From time to time, upon surveying our culture, I’m inclined to see the specter of barbarians at the gates. Some of you, I strongly suspect, have experienced a similar temptation. A temptation is precisely what it is, though. Lately I’ve found deliverance from this particular evil by way of The Blue Planet, that wonderful BBC nature documentary series. Watching it has opened my eyes afresh to the astonishing diversity and abundance of marine life and to the mystery of creation in general. In short, it has reawakened my capacity for wonder. Wonder is a powerful antidote to despair. And so, in an attempt to provoke a similar reaction in you, here are three invitations to wonder.
I hope you’ve been fortunate enough to have encountered Robert Farrar Capon’s book, The Supper of the Lamb (1967). If you haven’t, get thee to a library or bookstore — it’s a real treat, a minor classic. Capon (1925–2013) was an Episcopal priest, an enthusiastic amateur cook, and a writer of considerable verve. These virtues come together in The Supper of the Lamb, which is part cookbook (with many recipes both in the main text and in an appendix) and part theological-culinary reflection, all in a lively prose style, evincing on every page Capon’s delight in the world around him (especially the edible bits). It’s this last that recommends his book as a stimulant for wonder.
Capon excels at disclosing the astonishing mystery hidden in even the most quotidian of ingredients. He honors baking soda with a panegyric in which he praises its manifold merits, naming it “Friend of the flatulent, Soother of the savage, scotch-soaked breast,” and many other titles. He even suggests a practice to inculcate wonder: spend an hour contemplating an onion.
In the excellent company of an onion, he says, “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. The two of you sit here in mutual confrontation.”
Then notice the onion’s qualities: its essential lines; the “elegant dryness” of its skin; the structure, color, pressure, and smell of its inner layers; the transparency of its stripped flesh. Finally, press the water out of a slice and watch the onion come to nearly nothing.
The onion itself rewards such lavish attention by bestowing hidden beauties on the beholder. And it gives even more than this, because it gestures beyond itself. Attend carefully to an onion, Capon writes, and you will glimpse that “somehow, beneath this gorgeous paradigm of unnecessary being, lies the Act by which it exists.” Attend closely to things as mundane as onions and baking soda, and you may find their beauty speaking of God (cf. Augustine, Confessions X.vi.9).
Enjoy such good food and you might end up with what Capon calls “heartburn”; you’ll end up with your “heart in motion” toward further beauty. He writes,
We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature discloses cities more desirable still.
What Capon describes lyrically and gastronomically, David Bentley Hart articulates at greater length and with more rigor, but equal passion. One of Hart’s central arguments in The Experience of God (reviewed here by Mac Stewart) is that “the contingency of finite existence directs our thoughts toward an unconditional and absolute reality”—which captures precisely what Capon is getting at.
For Hart, our wonder at “the sheer inexplicable givenness of the world” prompts a search to understand its existence that will inevitably pose the question of God. Thus, the experience of wonder — “the sudden awareness that no mere fact can possibly be an adequate explanation of the mystery in which one finds oneself immersed in every moment” — is an encounter with the reality of God.
“Wisdom is the recovery of wisdom at the end of experience,” writes Hart. By which he means that the capacity for wonder — for astonishment at the mystery of being, at the givenness of the world — is the beginning of wisdom; that it is a capacity we all begin with, but which over time becomes dulled, as we grow less willing to be addressed by the mystery that surrounds us, and more desirous of mastery; that we thus become closed to what we can only receive as a gift; and so, that the way to wisdom is thus a return to, a recovery of our capacity for wonder. The recovery of the experience of wonder opens the way for “the re-entry of transcendence” (to borrow a phrase from the poet Geoffrey Hill). Wonder is the beginning of wisdom. And reading Hart’s book will help you recover it.
Speaking of poets … they are often the best restorers (and protectors) of wonder. I need only to name Gerard Manley Hopkins and evoke “the dearest freshness deep down things” to make my point.
But I’ll do one better and end with a parting gift of some lines from a Seamus Heaney poem called “Postscript,” with the hope that you’ll experience what they describe. Heaney prescribes a drive along the Flaggy Shore in County Clare,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
by the earthed lightning of a flock of swans
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The featured image is Robert Henri’s West Coast of Ireland (1913). It is in the public domain.