A Sense of Wonder
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.”
When you carry your young child, a son or a daughter, in your arms and both look up at the sky on a clear night, these are the nursery rhyme words that come naturally to your lips and will be repeated by your offspring once they begin to talk and move their little fingers to shape a diamond in the sky.
As we look up at the star-studded universe, we can’t help but feel a sense of wonder. We live on acreage and are in a semi-rural area where houses are not close together, and streetlights are rare. We are lucky to be able to swim in the pool at night and see clearly all the stars, the comets, and the moon – all creations not made by man.
A sense of wonder comes naturally to children who are filled with natural curiosity. That’s why they say to us: “Do it again, do it again!” They want to re-experience something wonderful, to keep the feeling alive. Children have a great capacity for amazement and enjoyment. They are open to new experiences and love to marvel at new and wonderful things.
One of the sad things about modern living is that many people try to educate the wonder out of children by saying that it is a waste of time for children to read books of fantasy or fiction. They cannot see children need to nourish their imagination and creative powers.
Some academics and politicians, and businesspeople prefer children to become adults at an early age and see value only in children being able to get a job, solve problems and increase productivity. They leave out the whole dimension of time for children to be children, to play, to wonder, to imagine, to create, and just be themselves.
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that “only to a child is pure happiness possible. Later it is always tinted with the knowledge that it will not last.”
As we grow older, there is a feeling that comes to us gradually that this world, with all its marvels, is changing and will not be around forever, and we will not be around forever to enjoy it. While this might temper our sense of wonder, it need not destroy it.
“We need to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”G.K. Chesterton
A sense of wonder is part of being healthy – emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy and well-balanced.
“The one who cannot wonder, who does not habitually wonder and worship is but a pair of spectacles behind which there is no eye.” (Thomas Carlyle); a sentiment echoed by Albert Einstein: “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
This was brought home to me years ago when I was suffering from severe depression and went for counseling by a Gestalt psychotherapist. He asked me to look out the window and tell him what I saw and heard. I said I could see nothing. My attention was centred on my depression and resentment, and negative feelings. I looked but failed to see a clear blue sky, the sun shining, luxuriant green plants, the sounds of birds, and traffic going past. At such times of depression, a sense of wonder is extinguished, overcome by negativity.
The History of Wonder
The word “wonder”, they say, comes from the Old English word “wundrian” which meant to be struck with surprise or astonishment. It is expressed in words like “awe”, “curiosity”, “reverence”, and “marvel”.
There is an obvious connection between wonder and knowledge, in that wonder can be a natural progression from knowing. “For all knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure itself.” (Francis Bacon) And, “as knowledge increases, wonder deepens.” (Charles Morgan)
Some people have the knowledge, but remain skeptical and will not pass judgment on what they know. Some go the other way by experiencing a sense of wonder and then wanting to find out more knowledge about what they’ve seen.
Perhaps that is why the early Greek philosophers put such a high value on having a sense of wonder. They saw it as part of the necessary equipment of a wise person. Socrates said that “philosophy begins in wonder,” while Aristotle wrote that “it was through the feeling of wonder that men now and at first began to philosophize.”
Somehow, these early pagan thinkers came to the realization that our world and the whole universe exist; but it need not have. They marveled at the order and design existing in nature and saw that such order pointed to a great mind or intelligence, greater than ours, that bestowed such order. One can only imagine their sense of wonder if they were alive now and had access to a modern microscope to see the amazing microcosm that exists and is not normally seen by the naked eye or had access to our powerful telescopes to explore the expanding universe.
These early philosophers thought about other people and themselves in relation to the whole universe and came to the conclusion that we are something, but we are not everything. We are important, but there is a power greater than us. Little did they know that in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the late 20th century and beyond, people would still be struggling to accept this in their lives.
The philosophers thought that happiness came from enjoying life to the full, the life of the body, and the life of the spirit. We’re alive, so let’s be grateful for that and make the most of each moment. There will be suffering, evil, and tragedy in life as well (just as it was acted out in the Greek plays), but it is up to us to keep our “spirit” alive. Wonder is something that nourishes our spirit and makes us look beyond ourselves. As Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, explains: “It is a good thing to renew our sense of wonder.”
When you study comparative religions, you realize that most primitive people were affected by a sense of fear and guilt. They tried to offer sacrifices to appease an angry god. But they were also full of wonder and awe. When they looked around them, they felt grateful for the rain, the sun, and the creatures that gave them food and clothing. They saw certain objects or events as sacred or holy, like the sacred River Ganges.
They also felt this world was their home. Humans were part of nature and lived and belonged in a world that had many mysteries but a world that had meaning for them. A sense of wonder led them to celebrate festivals of gratitude for fertility, harvest, and for survival in an unpredictable world.
Times have changed, but believing people still worship and find they still need a sense of wonder or spirituality to live a balanced life. The writer and poet, D.H.Lawrence wrote, “The sense of wonder, that is our sixth sense. And it is the natural religious sense.”
