Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.
St. Gregory of Nyssa
St. Gregory of Nyssa’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 posted recently a passage from the writings of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos on humility – around which, he taught, wages the whole of the spiritual battle. I suspect that wonder is a necessary part of humility. For humility is found not so much in thinking little of myself as in thinking more of everything and everyone else. Humility will flourish in a heart of wonder.
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 56 later this year. But I have been around long enough to see my last child through high school and now preparing to enter college. I have been blessed with nearly 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).
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.
But 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.
One of my favorite sayings a statement I’ve heard often from Fr. Thomas Hopko, the Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary: “You can’t know God. But you have to know Him to know that.”
It is a wonderful thing to say and expresses so much of the Orthodox way of life.
In a conversation with him last autumn, I told him that the more I write, the less I know. His response was to the point: “Keep writing. Someday you’ll know nothing. Then you’ll be holy.” Wouldn’t that be a wonder!