Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wondering About Wonder


There are many tea drinkers in my family, and our three children left home knowing how to boil water and make a fine pot of tea. When we leave the mountains for the sea, we are delighted that water boils faster and is hotter, increasing the tea’s flavor. In January, Melissa and I were sipping those delicious hot cups of tea on Tybee Island. She was talking about the joy of electric kettles, when suddenly her face lit up and she started telling me about her friend’s glass electric teakettle; it enabled her to watch the process from the side. Her face aglow with wonder, she continued, “Do you have any idea how beautiful boiling water is?” I confessed I had only seen it top down. Melissa described the process, beginning with little bubbles floating up slowly to the top, then increasing in size and quantity, and finally breaking on the surface as the full boil began with all the water swirling in the bubbling dance. I was touched by her description, and it warmed my maternal heart. This daughter of mine works in a corporate position that takes her around the globe. Her work requires a mastery of all manner of technology as well as supervisory responsibility for a team of associates; yet here she was—wonderstruck by the utility and beauty of boiling water.

That small moment started another bubbling journey in my mind as I began to put together memories and ideas about the subject of wonder that have continued to simmer now for two months. My investigation started without a particular goal, but rather a desire to consider the importance of wonder in our lives and to follow my curiosity.

The Sunday after the significant cup of tea with Melissa, my new journey unexpectedly continued at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Tybee. The congregation is energetic and welcoming, and the vicar Helen White is imaginative, humorous, and fervent. I don’t attend often, but I always come away with something to think about. It was Presentation Sunday, celebrating the story of Mary and Joseph bringing the child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was done according to the ancient Jewish practice of presenting the first-born son in the Temple, which was customary under the Law of Moses. Helen chose for her sermon the jubilation expressed by Simeon—the righteous, devout old man who was guided to the Temple by the Holy Spirit to see the baby. Once Simeon takes Jesus in his arms, he utters the prayer “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” (Full text: Luke 2:22-40.)

After acknowledging the nexus of Jewish and Christian observances represented in Simeon’s story, Helen shared parts of an op-ed piece by David Brooks called “Alone, Yet Not Alone” (New York Times, January 27, 2014). The vicar ended her sermon by playing an Audrey Assad song, which she had discovered by reading the article. Through her retelling of the Presentation story and the music, Helen was extolling wonder as revealed by Simeon.

As soon as I got home, I went straight to my computer, found the Brooks article, and printed it out. What an unusual commentary to appear on the New York Times comment pages. It is something of a pastiche of thoughts and discoveries starting with a statement that there is in America a vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers (Jewish, Christian, and others). After laying out the argument for his thesis, he adds this sentence, “And yet there is a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.” I was excited when Brooks used a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book God in Search of Man: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.” It took me right back to the boiling water.

We speak with wonder about the universe when we have a chance to see the night sky out in the country with neither moonlight nor the glow from a city to interfere with the display of stars and planets. We speak with awe at the birth of a baby and laugh with joy when the finches shed their winter garments and dazzle us with golden feathers. In matters of faith, when our life experience takes us beyond facts, we call the wonder “mystery.” I checked several dictionaries but none offered a precise explanation. But wonder is not precise: it is an emotion, a way of seeing and appreciating the world that we can cultivate through our awareness and our openness to amazement.

I’m now back in North Carolina, and I’ve been asking friends who enjoy thinking about such things to share their ideas on wonder. You can join this investigation either by sending me a reply (if you are on the email list) or by leaving a comment on the Decrescendo blog. I plan to write occasionally—when I have something to say—about wonder in nature, daily life, math and science, art, or spirituality. For starters, I am persuaded that appreciating the wonder of the natural world is essential to understanding the imperative for action against climate change. Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder that if she had any influence with the good fairy who blesses babies she would ask her to give them “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

To be continued… but right now it’s time to boil the water for afternoon tea.