In the Grasp of Wonder

Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.

St. Gregory of Nyssa

St_gregSt. 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!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






19 responses to “In the Grasp of Wonder”

  1. handmaid leah Avatar

    Father writes: “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.”


  2. Meskerem Avatar

    Thank you father for this.

    One thing that helped me when seeing others in a hateful manner is that, thinking how that person in so many other ways is better than me…. When I think of that, there is more and more of that person’s wonders and less and less of me and the matter what I am hateful about in the first place. Like the Pharisee and the Publican. The Publican was the one who was humble and got accepted by the Lord.

    We constantly judge others in everything. How we are better than others in not doing this and that sin. How bigotry is that way of thinking of others.

    Human being is a wonder as created in the likeness of God.

  3. Damaris Avatar

    You say — rightly — that wonder is a necessary part of humility. I would add that humility is a necessary part of wonder. We will never see anything to wonder at if we ourselves loom too large.

    This is a wonderful post — now I’m self-conscious about using the word! Thank you for it.

  4. Cameron Avatar

    I also want to comment on the passage Leah highlighted by sharing something I read yesterday from C.S. Lewis’s sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

    “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

    I’ve also heard it said that as we wonder at creation, we should include human beings within that category of wonder. It’s easy to forget that we too are “creation.”

  5. Steve Avatar

    Dear Meskerem,

    I have been following your comments on Ethiopian Orthodoxy, how very interesting.

    In rabbinical Judaism, the true state of the “created order” is determined literally in God. It is in The Creator’s perfect holiness (best understood by the transliterated Hebrew word Kadosh meaning transparent) that the opaqueness of the created order is revealed, and necessarily redeemed.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    The reference to “fearfully and wonderfully made” is a specific reference to human beings.

    It’s impossible to top Lewis when he’s on his game.

  7. Karen Avatar

    “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”

    Dear Father, bless! Now, that’s a quote to remember and meditate upon! As usual, your reflections draw my heart to focus on what is truly important. Thank you.

    I love the quote from Lewis, too, Cameron. It’s bang on.

  8. Steve Avatar

    Team effort Father!

  9. Margaret Avatar

    Thanks be to God! And to all of you here who have posted! Thanks to Fr. Stephen for this post and for the comments, and thank you to all who have commented. Glory to God for all things!

  10. Steve Avatar

    Perhaps we’ll work with Maggie then! 🙂

  11. Meskerem Avatar

    Father, I am so sorry to drift away from the topic, you can delete it if you wish. Just a follow-up on Steve’s comments.

    Orthodoxy has been there for a long long time. First the people were Jewish, because of Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. The Solomonic dynasty (Lion of Judah) started with the first King Menilik, son of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The dynasty without a break followed until the last King Haile Selassie in the 20th Century. Because of that you see a lot of Jewish tradition still carried on. Most of the literature is also same as in Hebrew. (By the way there is alphabets in Ethiopia, hence their own writings, books and so many older books). For example we say Bete which means “house” as in Bete-lehem which is house of meat in Hebrew (House of the Consecrated Bread). We say “Bete kristian” for church which means house of Christians. Or for the churches named after the Saints or the angels Bete-Gabriel or Bete Mariam for our Holy Mother church. Other words like “Shama” is candle same, “Kahn” is priest same as Jewish priest.

    Other things we still do is on processions, when it is a feast day for the Saints, we do the same way the Israelites used to celebrate the ark. Right after the Liturgy we go around the church 3 times and there is trumpets, flutes and drums and the people do elulta, it is just like you are in heaven (literally), your heart is in heaven on that ceremony and very colorful too. They all hold up colorful umbrellas (umbrellas just made specially for the churches). No where is this done except that you read it in the OT.

    Also I remember my grand parents celebrating the Sabbath. They will not wash clothes or even grind coffee because they rest to celebrate the Sabbath, again just like the Jewish.

    When Christianity came and when Queen Candice (Hendeke) (the 73rd in the dynasty) sent her eunuch to Jerusalem, he got Baptized by Philip (book of Acts in the NT). Philip saw him reading the book from the prophet Isaiah, a proof that people were Jewish before they were Christians, and this was God’s Will for the people of the South (as they called them at the time). Hence they were Christians since. It did not end there, the Lord kept the blessing with Saints who came from all the areas that the apostles used to teach, they came from Antioch, Constantinople, Gilcia, Rome, Asia Minor, and Tyre and others. Never were they disconnected. They were the first to have a Monastery in Jerusalem at the Holy Sepulchure (which is the poorest as it has been always funded from Ethiopian rulers and currently by the Christians who visit for Pascha only and trying to hold on). Very close connection with Egypt and Greece as well, hence St. Athanasius and others are very well known and celebrated. There are Holy Waters that heal sick people, like Holy water of St. Gregory (Gorgorios). They have the prayers of St. Basil (Kidus Basilios) always part of the faith. There are so many Saints as well who have given their lives for the Faith.

    What helped the most for the people to hold on to the Faith for such a long time is because of the rulers Kings and Queens being Orthodox. There are a lot of old churches still from 500 ad. Some very amazing ones from 12th Century.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is indeed a most ancient and rich tradition – far too unknown by others.

  13. Meskerem Avatar

    We believe the ark is there. Why it also amazes me they put it in a church named of the Lady Theotokos our Holy Mother, as she is the connection of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.

    Jesus in Amharic Language is EYESUS. Jesus Christ is EYESUS CHRISTOS.

    Father, it is unkown to others. Not too much known in the modern civilized countries. This is a long time history. Europeans started to visit only after the 16th Century after the Rock hewn Churches were discovered.

    One thing is true the Lord has always his ways to for people who seek him.

  14. Yudhie Avatar

    “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!”

    Yes, father and I am shivering! Glory to God!

    And by the way, Father Stephen and my brothers and sisters in Christ, please pray for us, because just this morning, bombs were exploded in my city (Jakarta) by extremist terrorists.

    Anyway, thanks Father, for this beautiful piece!

  15. Steve Avatar


    I would agree with Father Stephen. There is far too much about Ethiopia that is unknown.

    Not just in the great sweep of history, but also in eschatology.


  16. Steve Avatar

    Or rather, I should say WOW!

  17. Seraphim Joseph Sigrist Avatar

    Have you a precise source and context for the attractive quote from Gregory of Nyssa about concepts and wonder? For one thing I should be interested to know how he is defining “concepts” but for another it seems to be among many quotes going around unsourced from eminent figures. I have seen “Life of Moses” given as source so perhaps it is from there. with prayers and all regards
    +Seraphim Joseph Sigrist
    retired bishop OCA

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Vladyka Seraphim,
    I do not have a precise reference – but will continue to seek one out. Moltmann has it as PG 44.377

  19. […] of God” the proper response is “I do not know.” (Ch.6 ) Or as St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) writes: “every concept formed by our understanding which attempts to attain and to hem in the divine […]

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