IT WAS an obscure astronaut that got me thinking about wonderment: Edward White, the first American to do a spacewalk. And what a spacewalk it was. As he left the craft, it was as though he were a ballet dancer — turning and spinning and revelling in his weightlessness. So enchanted was he by the experience that he had to be forced back to his craft, near death, his oxygen all but given out.
Back on earth, White seemed odd; he was uncommunicative with a media that was curious for stories. Eventually, he explained that, in space, free and weightless, he had begun to understand what his Sunday-school teachers had taught him all those years ago. Being earthbound, he told the press — not being able to fly — was like Original Sin, the weight that holds us down. But, in space, he felt wonderment.
White’s story made me think about how I might experience more wonderment in my life and in my faith. I had a hunch that wonderment was more than just a fleeting feeling; that it might be — could be — at the centre of life, faith, and Church. Conversations with friends and family and those around me suggested that they all seemed to be hankering for wonder as well, and so began a quest for wonder.
My starting-point was that a Church that focused on propositional truth might be scratching where we are not itching. It might be missing the everyday sense of wonder that most of us feel. As I began to search, I found that wonder — and the God who embodies it — are much closer than you might think,
Just for starters, there are four everyday wonder-inducers that lead me straight back to God: the natural world; liminal places; sacrificial love; and the Church itself are all places where we encounter the everyday power of wonderment.
THE Dominican friar and author the Most Revd Timothy Radcliffe helped me with the first of my four: nature. “My experience of wonderment is usually when, somehow, the veil is lifted and I see the glorious giftedness of things. You glimpse the wonderful particularity of their being. It could be, as it was a few days ago, just seeing a beetle making its way laboriously through the grass, like no other being: 350,000 species of beetle, each distinct.”
I had an insight into the power of place when writing an article on Whitby. When you start asking people about when they feel wonder, they often point to experiences of places where heaven seems a bit closer than normal. I love Whitby and its ruined priory, but it was interviewing a secular historian that really summed it up for me. Dr Michael Carter, who had helped to set up the new priory visitors’ centre, told me most movingly how his whole life had been shaped and turned in the direction of being a historian by childhood trips to the ruined monastery at Whitby. He found it, he said, “a place of wonder, and it stirred my soul”.
My third encounter with wonder was right in front of me, and I had not quite realised it. I run a memory café, here at St Cuthbert’s (Faith, 27 September). It is a place of hope, and even joy. At the memory café, I began to realise that the extraordinary love of family members and friends for those suffering with dementia had “wonder” stamped right through it. It would be so easy to walk away; but countless numbers don’t, and they refuse to see dementia as the end of hope. That’s wonder — isn’t it?
Finally, the Church itself is a source of so much wonder, even in some of the things that we take for granted. The eucharist is a meal of wonder. The saints tell us their stories of old. But there is also the wonder of everyday saints. C. S. Lewis said that there was no such thing as an ordinary person. This kind of lens helps us to be dazzled by even the dullest of our fellow human beings.
Behind this appreciation of wonder is theology; most importantly, our theology of the incarnation. The old Benedictine prayer has it that the world, touched by the hand of Christ, is ordained with holiness. If that is true, then we begin to experience wonderment everywhere.
I WAS left with two questions: What does living the wonder-ful life look like, and how might we recognise a Church of wonderment?
The wonder-ful life is one that is not marked with self-centredness. It is non-violent, and open to seeing the world afresh. It is one in which the fact that we are still breathing is a cause for celebration. It is marked by gratitude to God, to other people, and to the world around us. It takes wonder as a fuel that propels us out into service and sacrifice. It seems to me that the Christian faith is the great incubator of wonder.
As for a Church that is full of wonderment, it has to be open to being surprised and waylaid. It is a Church that has a lightness of touch, and a sense of adventure; and one that shares its blessings. Wendell Berry said, in a Radio 4 interview, that his work was about capturing “the little wonders of a big wonder”. This sounds like a good description of the wonder-filled Church.
Of course, it is hard to live a life of wonderment when things are chaotic and going wrong all around us. But my quest was to see if wonder could be a way of life rather than a shallow, bucket-list exercise. Which brings us back to White, my hero: the dancing astronaut. He was obsessed with space, and was booked for another trip to the stars when tragedy struck. There was a fire in the space-capsule while it was still on earth, and he and his two fellow astronauts were killed. If only he had realised that the wonder he felt in space was all around him here on earth, he might have been content with his one space-walk.
The Revd Steve Morris is Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley. His book Wonderment: Looking for wonder, God and the good life (the second in his trilogy, Rediscovering the heart of life, faith and everything) will be published by Authentic in 2020. The first part, Our Precious Lives, will be available in February.