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.

Put Your Hands to It

An interesting and surprising realization hit me the other day — I hardly ever write things. No, I’m not referring to my rather long postpartum absence from this blog, and I’m not talking about the craft of writing. I type emails on my computer, grocery lists on Apple’s “Reminders,” updates on Facebook and Twitter apps, and texts on my phone. But other than the rare (unfortunately) thank-you note to a friend, I don’t actually write much. Writing — the act of using pen and paper — we are still familiar with this, correct?

We type into virtual notepads, notebooks, journals and stationary more now than physical ones. Writing has become a mediated form of intrapersonal and interpersonal communication. Okay, so what? Many things have moved into mediated or electronic forms because it is more efficient, right? Yes, that is true. In economic terms, it takes less time, can be better preserved, and takes up less physical space. We may have gained efficiency, but I wonder what we lose by not taking pen and paper in hand.

If a practice starts to lack in utilitarian function, it often goes the way of the buffalo. In some schools in our country administrators have either done away with handwriting in the curriculum or seriously considered removing it. They argue that the time would be better spent focusing on typing and computer literacy skills that students must have to be successful in life. (It boggles my mind that the issue is either/or and not both/and.) It seems the shift away from physical pen and paper serves as one illustration of a larger cultural push to be ever more efficient and conceptualize the worth of many things monetarily.

Should utility be the only or primary measure of something’s worth? If so, why is it that I started thinking about all of this when I realized that I missed the way a pen felt in my hand? Why is it that the physical formation of letters and words on a piece of paper starts to unlock my creativity and generate meaningful thoughts? Why is it that I miss the tactile nature of my handwriting.

I believe that it has everything to do with the way we are made as embodied spirits. We are made to put our hands to things, not just our minds. In fact, it is in the act of putting our hands to things that they often become meaningful or help us create meaning. But putting our hands to things — involving our bodies in the semiotic process — is not always useful. In other words, it may not increase our net worth or save us time in our busy day.

For example, when I am in mass and physically participating in the liturgy, I am not accomplishing a task. Yet, my physical actions are full of meaning, and there is a mystical connection between what my body is doing and what my spirit experiences. Father Robert Barron, in his documentary series Catholicism, has described the liturgy of the mass as a useless activity, one that has no utilitarian purpose.

I think the push toward efficiency and economy in our lives (a result of modernist cultural influence) actually robs us of some experiences that would open our minds and make us more contemplative people. When we put our hands to things we are participating in what they represent. I recently experienced this in getting ready for the birth of our new son this past spring. I decided that I would make a few things for the nursery and for the new room into which my two-year-old was moving.

I confess, the initial decision to sew some basket liners and paint letter tiles for the wall was the result of not finding what I wanted online. So I bought some chalk board paint and borrowed a friend’s sewing machine. It started out as a “nesting” project, but then it became much more. With the hum of the sewing machine and my hands guiding the fabric, I found myself imagining playing with my boys in this space that I was creating for them. With every stroke of paint, my thoughts turned to contemplating motherhood and my role in my kids’ lives.

I suddenly had a desire to create more things — not because there was some need of them, but because of the space the physical activity allowed for contemplation.  I now understood why people love sewing, or quilting, or gardening, or painting, or smoking their pipes. These physical activities  (hobbies, as they have been labeled in our modern age) involve a tactile activity that opens up a contemplative atmosphere in our lives. I think that is one aspect of what happens in mass; I think that is the substance of my inkling to take pen and paper in hand.

We have been created as contemplative beings, but much of our daily activities in modern life do not draw us to contemplation; they drive us from it. After a while, our souls start to feel parched — the way our physical bodies feel when going too long without water. We need space in our lives for contemplation; so we need to put our hands to things more often. Grab a pen, pipe, needle and thread or your garden hoe; and let that physical activity open up space for contemplating life.