The Scarcity of Wonder in our Black-and-White, Know-it-All World

“If I had influence with the good angel who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

– Rachel Carson (The Sense of Wonder) –

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I spent my early years in a small village in northern Germany. A village surrounded by endless pine forests that my parents and I would regularly walk through. To me, it was an enchanted forest. From the large ant-hills with their complex and intricate architecture on which my Oma would lay her handkerchief on the way into the forest only to retrieve it afterwards smelling sour (meant to be good for the sinuses?!) to the many creatures that called that forest home, it filled me with a sense of wonder.

Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher, defines wonder as something that arises within our emotions when “something quite new and singular is presented … and memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance.” It is a feeling of surprise and admiration when we experience something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Wonder is intrinsic to human nature, engaging our curiosity and nurturing our creativity. Descartes called wonder our most fundamental emotion.

Wonder unites science, religion and art. It draws on us emotionally, creatively and instils reverence. Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, says that wonder is “one of the principal human experiences that lead to belief in an unseen order.” Environmentalist Rachel Carson argues that we have an inborn sense of wonder, manifested and prevalent in children. She writes, “If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in …” In a world that is becoming increasingly dogmatic, operating from a stagnant black and white perspective, I lament that we are experiencing a scarcity of wonder in our speed-driven, technology-addicted, and artificially-stimulated world!

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Our developed world suffers from excess-syndrome. We have the level and benefits of health and wealth that our ancestors could not even imagine. Today’s ill health is often caused by excess itself as we gorge ourselves on the bounty that capitalism has provided on the backs of our poorer global neighbours. Yet with all the excess we have not only become increasingly dissatisfied, but fearful, cynical, anxious, paranoid and selfish. The wonder that a walk in a forest may bring, has now become a distant memory. At times it is felt through a sense of nostalgia evoked by the rare poem we read when time permits.

The religious sphere in many parts of the world has been hijacked by a blistering, blustering and self-righteous form of fundamentalism that prides itself on being ‘right’. This form of imagined and desired moral absolutism has reduced the mystery of God to a spreadsheet of culturally preferred yes-and-no answers that have created a tribal shame culture where wonder has been ridiculed and alienated. Sadly, it is this religious space that is shaping so much of the next generation’s worldview, impacting on their perspective and wonder.

C.K. Chesterton said that we are perishing from lack of wonder, not for the lack of wonders. Mike Yaconelli wrote, “Children live in a world of dreams and imagination, a world of aliveness … There is a voice of wonder and amazement inside of all of us, but we grow to realise we can no longer hear it …” It is time to have a wonder renaissance!

Maybe it is time you reclaim your human birthright of wonder? Maybe you lost it because your sense of wonder was ridiculed? Or analysed? Or prohibited? When was the last time you stared into the fathomless night sky and wondered? When did you last listen to a piece of music that moved you to tears and made you wonder about what it really means to be fully human? In these uncertain times where so many of the messages we receive on a daily basis are filled with gloom and dread, may you again find the courage to wonder. May this wonder bring you joy.

The root of the word “educate” meant “to care” – a caring that flows naturally from a deep feeling for the world. This kind of care seems to embody a type of wisdom that has nothing to do with information or knowledge in its restricted sense. Our connection to the world is not through information about it, but through a sense of wonder. How long since the cry of insects and the sight of the setting sun brought us deeply into ourselves?
– John Wilson (Reflections on Everyday Life)

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Thin Places: Where Heaven and Earth Embrace

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Exodus 3:5

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Last year I visited Elk, or Lyck as it was known to my family. The town of my ancestors. I stood on the shores of the lake that held so many of my childhood fantasies. Fantasies that were fed by my grandmother’s mesmerising stories. I walked through the vibrant forest, up a hill, overlooking that magical place of a thousand lakes. I could hear whispers from the past, a distinct sense of the closeness of another dimension. It hit me. I was again standing amidst a Thin Place.

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The Celts coined the term ‘Thin Place’ for spaces and moments where the distance between heaven and earth seems almost non-existent. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the Thin Places the distance is even smaller. My guess would be that the first person to utter the term probably did so in an Irish brogue, as they stood in wonder, looking at the wind-swept isle of Iona or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick.

Thin Places confuse our senses. We suddenly see the world in a different light. Our perceptions change. With breathless wonder we encounter the Divine and it changes us. For people who hold to a faith, Thin Places are those places where we feel most strongly connected to God’s presence.

“Thin Places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.”

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As I stood looking around by the lake at Elk, memories came flooding back. I was familiar with Thin Places. I remember the moment I stepped onto the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, that holy hush that descends as all words fall short in the face of such beauty. Or as I watched the sea eagles swoop through pristine Norwegian fjords. I recall the Thin Place moment as I trudged through the dark, cold catacombs along the via Appia in Rome, sensing that I was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And then there are those Thin Places of life and death. The moment when I took my newborn into my arms and marvelled at the wonder of life. Or when I held the hand of my dying mother on one warm and balmy December evening, and watched her pass over to another dimension filled with light.

So what makes a Thin Place ‘thin’? Not every beautiful place we encounter is a ‘Thin Place’ and it is not necessarily marked because of its tranquility. Perhaps a Thin Place can best be identified through how it effects us, changes us, strips us, and transforms us. We can’t really plan day trips to Thin Places. Rather, it seems, that Thin Places find us. Those mindful moments when suddenly we catch a glimpse of heaven and earth, unencumbered. It is that moment of recognition that Jacob experienced and exclaimed: “God is in this place — truly. And I didn’t even know it!”

It is the moment we passionately wake up:

“Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies towards the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope.” John O’Donohue

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As I stand on the threshold of a new and different tomorrow, I also sense this is a Thin Place. I feel like the last few decades, lived in a blur of hurry and productivity, have given way to a rhythm of grace, and of seeing and hearing with an ever increasing sense of wonder. It has not been a comfortable place. I don’t think Thin Places are intended to be. Rather, it has been a place of irrevocable change of the way I view and relate to the world and who I am.

What about you? Can you identify some Thin Places in your life? What was it about them that made them Thin Places? How are you different because of those moments?

You only have one life to live and it’s not as long as we’d like to imagine. May you resist the temptation to live it in the way others expect of you. May you live deeply and not be asleep when the sun rises. May your very life be the sacrament of a Thin Place for you.

“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time … you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” Frederick Buechner

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