Nurture a sense of wonder
Teresa McCaffery reflects on wonder, and how it can enrich our our spiritual lives
I still like to read fairy tales. They are entertaining for children but also express deep and constant wisdom of much value to adults. Children’s literature often makes very good spiritual reading. There’s one type of tale that turns up in many different forms. Two older brothers are energetic and pragmatic but the youngest is a dreamer who never seems to get anything useful done. In this Norwegian version the protagonist is called Espen Askelad. The pragmatic older brothers are on their way to help the King and Espen has begged to join them. As his brothers march briskly along he hears an axe chopping and says, “I wonder what that is”. The brothers assume it is a woodcutter and march on, but Espen wanders off and finds a magic axe. In this way he finds several magic tools which are, of course, essential means of solving the king’s problems, which are also generated by magic forces, and the people realise that “Espen Askelad did not wonder in vain”.
Wonder is fostered in children by the telling of fairy stories which express fundamental truths in a clothing of magic, fairies and wicked ogres. As they get older that sense of wonder becomes active as research and produces its own magical results in the form of new inventions of great benefit. When today’s wonder meets the results of earlier wondering the results bring unexpected understanding.
Because the people digging foundations in Spitalfields market in London wondered who had been there before, they organised an archaeological dig. They found a mass grave, and wondered why and how all those people died together. They looked in the records and discovered that in 1358, summer did not happen, and many people died of starvation because the crops failed. Further research showed that this had happened all over the world at that time. We already know that such a cataclysm would be the result of a massive volcanic eruption and have the means to prove it. Volcanic dust from that time was found deep in the ice of both North and South Poles. This tells us that an eruption did happen at that time, and that it must have been huge, and near the equator. But no known volcano fitted the pattern. A modern Espen Askelad set out to find it.
Satellite images were his first magic tool, they revealed a huge lake, four miles across with a sharp ridge all around it on a small island in Indonesia, a long way from anywhere. He knew what this meant and used beautiful television imagery, helped by computer simulation to show us viewers how the molten rock at the centre of the earth had found cracks in the structure of the mountain above. Rising through the mountain the molten rock escaped and the mountain fell into the space it left below smashing to dust as it fell.
So, mountains do fall, and hills turn to dust.
I remembered all this when I read this morning’s psalm (92/93)
The world you made firm, not to be moved
Clearly that did not refer to an island in Indonesia that blew itself up. Volcanic eruptions happen because the structure of the earth is not static. Tectonic plates move over the surface of the earth. They crash into each other raising mountains, and slide over and under each other creating local instability; volcanoes (and meteorites for that matter) can have a massive impact and leave the surface of the earth looking different in places, but the planet itself stays put, as does its creator.
Your throne has stood firm from of old
From all eternity, O Lord, you are
The collapse of that mountain sent a plume of dust miles into the sky and the wind then spread it over the whole surface of the earth, from pole to pole. It blotted out the sun for at least a year, so no crops could grow, and people starved. Our scientist used his other magic tools; carbon dating confirmed the date of the eruption and electron magnification of dust residues the identity of the mountain. This was, indeed, the eruption that resulted in the death by starvation of those people in Spitalfields six and a half centuries ago.
Now, blotting out the sun takes quite some doing. The energy released by this ‘act of God’ makes our hydrogen bombs look like fireworks, but make no mistake, once the dust had settled, even if it took a year or two, life started to flourish again, and evolution continue even if our planet looked a little different in places. The radiation spat into the atmosphere by our nuclear weapons will continue to do harm, effectively for ever.
So now we wonder how we, and our world, can survive the impact of original sin and its effect on our environment. We may wonder also that God sent His son into this sick and dangerous world to bring healing. It is no wonder that He was killed but it is the ultimate wonder that He rose from the dead, and that all sin can be forgiven, and all harm healed.
The Christian who wonders at the love of God will also find magical tools. The example of the saints will fire his enthusiasm, the sacramental life of the church will strengthen faith, the community of the church offers the possibility of strength in numbers around Christ who said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name there I am in the midst of them”. But in a world full of pragmatic ‘older brothers’ it is easy, even in church, to forget the love that wants to stream between us. Instead we allow our heads and backs to bend under the weight of all that needs to be put right.
On retreat we withdraw from the active work we do as we deploy our talents in the service of good. We wander away, like Espen Askelad, to find out more about the signs around us; signs that could be interpreted in an ordinary way, but may also bring us to powerful healing work. In any household there are many jobs to do. Parents will teach their children to do this or that work on a regular basis as part of their responsible membership of the family. A good Christian knows to work conscientiously doing what his or her job requires.
But God knows more than I do. He knows talents in me that may never have found expression, He knows the context in which I can be most effective and, above all, only He can know how much he loves me. We start our retreat by letting our God love us, for that we need silence, and inner openness, but into that silence, as the retreat goes on, there comes teaching. God walks with us like a guide, pointing out things we might not have noticed. Once seen never forgotten, we return to our normal context with a sharper eye for what is going on, and what needs doing. No longer restricted to carrying out instructions and doing our duty, we see what needs doing and get on with it unasked.
Ignatius tells us, in the first week rules for discernment, to do good and satisfying things, from reading lives of saints, or poetry, to walks in the country or gardening. We can withdraw from our busyness at any time by doing these things and so nurture that sense of wonder which will encourage us to get closer to God. Who knows, you might even go on retreat. As you walk through life in an atmosphere of love and wonder much good will be done and people will say of you, as they did of Espen Askelad, that you did not wonder in vain.
Image: Espen Askeladd from " Far, far away Soria Moria Palace shimmered like Gold" by Theodor Kittelsen (Google Art Project)