The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that existence is mysterious and inconceivable, and that it is a mystery in the full sense of the word: neither a dead end, nor a contradiction, nor even something impenetrable and dark. Rather, mystery means that a reality cannot be comprehended because its light is overflowing, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. And that is what the wonderer really experiences. — Joseph Pieper
Someone asked me recently, “What’s most important to you as a theologian? What’s your non-negotiable?” My spontaneous response was, “Wonder!” They replied, “What does that mean?” I proposed an answer of sorts, but here’s what I jotted down later on my journal:
For me, theological wonder is permitting faith to get the mind stuck in amazement, surprise, marvel and openness to the unexpected answers found in a life shot through with the divine. Answers that set the mind off-balance, i.e. re-calibrating answers.
In wonder there’s also an astonished gratitude over the sheer gratuitousness, the undeserved gifted-ness of everything. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, I experience myself as “being thrown” into existence. I was not, I never asked to be, but then found myself suddenly here. I am. I always find my “first person” vantage completely mind-blowing: what does it mean that I am me and not another? I used to think of this beginning at the age of 7 or 8 — it was my first taste of this mystery’s conundrum that leaves your “why am I me?” faced with no better answer than, “Gift.”
My favorite philosophical question is closely related, “Why there is something rather than nothing at all?” None of this world had to be, but here it is. Wow.
Existence is a ceaseless wellspring of fresh insight. Every day is as freshly new into existence as the light that followed the words, “Let there be…”
Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Wonder allows you to return to this “first” moment, which is not “back then” but now. If you allow yourself to receive existence as a new gift in every moment, it will regularly re-set the limits of your constricted horizons. I need a poem here to help me. Per Letters to the Exiles, Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of your Longing”:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Wonder is giving over your hand to God.
Theological wonder also requires and gives birth to humility. The first stance of everything is not grasping and dominating and doing, but absolute receptivity. I am in every moment receiving from God the act of being. And, by humility, I know how much I don’t know. I know that I never, in any final sense, will arrive at the end of knowledge. There’s always more, a surplus of meaning to be sought after. This gives rise in me not to shame or despair or frustration, but to hunger and thirst. Desire. Love.
Knowledge without love is data, knowledge with love is wisdom. By wisdom I see how love coheres all that I know. By wisdom we can see that everything is a gift of love given for the good of all. The universal destination of goods. “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). All I am and have is meant for the good of all. I contemplate in order to share the fruits of contemplation. I am bright so I might enlighten. I learn in order to teach and give all I’ve learned away. Wonder makes the teacher’s greatest joy not being called wise but making wise.
I want to remain restless, unfinished. Though I wish to be grounded firmly on the rock of truth, I never want to ossify. I desire certitude, not hubris. While certitude confidently raises up its wide-rimmed chalice to be overfilled, hubris builds up roundabout itself an impenetrable fortress to remain safe.
I long to remain open to learning from anything and anyone, without prejudice. I aspire to listen closely, to look closely, carefully, with discernment. I hope to greet in each new day the feast of Epiphany; to live in a perpetual wow, imprisoned there, permitting faith to inflict serial shock on my mind. Leading me up a Mountain that admits of no zenith, Christ.
Faith-drenched minds seek what keeps all our liturgical orations so hesitant to “wrap it all up” — their codas are fearful of ending: in saecula saeculorum, “unto the ages of ages.” St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the verb epektasis as a refusal to punctuate the quest into mystery. Epektasis means something like “upward striving.” Mountain climbing with Moses. St. Paul uses a form of this verb in Philippians:
Forgetting those things that are behind, and reaching forth [epekteinomenon] unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark (3:13).
Theology boils up from within the open Heart of the God-Man, gushing out into all faith-disposed minds. Boiling faith inhabits understanding, stretching its present borderlands.
Faith stays in me the surge of sardonic cynicism that can so easily overtake Church-insiders (like me) who are well aware just how terribly awful baptized humanity (like me) can be. A theologian is preserved from cynicism only in the childlike mind of Christ. Guileless. His wonder poured from the cursèd Cross and filled the bowels of Hell, where He descended. He could not but preach God’s ebulliant [from the Latin ebullire “to boil over”] Gospel of joy and hope to Hell’s prisoners (Lk. 4:18; 1 Pet. 3:19).
So we get Christ-minded saints like Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in hell, and do not despair.” And we get Popes like Benedict XVI:
Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.
Theologians are called to offer their living witness of hope in the midst of the Church. Their life should shout:
The farther you sink into the mind of Christ, the better, more joyful, more loving and hope-filled human being you become.
May it be so for me and all of us called to be theologians. Amen.