The spiritual discipline of wonder

John Green, in The Anthropocene Reviewed, has a lovely chapter on wonder. After noting how often we fail to notice greatness amongst us, much less wonder at it, consumed as we are by our riches or our suffering, he makes a sharp transition:

But I will confess this endless parsing of ambivalences and ironies exhausts me. Here’s the plain truth, at least as it has been shown to me: We are never far from wonders.

He then tells a beautiful story of walking through the woods with his two-year-old son. He wants Henry to see the stunning landscape, but his son isn’t interested. It’s frustrating. But his son grabs a boring, ordinary brown oak leaf, and says to his Daddy, “Weaf!”

Thankfully, John pauses long enough to notice the leaf. And then to wonder at it.

He concludes:

Marveling at the perfection of that leaf, I was reminded that aesthetic beauty is as much about how and whether you look as what you see. From the quark to the supernova, the wonders do not cease. It is our attentiveness that is in short supply, our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.

Have you ever had an experience like that? Something so dull and blah you’re irritated that you’ve wasted part of your life on it… just to realize that you are beholding a marvelous treasure?

I would suggest that the Scriptures also point us to notice - and to wonder.

I mean, how’s this for a good first sentence?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Or how about Psalm 19?

The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour out speech;

night after night they communicate knowledge.

There is no speech; there are no words;

their voice is not heard.

Their message has gone out to the whole earth,

and their words to the ends of the world.

What are you giving your attention to?

What has roused you from the slumber of the quotidian to the humility of wonder?


Thank you for this post! I do try to stop and wonder at the world but I seem to have lapsed in the habit recently, so it’s a timely reminder.

Firstly, i stopped to wonder at the word ‘quotidian’ which I enjoyed :slightly_smiling_face:.

Your examples reminded me of my children’s collection of things they bring home from our nature walks…usually shells, stones, leaves, and sticks. I often wonder why; it always seems to be the dullest stone, most tedious stick, or ordinary leaf. Yet they are treasures to my children and are put in a pot on the kitchen side (until I manage to lose them in the garden again). I try to enjoy the beauty of the ordinary at these times. I have to stop rushing around though, in order to take in beauty.

I think this must come from a tendency to set apart some of our day as ‘spiritual’, and the rest as ‘secular’, and detached from God. For example, when doing my Bible study, I am carefully trying to think and notice things. But when I get up to do my chores, I become absent minded.

I have a great book, called ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary’ by Tish Harrison Warren, where she takes ordinary moments of every day life - making the bed, eating breakfast, losing the keys etc - and using them to know God better. It encourages us to take the mundane and find a chance to worship God. In the introduction by Andy Crouch, when addressing our tendency to make secular life ordinary, and also the rituals of spiritual life ordinary, he writes:

Worship itself is made up of ordinary stuff. We use plain words. Some of the most glorious words in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer are, well, common and plain enough to make you weep - “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us”. We are baptised in plain water. We consume plain bread and wine. And it is all lifted up by plain people.

Yet all of this is far from ordinary. Our bodies, our pleasures, our fears, our fatigues, our friendships, our fights- these are all in fact the stuff of our formation and transformation into the frail but infinitely dignified creatures we are meant to be and shall become. Our moments of exaltation and our stifled yawns - somehow they go together, part of the whole life that we are meant to offer to God day by day, as well as Sunday by Sunday, the life that God has taken into his own life. It is the life that Christ himself assumed, and thus rescued and redeemed.

What a prompt to look at the ordinary parts of our lives, even in our worship, and rekindle a sense of awe about God and his creation through these mundane moments.

The other night I sat by a fire in the garden and saw the constellations above. It always takes my breath away. The monumental scale and distance of those heavenly bodies in relation to me sitting in my garden is more than my mind can bear. In those moments, I can’t help but contemplate with wonder the greatness of God. It’s barely a conscious thought, but a sense of overwhelming awe takes over. I think this could only happen because I had put my phone away, I couldn’t do chores around the house, and all I could do was sit and look. I forced myself to notice and enjoy. I would love to have a child like wonder more often.

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I love this. The natural world has always been a source of wonder to me, whether, like @alison, I am watching the stars (next to a fire pit…glory! :fire: ) or wandering through the woods listening to birdsong. And now that I’m back in the South, I’m soaking up all the ‘night noises’ (crickets, frogs, cicadas, etc.) that I’ve missed for the last 6 years!

But, I suppose lately, I have given time to develop the wonder of taste. I mean, I’ve always loved eating but I’d never really been interested in creating things to taste. Sometime during the covid lockdowns, my housemate (and good friend) decided to engage more with the wonder of fresh herbs and spices. As a result our ordinary eating almost resembled a feast…not in the sense of quantity or complexity of dish, but in the sense of taste. There was a vibrancy brought to an everyday leafy salad by just adding fresh flat-leaf parsley and coriander/cilantro…or a to a chicken soup by toasted and freshly ground cumin and coriander seed. :kissing: And now that I have some familiarity with those tastes, I can combine them with other tastes to create layered, rich textures of taste. So many possibilities…

Alison mentioned Liturgy of the Ordinary, which is a good one. It made me think of my introduction to ‘ferial and festal’ cooking by another good Episcopalian, Robert Farrar Capon, in his book, The Supper of the Lamb. The man engages with taste with engaging grace and humor, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

And now, as it’s dinner time, I’m off to make tacos. :laughing:

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