filled with gratitude. “Gratitude” comes from the same root as the word “grace,” and being grateful involves recognizing that my very existence, life, and what I am and have is gift.
The introduction to William Brown’s book, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, is called, “Wonder’s Wonder.” It is a meditation on the concept and an encouragement to let ourselves be “lost in wonder, love, and praise,” as we sing in the old Wesleyan hymn. With approval he quotes this part of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition:
The emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity.
I especially like that last phrase: “astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity.” Here is a sense I find mostly missing in the Christian world with which I am most familiar. I find enthusiasm, excitement, a sort of adolescent exhilaration that interprets relatively banal events with words like “awesome.” But genuine awe — jaw-dropping astonishment that feels as much like fear as joy — is rare.
Brown notes that wonder can spring from unsettling experiences of disorientation, overwhelming us, throwing our preconceived ideas into question, and leaving us breathless, wordless. When Jacobs says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16), he is undone, barely capable of arising. Brown calls this the “Wow!” response.
Wonder can also come from seeing what one called a “sense of perfection in the ordering of the world.” This is profoundly orienting rather than disorienting wonder. Seeing how things actually and elegantly fit together to create something wonder-full is the task of scientists, artists, musicians, story tellers and sages. William Brown calls this the “Yes!” response that complements the “Wow!” Something deep within us responds to beauty, symmetry, and the overwhelming rightness of something we encounter.
We shall continue our discussion of this in days to come, but I want to look ahead a bit and introduce a point that I find key to this whole matter. Here are William Brown’s own words:
In wonder the object of knowing never becomes conquered territory or something consumed. To know something in wonder is to participate rather than to appropriate; it is to be awakened and made vulnerable, transformed in an ongoing adventure of knowing. In wonder, mystery remains, but it remains ever alluring, drawing us into greater awareness. Wonder is prompted by something or someone quintessentially other, wholly outside of us yet striking a resonant chord deep within us. Wonder is being touched by otherness, and it requires becoming vulnerable to the source or object of wonder. Whether in beauty or in ugliness, the experience of wonder comes unbidden, as a disruption and, ultimately, as a gift.
Our cultural predilection would be to see cultivating wonder as yet another method for coming to know God, one way among others. But we do not control wonder. We do not consciously initiate encounters that take our breath away and bring us to our knees. As C.S. Lewis was surprised by joy, so wonder must ever be something we meet, not manufacture.