Anyone who looks through the lens of a camera as they try to capture one of nature’s scenes is usually moved by what they see:. Something not made by man or woman, but something of beauty or power.
“God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond reason.
“It is good, maybe, that we cannot understand some things. If we asked only for what we understood, I think our lives would be much poorer than they are. Sometimes we gain so much more than we are expecting.”Thom Lemmons. Jabez – a novel. London. Hodder and Stoughton. 2001, p129
Even if people feel they have no faith in anyone or anything, there can be moments of genuine wonder that make them think more deeply. This is shown in the novel by Howard Fast:
“What do I know, Joseph Cullen? Not a devil of a lot more than you do. Oh, maybe the feeling for God that you have yet to encounter. You don’t believe in God, do you?” “No, padre.” “Then what do you do with the wonder, Joe?” “What do you mean?” “The wonder, the mystery? Have you never felt that moment when things come together, and it explodes in your mind with the sheer beauty of it?” “……I think it happened to me once…..it was the first time I ever slept with a woman.”The Confession of Joe Cullen. London. Hodder and Stoughton. 1989, p 69
In the Bible, wonder is part of the spirituality of the Jews. The word is often used in conjunction with “sign” in the context of great events in Jewish history where God reassured the people he was with them:
“They (God’s commandments and laws) will be a sign and a wonder over you and your descendants for ever.”Deut. 28:46
The wonders God did for his people included the calling of Abraham, the birth of his children, the rescue of the child Moses, the voice from the burning bush, the plagues on Egypt, the exodus through the Red Sea, and subsequent major events in their history. Never, ever should we forget what God has done for us:
“Remember the marvels he has done, his wonders, the judgments from his mouth.”Psalm 105:5
The Bible also speaks of wonder in relation to the response that we should make to what God has done:
“Cast your eyes over the nation, look and be amazed, astounded, for I am doing something in your own days that you would not believe if you were told of it.”Habakkuk 1:5
In other words, God is still working wonders for us; but we need to be aware and receptive if we are to see this. Perhaps this is the crux of the problem. How can we gain or regain our ability to wonder?
Jesus said we must be like little children. One feature of children is their ability to wonder and be surprised. We must develop that skill in our relationship with God. “You are the God who works wonders.” (Ps 77) and “I will remember the works of the Lord; surely I will remember thy wonders of old.” (Ps 77:11)
Sometimes we receive a stimulus to wonder we see a waterfall, a beautiful sunrise, a rainbow….and it reduces us to silence and awe. We might try to capture it on camera or video so that we can relive the experience later.
Or the experience might be traumatic in its wonder: a flood, fire, earthquake, or car crash. The event might be awful and life-threatening, but it changes us. We see life differently afterward, and our values change or are challenged. The material things we once valued so highly no longer have the same importance.
At other times, we have to pause in order to wonder. Modern living, with its fast pace, is the greatest enemy of reflection and wonder. For instance, a couple who work full-time come home exhausted, yet still have to give time to their children, help with homework, prepare a meal, drive to Little Athletics or music, tidy up, and so on. There is no time to stop and reflect.
Somehow we have to fit in even a few minutes of time for ourselves, to take a deep breath, chill out and take a good hard look at what’s happening in our lives, to notice the highlights and the lowlights of the day, and to thank God for things: a smile someone gave us, the warmth of the sun, the colour of the flowers and so on.
“Meditate on God’s wonders. Can you tell how God controls them or how his clouds make the lightning flash? Can you tell how he holds the clouds in balance, a miracle of consummate skill.”Job 37:14-16
Some of today’s astronomers might scoff at such words and such attitude. They say they can explain everything through science. But they are gradually finding out more each day about the “wonders” of nature, and the more they explore, the less they know. One can choose to attribute everything to a “Big Bang” or to a Power Greater than Us. We humans, out of all creation, have freedom of choice.
In 1978 I wrote an Easter Musical called “He Lives” about the last days of Jesus on earth. The musical was performed by students of Mt.Maria College, Mitchelton, Australia, and one of the songs expresses a view about “wonder” with a child-like simplicity:
THIS I DO BELIEVE
They say God made the mountains, and they say God made the sea.
They say he made the thunder, and they say that he made me.
They say he made the birds that fly across the summer sky
And in this faith, I’ll live and die, and this I do believe.
Tho’ troubles come, as come they must, and fools try to deceive,
They’ll never shake my home and trust, and this I do believe.
They say God made the sunshine, and they say God made the snow.
They say he made the valleys, and he made the rivers flow.
They say he has the answer for the people who ask why
And in this faith, I’ll live and die, for this, I do believe.
They say he made the mighty world, and they say God made the night.
They say he made the raindrops, and they say he gave us sight.
They say he has a home prepared for when we come to die
And in this faith, I’ll live and die, and this I do believe.