To Live in Wonder

Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything – St. Gregory of Nyssa

St. Gregory’s marvelous dictum is among a handful of things that describe what is required for the Christian life. So much of Christian history has been marked with a bifurcation – a split between those who study the faith and those who live it. It is not a necessary split – only a common one. Of course there is the larger number of Christians who do neither.

But wonder is an essential attitude of heart – without it – we will see nothing as it truly is.

The Scriptures tell us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” – which also means that other human beings should be approached with awe and wonder. We will not see them nor love them as we ought if our heart is dwelling in some other mode.

I tend to see wonder in two particular places – in children and in those of older years. My own children have always been a revelation of the world about me – a chance to see the world as though for the first time. To watch the wonder of a child beset with the jaded cynicism of our culture is surely to see one of the most crucial battles of our age. Cynicism is generally always correct for it lacks the wonder the alone would reveal its error.

The wonder of older years has been something of a new revelation for me – if only because I barely qualify for “older years.” I will turn 57 later this year. But I have been around long enough to see my last child enter college. I have been blessed with 34 years of marriage. With those years comes an increasing sense of wonder at how things have worked together to be what they are. I am less impressed with my choices and the power to choose. Rather I am overwhelmed at the good that has come to me that I did not know to choose (and it came unbidden).

My wife tells a story about her father – that once on a vacation the children balked at one of his suggested “side-trips.” He chided them for their lack of curiosity. I’ve always marveled at the story – far too few parents seek to encourage curiosity in their children – it is part of a life of wonder.

I remember an event with my two oldest children – when they were quite young. We were hiking through Duke Forest in North Carolina, and came across a circle of mushrooms. It is commonly referred to as a “fairy circle.” When I exclaimed, “A fairy circle!” my children laughed at me and told me there was no such thing. I chided them lightly for their own confidence in a “literal” world.

The are many delusions in life – many of them are about ourselves, other people and the nature of things. Wonder sets a guard about the heart that – along with other things – provides a hedge against delusion. Wonder may recognize what we do know, but always brackets such knowledge with the realization of what we do not know.

I am occasionally upbraided by some of my non-Orthodox friends for becoming a part of a Church “that thinks it has all the answers.” This is a mistaken view of Orthodoxy. The certainty established by the dogmas of the faith and the discipline of the canons are not meant to create in the Orthodox mind the hardness of flint. They describe the boundaries given us by Christ and set before us the markers of a pilgrim’s journey.

The life of the Orthodox faith is one that is rightly lived in wonder. To confess God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not to say that I have now “comprehended,” but to confess Him who is beyond our comprehension and who, wonder of wonders, condescended to make Himself known in the incarnation of the Son of God.

St. Paul tells us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

For most of my life I interpreted this to mean that I would know quantitatively as God knows (as unbelievable as that may seem). However, I now think of it as knowing qualitatively as God knows – to know in the manner that God knows. We are certainly taught to hold God in wonder. Perhaps it is also true that God, in His knowledge of us, holds us in wonder as well.

It is quite possible (and most common) to find belief in God held as a proposition – a matter of the intellect. In the same manner, many doctrines are held (and argued) as propositions. God does not hold us as propositions – thus such knowledge cannot be the goal of the Christian life (nor even its substance).

We should seek to know as we are known – “to behold the beauty of the Lord, to inquire in His temple.” It is to seek a knowledge that is truly wonderful.

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30 Responses to “To Live in Wonder”

  1. Mary Lanser Says:

    Oh what a sweetheart you are, Father. I’ll think of something more intelligent to say later but for now your post simply touched my heart so deeply.

    I remember as a child, lying in front of the big fireplace in my grandfather’s study and watching the flames flicker and dance. Papa said to me “Mary, do you see the fairies dancing in the fire?” and I remember to this day peering in and furrowing my brow and squinting, and for the life of me I saw no fairies. He tried and tried to show me the dancing sprites and I never did see anything but the disappointment on his face.

    Being a literal child is a terrible thing but having a literal child must be far worse.

    Now it is a bit different. Today in the mail, I received a book by Dom Cuthbert Butler called “The Lausiac History of Palladius: A critical discussion together with notes on early Egyptian Monachism, part six.”

