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.