Living with Wonder

I recently read Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture. It had been on my list for a while, and it’s one of those rich classics that immediately gets you asking yourself, why did it take me so long to read this?! I regularly find myself considering the implications of his central theme: we are made to be contemplative beings, people poised in a posture of wonder as we continually ponder God and ultimate reality—the most real, most essential things. In short, he describes “leisure” as the space that we cultivate—physical, mental, spiritual—to live in a way that allows such ongoing contemplation and wonder. 

In considering these thoughts, it is apparent to me how totally opposed life in the modern world is to this posture of contemplation. Our greater American culture is one of consumption; we consume products and people in an effort to ever increase our position in society to consume to a greater extent. Work and busy activity is unending, and true leisure is scarce. We live in a world that makes it hard to establish the space necessary to experience wonder; and if we do occasionally pivot to a contemplative stance, it is something that seems impossible to maintain. So often, this cultural description is the same for Catholics and other Christians, who have to actively reject the culture of consumerism and intentionally foster contemplative lives.   

Pieper describes what is required in order to live in wonder. He says, “The really human thing is to see the stars above the roof, to preserve our apprehension of the universality of things in the midst of the habits of daily life, and to see ‘the world’ above and beyond our immediate environment” (p. 122). This means that we have to find a way of living in the world that does not interfere with our contemplative stance, with our ability to “apprehend” the universal things of greatest importance to us as human beings. 

We need to be people that marvel at truth, beauty and goodness as we live in each moment of life and accomplish daily tasks. We must experience wonder not in spite of the experiences of everyday life and the world around us, but because of how we have positioned ourselves within the world and within those experiences. Pieper says that “the deeper aspects of reality are apprehended in the ordinary things of everyday life and not in a sphere cut off and segregated from it…” (p. 129).

With that in mind, have we positioned ourselves well? Are we able to live in a state that cultivates wonder, to take a contemplative stance? Can we say that we have set ourselves up to apprehend truth, beauty and goodness in all of the moments of our day? 

Or, have we failed to intentionally choose to be contemplative beings? Have we drifted with the current of our consumer culture, feeling the constant drive to accumulate and become more, rather than the freedom to bask in the leisurely rest of wonder—a wonder that only grows the more we saturate ourselves in it? 

I would offer a quick examination for assessing how well we are doing at living in wonder:

  • Where do we have silence? Where can it be expanded?
  • What are the sources of noise throughout our day that quench a contemplative heart?
  • What are distractions or oppositions to wonder? How could we remove them?
  • In what relationships are we invested, and do we have significant ones that spur us on to the contemplative life? Or do they make us feel that we need to acquire and become more?
  • What do we love? What we love we will worship. Are there inferior things that are stealing our sense of wonder?

These questions may help us start to assess the kind of lives we are living and what changes will need to take place for us to live in wonder. The more that we learn about God and the world he created the more we are aware of how little we actually know, which gets to the point of wonder, the point of a contemplative life. The end of wonder and contemplation is not the discovery of all the answers and the resolution of mysteries—quite the opposite. Living in wonder provides the constant reminder that we are finite, and God is infinite; that we can do so little, and He hung the stars. Wonder leads to love.

The “Non-Option” of Despair

My husband and I are currently working our way back through Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The other night we were watching this scene from The Two Towers, in which 300 men are preparing as best they can to defend the fortress of Helms Deep against 10,000 orcs that will besiege their gates by nightfall. Legolas, in great anguish, is calling Aragorn’s attention to the obvious: most of them are either too old or too young and are hopelessly outnumbered by the enemy…they are all going to die. Aragorn’s response: “Then I will die as one of them!” The video link above then skips to Legolas’s apology later, right before the battle begins: “Forgive me,” He says to Aragorn. “I was wrong to despair.”

I remarked to my husband how significant Tolkien’s theme of hope is throughout this trilogy. The company of joined Middle Earth forces is facing an enemy that has both the desire and ability to wipe them out completely. In reality, their only option is to fight this evil; their only choice is to bravely face the enemy and hope for their realm to once again be at peace, ruled by a just and noble king. In this particular scene we see what happens when hopelessness begins to blur the clarity of this reality: it causes us to abandon our cause and actually prevents us from any action. Despair freezes people

The funny thing about despair is that it pretends to give us an alternate option. But Tolkien’s depiction of hope in his sweeping narrative and through his compelling characters most powerfully reveals that despair is actually not an option, though it seems like such a viable and reasonable one in our moments of weakness and hopelessness. I can’t help but draw parallels from this film scene in our own responses to the spiritual warfare we experience in the pilgrimage of the Christian life. 