    I’ve been sitting here for some time looking at the cover and I hesitate to take it up and read….for fear that the cold eye of the classicist and ancient documentarian will spoil the awe inspiring inner link that I feel with the ancient hermits of the desert. Do we dare to disturb their slumber and the echo of their voices through the ages?

    Well…that’s it.

    M.

  2. Prudence True Says:

    Sometimes, Fr. Stephen, the “side-trips” are little more than complicated detours, but here your path is crystal clear.

  3. Jakub Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m close to you in age (+1) and married years (32), as for spiritual matters I’m drawn to the East like a moth is to light, no wonder why I enjoy your blog…

  4. Jeremiah Says:

    I our world saw one another with wonder…
    Maybe this will mark the age to come in the New Heaven and New Earth, beholding the face of Christ and therefore the rest of eternity will be a wonder.

  5. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    I love all these comments — they express my own sense of wonder so much better than I could myself. Congratulations, Father, you’ve done it again.

    Also congratulations on your elevation to the Protopriesthood (one of your parishioners tattled). 😉 Many years!

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Mrs. Mutton,
    Thank you for the congrats. Technically (I suppose) the proper title is “Archpriest” (which is the Russian usage). I get uncertain about the term Protopriesthood. But thank you. It was a great honor (and a surprise).

  7. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    That was it, “Archpriest.” I know someone who was a Protodeacon, so thought it was the same thing. As I understand it, “Proto” is a title given to those who have 25 years of service in the priesthood or diaconate.

  8. Anam Cara Says:

    My brother told me once (I was over 50 at the time) that one of the things he loved about me was that I saw the wonder in everything – just like he did. It was such a natural thing to me, I didn’t recognize it as something special in either of us.

    He died 4 1/2 years ago and I realize now that somehow in grieving my loss of him, I also lost that ability. No wonder I still have an empty feeling! I didn’t simply lose my best friend; I lost a part of myself! He would be so sad to see that. I need to find my way back.

    Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

  9. John Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this post. I’m a young convert to Orthodoxy but have always struggled to have confidence in the faith due precisely to my desire to have a perfect conceptual knowledge of God, the world, man, sin, etc. I’ve read so often that the only way to truly know is through the heart, through love – or now, through wonder – but it is so difficult to let go of the desire for (rational) understanding.

    Is this what must be done – a letting go of this desire? How do we seek to behold the beauty of God rather than to try to comprehend Him?

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    John,
    It’s like falling in love. Or very similar to that. We do seek to know – and there are many forms of knowing – but the journey to the heart is itself part of the transformation God seeks to work within us. In some cases, some things have to be let go. Beholding the beauty of God seems a good place to start.

  11. coffeezombie Says:

    Some of the most amazing people I have ever met have been those who have not had their natural sense of wonder beaten out of them by our society. It seems that most of them were homeschooled, which, I suppose, allowed their parents to shelter them from the wonderclastic (my poor attempt at coining a word) society that surrounds us.

    Though I have never seen fairies in fire, I am reminded of once when I looked out the back window of my parents house, and saw fairies dancing in the woods. Although my rational mind knew that they were just lightning bugs, I couldn’t help but see them as fairies.

    I hope that I can learn to live in a less literal world again.

  12. Sean Says:

    Father,

    Gongratulations on your elevation! May the Lord grant you many years so that all of us ad more may benefit from your gentle spirit and pen (well, in this case, keyboard🙂 ).

    This particular article of yours is one of my favourites so far. That’s because one of my most respected friends said once (referring generally): “live your lives in wonder”. This post reminds me of that incident so strongly!

    Also, on a side-note, if I am not quite mistaken, the term for Archpriest in greek usage is Protopresbyter.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Coffee,
    “wonderclastic” will be my new favorite word!

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Sean,
    The Greek and Russian titles for priestly rank have subtle differences that I do not understand. Protopresbyter in Russian usage is a yet higher rank (I believe). It’s not been a particular study for me. I am honored by the elevation, but mostly contemplate that it simply means that there is even more for which I will have to give an account on judgment day. Would to God that my sinful heart gave as much thanks for the trials that are given to me as it does for the honors. The trials will surely work far more deeply for my salvation than the honors, though I rankle at them and do not bear them easily.

