Only Wonder Comprehends

Learning To See What's Right In Front Of Us

I don’t think anyone who has seen the wonderful photo of the Earth in all its beauty suspended above the moon’s horizon has been unmoved—how could you be? I love the description of the Earth offered by astronaut James Irwin, the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15. He was the eighth human being to walk on the moon:

As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.

This bears a strong resemblance to something Julian of Norwich wrote in Revelations of Divine Love:

In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought, “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothingness because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”

During the course of an illness, Julian—an English anchorite who died in 1416—had a series of visions, or “showings,” of which this was one. Perhaps one reason these two passages now strike me so strongly is that I had a serious surgery not long ago. The surgeon told me that I was a lot sicker than I had known, and that after a couple of months of recovery I would probably feel better than I’d felt in years. He was right. I do, and when I saw that he was right I was reminded of an earlier, longer episode of depression that lifted after decades—and I didn’t know, in either case, how severe it was until it was gone.

Sometimes we can become aware of the way things really are only after we’ve been moved, by whatever means, to another place, a better—dare I say higher?—one. This implies a hierarchy of insight. We rise from one place to another in understanding. Sometimes it may take a period of illness and recovery—or some other kind of disruption—for us to begin to appreciate what we were not able to experience before, even if it was right in front of us. We don’t arrive at the discovery by ourselves. It really is a gift, and, like any gift, it is unearned. Unfashionable as it is to say so, older people really do know more than younger people about a lot of important things, and people who have spent a lot of time in serious meditation know more than those who have not. Just as a person who has recovered from an illness understands more about the difference between illness and health, someone whose understanding has deepened over the years understands the passage from knowing less to knowing more…and how knowing more often seems like knowing less, because you learn how much more there is to comprehend, how vast your ignorance remains.

All of this may be obvious enough. But what often gets lost is the importance in true understanding of a sense of wonder and appreciation. Lyanda Lynn Haupt has written an enchanting book titled Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (Little Brown). It is about, well, watching crows—but it’s about so much more: it’s about attention, the fruits of observation, and wonder. Her descriptions of crow society and behavior, and her honest admission that she doesn’t particularly like crows, drew me into her reflections about observation and attentiveness to the living world that surrounds us—and gratitude for it. My wife Regina and I were drawn to the book in large part because a move from the East to the West Coast led us to pay more attention to the birds in the Pacific Northwest, and to the way watching increases one’s appreciation of passing moments and one’s awareness of fragility and beauty. We have loved seeing the almost comic alertness and wariness of Steller’s jays, their eerie and keen imitation of the sound of the red-tailed hawk, and the grace and dash of hummingbirds.

Watching and waiting for hummingbirds and jays has something in common with seeing the Earth above the moon’s horizon. James Irwin and Dame Julian saw in the world’s fragility—in the radical contingency of our lovely planet’s being, and of ours—something worthy of praise and rejoicing. It reminds me of my favorite quote from Gregory of Nyssa: “Concepts create idols. Only wonder comprehends anything.”

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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