“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.” – St. Gregory of Nyssa, 335-395
“You learn to be astonished. That’s how you pay your dues.”
– Over the Rhine, “Betting on the Muse”
My mom texted a picture to all seven of us kids at the end of August after Nathan, my youngest brother and twenty years my junior, left for his freshman year of college. “In the first week of empty nesting we found an empty nest!” she wrote.
I couldn’t figure out what made the photos so memorable, so gleefully nostalgic and cozy, invoking this thought that I’m totally the product of these people. This piano teacher, carpenter and me – how did finding a nest and interpreting it as symbol trigger such positive, rosy emotions of our bond? I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
Our politics are different now. Our faith expressions take different shapes as I am Episcopalian and they are Protestant. We have different education levels and pay grades. My dad is uneasy about Stephen Hawking’s The Illustrated A Brief History of Time having a place on my bookshelf. Upon visiting, the only thing he could manage to say about our church home when I asked what he thought was, “It’s a beautiful building.”
Months later it came to me.
They have instilled in me a way to view the world through a spiritual lens that doesn’t just take ordinary things at face value, that attaches significance to reality that we don’t necessarily understand but surely appreciate. This kind of seeing breaks barriers of all kinds: generation, education, income, creed, culture. Anyone can be fluent in wonder if they are taught to see it.
My dad is a carpenter because he loves to work with his hands and be outside, even in the Chicago winters. He’ll always text us the first time he sees a robin in late February or when he spots the first leaves changing in autumn as he rolls past the suburban forest preserves in his truck. My mother’s sense of wonder is more rooted in people (especially babies, which explains giving birth seven times in two decades) or books or music.
As for my parenting, I’m not that into strategies or methods. So many are contradictory and confusing and detailed. My hands are full just trying to parent with love and the mindfulness of God’s presence. Also, the writers of those books seem to overestimate the energy level of parents. We. are. tired. And frankly as a mostly stay-at-home parent for nearly a dozen years now the last thing I want to do when the kids (finally) go to bed is read about the reality I just survived in this home. I want to curl up with poetry, or an expertly crafted novel, thank you very much. I’ll read about parenting in my spare time when accountants are reading about accounting in their leisure time or teachers are reading about teaching in June.
With this wonder thing, though, I can get on board. If we do nothing else right as parents, we can raise monarchs in jars, we can grow tomato plants and greet the frogs that make a home in their shade, give them names. We can teach respect for all life and show them how to humbly live alongside it. We can try to have a shared meal every day. I expect this might get us pretty far in the family life gig.
Last October our priest Father Randall opened his homily by describing a video that went viral online. A whale-watching family is in the Puget Sound and three whales come over and visit the boat, swimming under and around them. The family is completely frightened. One calls 911, another wants the engine started. “These people had not been introduced to mystery,” said Father Randall, “in mystery we encounter that which is greater than us, that which is bigger than us, that which we don’t always understand.” He went on to talk about not letting the anxiety keep you from feeling the awe, that we must hold awe and anxiety together.
This winter a former priest of our parish died. I didn’t know Mother Beth but was part of the choir that sang at her funeral in January. Years ago she wrote a letter to her 19-year-old self that was distributed with the funeral bulletins. Closing the letter she said “Pay attention,” in a context of gently nudging into a joyful place of wonder. Be sure you’re noticing the wonder all around you, she wanted her reader to know, would want us to know. Don’t miss it. Be amazed. Don’t get lost in what’s immediately in front of you. Go out and sit. Watch things. Notice mindfully.
What germinates from this kind of attention is astonishment that when shared is a kind of communion. It is in this space that the dividing walls between us crumble and we are one just as Jesus Christ so fervently prayed we would be.
What have you noticed recently that brought you awe or amazement?