  15. coffeezombie Says:

    I’m sure my wife will give me an ear-full over ‘wonderclastic’, for the same reason she gave me grief over Paschatide (language nut that she is, she can’t stand the combination of Greek and Anglo-Saxon for some reason). Then again, she also still gives me grief over ‘pen’ and ‘pin’…😉

    On the topic of your elevation (congratulations!), one of my favorite stories you’ve posted before (if I recall correctly) about Archbishop DIMITRI is the time he was giving you…I think it was the hat (Forgive me, I can’t recall the specific term), and said to you, “Here, this is worthless.”😀

  16. Mountzionryan Says:

    @Coffezombie: I haven’t heard that one before (Vladyka Dmitri and the worthless skufia–sounds like a children’s book waiting to be written!@) Absolutely hilarious!

    Father, this is one of my favorite posts!

  17. Michael T Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this post! Today while reading Fr. Justin Popovich’s “Theory of Knowledge of Saint Isaac the Syrian,” I came across a bit that I think really echoes your beautiful reflections:

    “Faith has its own thought-forms, having as it does its own way of life. A Christian not only lives by faith (2 Cor. 5:7) but also thinks by faith. Faith presents a new way of thinking, through which is effected all the work of knowing in the believing man. This new way of thinking is humility. Within the infinite reality of faith, the intellect abases itself before the ineffable mysteries of new life in the Holy Spirit. The pride of the intellect gives way to humility and modesty replaces presumption. The ascetic of faith protects all his thoughts through humility, and thereby also ensures for himself the knowledge of eternal truth.”

    with love in Christ,
    michael

  18. easton Says:

    father stephen, thank you for this post! full of wonder is the way we should go through life. i was walking to my mailbox a while back, not realizing anyone was watching;) i was singing and sort of dancing–my retired minister neighbor called out, ” don’t ever lose that childlike love of life!” i was sort of embarrased, but now know it was a complement. congrats on your elevation! your posts are full of wonder and always touch the heart.

  19. Robert Says:

    “and said to you, ‘Here, this is worthless.'” ROFLOL – ohh that is funny, very funny. And what a way to put things in perspective.

    Congrats Fr. Stephen! The title or hat may be worthless, but you and your ministry certainly are not. Thank you for all that you do for us here on the internet.

  20. Kevin Says:

    Fr.Bless!

    Fr. Stephen,

    What a nourishing teaching. I will read this several times.

    -K

  21. coffeezombie Says:

    Wow, a lot of people have picked up on that story; I sure hope I’m remembering it correctly! I haven’t been able to find it on the site so far, however. Hmm…I was sure I read it here somewhere…

  22. Karen Says:

    A lovely repost. Thank you. Many years on your elevation! May God grant you even more fruitfulness in the years to come. (I don’t like the pruning either-it hurts!)

  23. John Says:

    Thank you for the response, Father.

  24. Jeremiah Says:

    Does the term AXIOS apply to elevations, as well as ordination? If so, then Axios!!

  25. Sean Says:

    @Jeremiah: Strictly speaking, the exclamation is used in ordinations, but the word itself means “worthy”, so I guess it can be used under any circumstances, and especially in a case like this!

  26. Micah Says:

    I believe it certainly does Jeremiah– Axios! Axios!

  27. James the Brother Says:

    MARY LANSER, MARY LANSER! you’ve created a poetic soft landing flourished by a gentle zepher….well done.

    “I’ve been sitting here for some time looking at the cover and I hesitate to take it up and read….for fear that the cold eye of the classicist and ancient documentarian will spoil the awe inspiring inner link that I feel with the ancient hermits of the desert. Do we dare to disturb their slumber and the echo of their voices through the ages?”

  28. Elizabeth Mahlou Says:

    If only we could retain the wonder of childhood! Those who do are often looked upon as foolish. What a strange way of looking at things we adults have!

  29. Margaret Lukens Says:

    As a member of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, CA, I always enjoy seeing Gregory’s writings remembered. This is such a gem that you have shown me (via Fr. John Bostwick at St Norbert’s) – Thank you!

    Opinions and concepts are famous for their ubiquity and low value. Wonder – that is rare and precious. I would like to make more time and space for it in my days.

  30. Ruby Navarro Says:

    If only more people could read this.

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