Since I wished to write an article on the necessary virtue of wonder, I thought to be Classical in the choice of my title by using Latin. To my chagrin, the two Latin words Casull’s Latin Dictionary offered for wonder either go too far (stupor) or fall short (admiratio). What else am I to do? I suppose that I could have searched for an Ancient Greek word, since Greek has such philosophical and literal accuracy; but, Greek has never been my strong suit and Latin is much preferred. So, I am left with two words which might be legitimately translated as admiration or stupefaction rather than wonder.
The quotation on which my cogitation centered derives from Socrates: “A feeling of wonder is what marks the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” To relate it back to my Latin title, it may indeed begin as admiratio but become stupor when one realizes the vast extent of knowledge which one shall never obtain–not even if one had five lifetimes! A philosopher is one who loves knowledge, knows that he has very little, and continually searches for it. In this way one is continually amazed by the new material coming into his mind.
A certain professor of philosophy named Dr. Graham McAleer exemplified this quality for me this semester. On one occasion, I corrected him when he said that St. Bonaventure must have written The Journey of the Mind to God long after St. Francis’ death since St. Bonaventure was the seventh General of the Order. I responded that the distance separating them was not long at all because St. Francis gave St. Bonaventure his name when that person was born (I think that the original story is slightly different–but, that’s what I said, and it was St. Francis who gave St. Bonaventure that name), predicting a happy life for St. Bonaventure, whose name means “Good Journey.” To this Dr. McAleer’s eyes widened in amazement. His astonishment was such that it frightened me! Here was someone who taught Bonaventure and philosophy for such a long time and he could still experience amazement concerning a short work whose pages he has made opaque with marginalia! I cannot think of a more perfect example of a man with the quality of wonder.
The attitude of wonder leads to openness and humility, which has its opposite in pride, close-mindedness, and being domineering. Many people pride themselves as thinking that they can control their own lives, that they know all they need to, and can put people into boxes to be manipulated or judged at will. The last is particularly prevalent. We know someone for a few months and believe that we know all their idiosyncrasies. We expect them to act and react in certain way. Rather, we should refrain from putting people in boxes–even when it seems tempting–so that we might continue to marvel at them. This produces more charity and better relationships between people. I wonder whether the cause of so many unhappy marriages is that spouses have placed one another in a box and lack interest in them, because they feel that they already know everything about their spouses. And boredom equals disinterestedness, which ferments annoyance, which flames anger, which pours out divorce.
But, perhaps the most common ways in which people box one another are in the realms of politics and religion. How is it that knowing one or both of these things permits us to neatly package up another person and be done with them? I suppose the most obvious answer is that these ways of thought have consequences in real life and people of these ideologies act in unison. If Liberals are in power, gun laws are emplaced or guns taken away, abortion florishes, welfare programs increase, business taxes increase, government spending increases, less money is spent on the military, etc. With Conservatives, the exact opposite occurs. However, people are much more complex than the ideologies they belong to–and even the ideologies more complex than we imagine! I doubt very few people are exact caricatures of the ideologies they serve. This holds even more true in the realm of religion: the practices of religion and each person’s relationship with God vary so much because of the more personal nature of religion. As St. Faustina said, people are worlds. Don’t place people in boxes!
I had a vision of this while reading Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s memoirs of his career in the Pacific theater during World War II, Baa Baa Black Sheep. First, the man in general is difficult for me to understand. Then, the people he meets are of the same class. In particular, this passage when over my head, but will likely be understood by some of my dear readers:
Thought of seeing the ground crew, and the few of the staff who had waved farewell as we had taken off, came through my mind. On most of them I had interpreted this wave to mean: “I hope you get back alive.” I assumed that a few were thinking: “I hope you never get back.” But to hell with them. To hell with them all.
I would have understood this had he been referring to the second class of people, but I cannot understand his vexation with all of them. This condemnation went well above my head. No doubt, my acquaintance with Pappy Boyington will prove most fruitful. May you all have someone rather translucent in your lives! (I avoid saying opaque because–even though one can certainly marvel at a person one has no understanding of–one cannot really have a relationship with someone unless they understand at least a little about them.)
We even go so far as to put our own selves in boxes: either we strive for something we’re not or we make ourselves less than we are. This is all due to our controlling, know-it-all natures. We ought to rather imitate Padre Pio, who said: “I am a mystery to myself.” This does not contradict the dictum to know ourselves; but perhaps that our own efforts to understand ourselves ought to lead us to greater wonder concerning ourselves. With this kind of openness, i.e. not trying to control our own lives but being open to where our gifts and talents lead us, God can take control of our lives and draw us to situations and places we would never have thought possible for us.
So, do not judge, do not condemn, and forgive all offenses. And remember St. Gregory of Nyssa’s famous advice: “Concepts create idols, only wonder understands.”