How many times do we face overwhelming odds and, over time, when things are at their darkest, get worn down to the point of complete despair? The thing about Legolas is that he is actually an extremely brave warrior and dedicated friend who, up to this point, had been a hope-filled comrade to Aragorn and the entire “Fellowship of the Ring.” He was the kind of guy who rallied the troops. But, we see that even Legolas can become despondent, given certain circumstances. We too, after fighting so bravely, can find ourselves vulnerable to the lie that the enemy whispers to our hearts: “Your hope is not a sure thing. Don’t be a fool. Save yourself the disappointment at the end. Stop moving toward heaven; it’s out of your reach.”

When we think of “options,” we think of alternate routes to get to an end goal or destination. The lie from the enemy of our souls is that despair is an option—our only option—that it has an end in store for us that is better than what we risk losing if we choose hope. But it’s a lie. Despair just arrests and binds us in fear. It is when we hear the lies being whispered that we need, more than ever, to hold on to God’s promises, to recognize and listen to the voice of the Father. This is what He says:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

“See, I am making all things new… [my] words are trustworthy and true… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”(Revelation 21:5-7) 

When next the enemy tells you that despair is your only option, remember and respond with triumph that though you are afflicted, you are not crushed; though you are perplexed, you will not be driven to despair (2 Corinthians 4:8).

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey

Spirituality in the Private Life

Undoubtably, we are all so glad to be in this Easter season and finally on the other side of Lent, as this was a Lent none of us would have imagined or chosen for ourselves. I might be wrong, but when people are signing themselves up for Lenten sacrifices I don’t imagine that anyone is telling God that they have decided to spend six weeks stowed away in one house with their spouse and children, with no social activities, and with food and supplies limited to what is left on sparse grocery store shelves in the wake of pandemic-induced hoarding behavior. I’m pretty sure no one came up with that one.

At the moment we are still living with this reality, but it is Easter now. We have the opportunity to give thanks with our families for the resurrection and the hope that is ours in this world—regardless of circumstances. Whether or not we can buy toilet paper, or whether or not we can return to a normal mode of life, God is in control and heaven is our home. And during this Easter season we also have the opportunity to assess what God has been teaching us throughout this very unusual Lenten journey.  

What God actually called us to this Lent was a completely private spirituality. And if you think about it, isn’t that really hard? It’s often a lot easier to participate in our normal public religious activities, and even add to those with more public Lenten rituals, than it is to let God work on our hearts in quiet, private places or practice charity with members of our household that are draining our already depleted stores of patience. 

As the coronavirus quarantine took effect and all public events were cancelled, we started to see an influx of virtual activities. Now on the one hand that was a huge blessing. My family has been able to watch Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire broadcast of the daily and Sunday Masses over the last few weeks; and it has been a wonderful experience to continue to pray the Mass and make a Spiritual Communion when we cannot leave our houses. But we can also see that the culture of overactivity and the tendency to avoid the gift of quiet found new ways to manifest themselves during a nation-wide quarantine. 

If we reflect on this past Lent from a perspective of divine providence, I think that we can come away with the conclusion that God meant to use this time to help us work on our private spirituality, to help us get better at the most simple and domestic expression of the two great commandments: “love God and love your neighbor.” So, if this was the opportunity that we were given this Lent, how did we do? Were we able to sit with the Lord and let Him open our hearts and convert them more fully to His will? Were we able to perform acts of service and love (seen only by God and our family) in the midst of a challenging home dynamic? 

We probably had some failures and some successes, and the beautiful reality is that every moment is a moment for conversion. If we mostly missed this unique opportunity during Lent, we can enter into God’s invitation during Easter. We can realize that God opens up these private opportunities, often ones we would never pick ourselves, because it is the private spirituality that matters most. God wants our hearts more than our sacrifices or religious activities (1 Samuel 15:22). 

In his 1923 essay “Turning Inside Out,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “All tends to return to the simple truth that the private work is the great one and the public work the small.”[1] Let’s celebrate the call to spiritual renewal in our private lives as we reflect on God’s love and provision this Easter season. Are we loving well in the private life not on display to the public? Who we are in private is who we really are. If we let God transform our private lives, I believe that we will find ourselves dynamically transformative within our public ones. 

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey


[1] Chesterton, G. K., Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey. 2011. In defense of sanity: the best essays of G.K. Chesterton. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, p. 163.