St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA
Other columns in series:
With my previous posts, I offered a few thoughts on how the principle of sub-creation (by which I mean everything from painting to music to story-telling to equation-solving) is part of the hard-wiring in each human person, and why such activity remains significant and sanctifying, across the eras and the continents.
Now I’d like to go “further up and further in” (to borrow from Lewis’ “Narnia”). And what I’m about to discuss here is something that has been exquisitely dealt with by far better writers, but I believe that it’s too important to evangelization just to gloss over with a casual reference. I am talking about wonder…the recovery of which could be one of the keys to the exhilarating adventure of evangelization in our world today.
With each generation of technology, and with all the advancements towards high-definition, true-color, perfect-audio, it’s getting increasingly difficult to hold the attention of young people today. They expect – on some level – to be entertained. It’s as though they’ve “seen it all”. If a young man of 19 thinks “he’s seen it all”, how does that affect the way he’ll live his life? One dangerous scenario is that he will start trying things which deviate radically from the knowledge, experiences and skills he believes he has already mastered. It might be new levels of violence in video games, new drugs, risky sexual escapades, or other hazardous actions which have very unfortunate consequences.
But you try to tell him that he should instead become “like a little child” and he will no doubt laugh. Try to tell him that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are the meekest, and he might think you’re just borrowing lines from a medieval school book for prospective monks. And I cannot think of a more intimidating task than handing a disillusioned teenager a book of fairy tales, with the hope that he’ll return to his senses by way of a compelling morality tale. I’m also not proposing that you should necessarily do any of these things, at least not without a little context and explanation.
By asking us to become like little children, Christ did not mean that we should be naïve, foolish or childish (in the sense of “immaturity”). Certainly there are a great many mysterious things that He meant when He spoke those words to his disciples, but one thing I take away for the purpose of this column is that we must recover the sense of wonder which makes childhood so distinct from the “elder years”. You know: the time in life when the smell of incense, the sound of the ocean, and the presents on Christmas morning were all minor miracles.
Now, imagine for a moment that you came across these words in a book:
“Farmer Smith awoke abruptly the next day. “Too early” was his first thought, and “is it really day already?” his second. But he glanced out the window and his spirits could only lift at the majestic sight of the green sun, nudging its way higher and higher into the sky, announcing the new morning.”
Of course (hopefully?) you’ve noticed that there’s something curious about this brief passage. Our sun is not green. It’s yellow. The suggestion of a non-yellow sun might ruffle a few of our feathers, even unconsciously. But reading about a green sun only makes us think harder about the yellowness of our own sun. Perhaps that is something we might not have given a thought to since we were on a playground, when we noticed how the clouds rolled in and stole away the light. The grownups thought of an impending rainstorm, but the children thought of eclipses and magic. The strange depiction of something so familiar might stir in us the yearning to take a step back and say: good heavens, our sun really is a blinding sort of yellow.
Another step back might reveal how red and velvety those flowers in the neighbor’s window are, even though you’ve been walking past them for a solid week now. A few steps more, and that friend or spouse or sibling now has that glow of a recovered treasure which has been buried underground for years, and is only now tasting the light of day. They’re tall! They’re kind! They’re loud! They’re generous! They’re beautiful! We are starting to get the hint as to why playing around with adjectives is a big part of storytelling – they yield the power to awaken something inside of us, and inspire us to do such things as jumping to the defense of our own sun.
But I return to our young man, who is now playing Angry Birds, texting and listening to music all at the same time, while you are gesticulating wildly in order to direct his attention to the fiery sunset just outside his window. There was a time, years ago, when he could have associated the dramatic colors of a sunset with the story of the dragon who guarded his enchanted treasure from would-be-looters by breathing fire from great heights. But our friend doesn’t need to believe in dragons to delight in the sunset. Delight requires only a certain measure of wonder, with a dash of enthusiasm. It also means looking up from time to time, whether it be from our computers and newspapers or from our personal (and perhaps rather fixed) intellectual regimens.
There are so many to choose from, but for now, I give you this quote from G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”:
“we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door….these tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water…”
The wide-eyed look of wonder, then, doesn’t always mean the person is clueless. I should say rather that he or she may be clued in to something good, something new. Something which may have lain forgotten while we “got on with life”. It is also worth clarifying that qualities such as humility and innocence – things so closely connected to the heart of a child – do not necessarily translate into uncritical wonder. In fact, Chesterton would argue that children are blessed with a pronounced sense of realism. They won’t believe just everything and anything. Their conclusions about the world have a certain internal consistency (they might be mistaken, but that would be primarily because the data is distorted). When we grow older (and unfortunately, children are growing older so very quickly these days) we often exchange wonder for mastery. We congratulate ourselves on our ability to analyze situations and surroundings, when in fact, we have not stepped away from them long enough to have much of a credible opinion about them at all. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then distance – by defining that which is other to ourselves – makes the heart grow in wonder.
We should not be afraid to invest our energy in becoming like little children, just as Christ asks us to. For it is the heart of a child which is open enough to be mesmerized by the world beyond her shadow. Goodness, truth, love, courage…it is no small marvel that this chaotic world is still full of such virtues, and a faithful spirit of wonder may very well bring these virtues back to life in the hearts of many; in those hearts where things have perhaps gone quiet, still, and stale.