I have been reading a book lately, called “Phosphorescence”, by Julia Baird. I have loved it and she writes quite beautifully about the things that give us light, particularly awe and wonder, but also our internal light, and particularly when things go a little pear shaped!
But she is speaking to a contemporary audience that may not of heard of people who have been writing in this area over many years. People like Carl Sagan, a famous cosmologist and thinker, who quotes Albert Einstein and Thomas Carlyle in his book “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”
“By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, `I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.` So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.”.
What about Rabi Abraham Heschel, who coined the term Radical Amazement. Who said that wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of a religious life and the proper response to our experience of the divine. Much like Carl Sagan.
As Herschel says, the insights that connect us to the holy one come not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable.
Living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul. I love that.
Without radical amazement we cannot grasp what a marvel of creation we are, in a sea of marvels. Even with all the death and destruction that goes with it.
I personally have always had this sensibility, teaching anatomy has left me with awe at how complex and intricate our bodies are, how incredible is the process by which we live and move and have our being. But not just us, creation in general, both big, ,and really, really small, amazes me.
Recently I have become fascinated with the brain, the mind, consciousness and the philosophers guide to all of this. Some of it seems totally crazy but so incredible.
Without doubt, this feeling of wonder, has lead me to believe there is a greater mystery to life that can be measured or examined with a microscope. That a divine layer lies beneath, a creative energy seeping into every living thing that holds the whole thing together. That leads us out of our self-absorbed world into the wider one, embracing life for all. As Heschel says, “living in radical amazement brings us into a space in which great things happen to the soul”.
One of the great things about working for a church, is I get time to ponder some of this stuff, and in that pondering many years ago I discovered Mary Oliver. She writes her poetry with eyes wide open to the natural world, but in her later years to the something more stirring within it and us.
Most of my congregation hear from Mary regularly, and I even use her poems when conducting funerals and weddings, when sometimes only a poem can truly express our emotions.
Julia Baird ends her book with a famous Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day”, where the last line says,
“Tell me, what it is you plan to do,
With you one wild and precious life”?
I do love that one.
But this is another one of my favourites –
“When Death Comes.”
She ends it with these lines…
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world in my arms.
When its over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself signing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”.
I recommend both the book, and of course Mary Oliver. Or perhaps, if you aren’t feeling like reading, just go out and take a walk.
And look around you a bit more intentionally. It does help!