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 Wonderful Time” — All Year

It’s the octave of Christmas – “the most wonderful time of the year.” I’m taking some moments these days to consider why this time of year is full of wonder…and also why the wonder is often overlooked. 

The thing about seeing the world with wondering eyes is that it has to be a habit for it to happen with any consistency. If we want to be people awake to the miracle and extravagant love of the Incarnation, then we have to be people who practice seeing evidence of it throughout the “ordinary time” of the year…and even in the midst of the less wonderful times in life. 

In fact, if we don’t know what we are looking for, if we mistake the flashy impersonators for the true beauty and goodness, then we will indeed have trouble spotting the wonder of the gospel message in the ups and downs of ordinary life, and possibly even at Christmastime. The joyful anticipation of Emmanuel — “God with us” — is written throughout history, is written on our hearts. He came to make us fully alive (John 10:10) and wonder-filled, to see the world with new eyes, to recognize truth, beauty, and goodness where it is present.

But think what might happen if we haven’t spent the months before December actively remembering and reflecting on the story of redemption history. We might very well — and often do — miss the most wonderful truth revealed to us in our nativity scenes. And even if we suddenly awaken at Christmas and our hearts grasp what we are celebrating most of all — God becoming man to be with us, to stoop low, to share our lot and raise us up in his glory — will we quickly fall asleep again to the wonder of the Christmas message as soon as the decorations are returned to the attic?

I truly believe that we can’t live in the wonder of Christmas if we don’t practice having wondering eyes all the year through. That is why I count the rhythms of our Catholic liturgical year to be such a gift. When we participate in the 365-day cycle of the Church — from Advent to Advent — we are practicing seeing wonder and the wonderful message each day. We are walking through our salvation story and the life of Christ over and over again, year in and year out.

The often mistaken perception of repetition and ritual is that they breed contempt. Oh, no my friend; they breed wonder. Humans never get it all on the first go ’round; we should know that about ourselves by now. But every year in the life of the Church anchors our hearts a little deeper; every return to each liturgical season cleans a little bit more mud from our eyes. So this year, if the hope and wonder of the Christmas season seems to disappear with the festive window displays, I encourage you to enter in more fully to the rhythms of the liturgical year. Mother Church — her feasts, prayers, sacraments, and traditions — will help you see with wondering eyes the evidence of the Incarnation through all of the other seasons. 

Keep wonder alive. Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2018 Jessica Ptomey