Listen To Article
On Tuesday morning I looked up from the plank position I had been holding and saw a dolphin. And then another dolphin. Just their dorsal fins arcing up and out of the water, then disappearing, then cresting again. Twenty-four hours before I had been shoveling my driveway, bundled up against the nine-degree wind. Now I was in shorts and a tee-shirt, working out on a deck looking out over the ocean, shaded by palm trees.
This week I’ve been given the tremendous gift of hospitality from friends who have rented a place in Florida, right on the beach. Being two weeks past second vaccine dose, I felt comfortable enough braving airport and plane to travel down here and soak up some much-needed sun and warmth.
But it’s not just sun and warmth that I’ve re-discovered down here. I’ve experienced something I haven’t experienced in a long time – asombro. Wonder.
I took on this trip a book I’ve long loved: Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty by Cecilia González-Andrieu. It is, as you can imagine, a beautiful book. As I sat on my deck chair Tuesday morning, watching the sun come up, I re-read these lines:
“Without an ability to recognize the truly beautiful, we cannot mourn its absence, and thus wrong or sin becomes difficult to identify, let alone oppose. Finding something very beautiful is to have it awaken love in us. This is the unique work achieved by wonder.
“One of the many possible ways to translate the word “wonder” into Spanish is asombro. When someone is asombrado, there is an understanding that something has acted upon them and that there has been a response, they have become wonder-filled beings…When we become asombrados we are no longer able to cling to the illusion of control and omnipotence. We have been made small and take on the characteristics (in ourselves) of our awe-filled response” (pg. 36).
The pandemic has changed a lot for us. And one of those changes that I wasn’t quite able to name until I was standing in front of the ocean, laughing with delight at a pelican flying past, is a flattening of our lives. It’s become increasingly difficult – particularly as winter set in – to have moments, experiences, that act upon us, pulling us out of ourselves, leaving us wonder-filled. Our days are so routine, so monotonous. Our world is so small and limited. On the one hand, this routine can be a good thing during a season of uncertainty. But it leaves little room for becoming asombrados.
And we need asombro. Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, writes that there is for all humans, religious or not, a sense of fullness and richness that life could and should have, and there are three ways we live in relation to this fullness. We experience it powerfully and profoundly in moments of wonder, moments of awe, moments that leave us feeling fulfilled and at peace with the world and with our God. We experience it in its absence, exiled from that fullness, feeling adrift, our lives full of ennui. And we experience it in a middling way, going through our everyday routines of work, play, and family life feeling generally content and happy and okay. But, he says, essential to this middling way is the feeling or belief that we are keeping the exile/ennui at bay and are buoyed by those occasional experiences of fullness and fulfillment.
To be wonder-filled is to be sustained, to be given a gift that orients our ordinary days. Wonder awakens us, says González-Andrieu, to love. Put another way, wonder draws us into relationship with God, and thus into right relationship with each other.
The wonder of listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings played in the dark during a Good Friday service. Singing along with a thousand other fans at a concert of your favorite band. Screaming and crying when your favorite soccer team scores the winning goal with just seconds to spare. Crossing the finish line of a marathon. Watching from the coffee shop window as a man offers his umbrella to a stranger at the bus stop. Holding a newborn baby. Taking communion. Standing on the edge of the ocean and spotting dolphins.
The sixth-century mystic theologian Pseudo-Dionysius said about beauty:
“Beauty unites all things and is the source of all things. It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty.”
Beauty – wonder – pulls us out of ourselves and orients us towards God. The world would be a better place – at church, on capitol hill, in our own families – if we paid more attention to our need, our longing, for beauty. If we became asombrados. If we lived out of the characteristics of our awe-filled selves.
There’s not a whole lot we can do about the fact that many of these awe-inducing experiences aren’t possible right now. But it’s been helpful for me to be able to name this loss, to identify that undergirding all the many emotions that have arisen over this past year is an overall sense of exile from that place of fullness, from those sustaining experiences of wonder. And to affirm for myself that the longing for fullness is good and important.
So, call me a rebel, but I’m not giving anything up for Lent this year. We’ve given up just about enough, thank you very much. Instead, I’m going to look for wonder. For beauty. Wherever and however I can. And cling to this gift that sustains my faith, that reassures me of the presence and goodness of God. My Lenten prayer will be a seeking to become asombrado.