One evening last week I had the television on while I was doing something on the computer, and the British drama Grantchester was on in the background. The show is about an Anglican clergyman in Grantchester, England, who finds himself swept into all sorts of mysteries and mayhem. I watched it years ago in the earliest seasons but hadn’t seen it since. And I wasn’t paying much attention to the story, because my focus was mostly on the file in front of me. But at one point in the story, a former nun who had left the convent says to the clergyman with a sad sigh, “You’ve lost your wonder. All you have left is judgment.”
That one moment of the show that caught my attention has stayed with me all week. Can the same be said about us? In times of trial, in times of threat and change, it is understandable if for a time we lose our sense of the goodness, the safeness, the blessing of life. But when we lose our sense of wonder, our ability to be enchanted by and marvel at the mystery of life, what we have left is hardness, irritation, and defensiveness. When we turn that on ourselves and others, it comes across as judgment.
Granted, right now, you might argue, there is little to be enchanted with. We are facing multiple crises and great risk—personal, financial, societal. Is now the time to wonder, to marvel, to welcome the things in our lives that stir our hearts to a sense of awe and amazement—and hopefully, awareness of and connection to our divine companion?
I would offer that now is precisely the time—perhaps now we need it more than ever. Wonder, researchers tell us, is something humans not only need but crave as we do our best to live lives that bless others, that contribute to the common good, that have purpose.
According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, awe is described as, ““that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” We feel awe or wonder often when we encounter beauty, when our hearts are touched, when we get a sense of God’s presence with us. The feelings wonder brings—a lifting of the heart, a quieting of the mind, an openness in the spirit– take us beyond ourselves and inspire us to marvel for a little while at the mystery of life that is so much bigger than we are.
As part of the study, researchers included a number of experiments that allowed them to explore awe from different perspectives. First they wanted to see if wonder comes easier to some than others. They also wanted to know where and how participants were likely to feel that sense of wonder, and whether feeling it had any kind of lasting effect on them—for good or for bad—afterwards. In the final experiment they took participants to stand in a great forest of eucalyptus trees, eliciting feelings of reverence. After these experiments, people in the study went through an activity to help researchers see whether the experience of wonder brought about any kind of change in their attitudes and behaviors. In every single case, the experience of wonder brought about a change related to what they called “prosocial behaviors,” or behaviors that were “positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.”
The lead researcher, Dr. Paul Piff, from the University of California, Irvine, said,
“Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.”
So in other words, the sense of wonder—which helps us remember with awe that God is infinitely bigger and wiser and more loving and beautiful than we are—makes us better people, more caring toward others, more aware of our place—a small place, but a beloved place—in the scheme of things.
The parable we heard from the New Testament is one of the best loved of Jesus’ healing stories and in this story we can hear that the people came away with a sense of wonder at what they’d witnessed. Word of Jesus’ fame had been spreading. People from all over were now coming to hear him teach. On this particular day, scripture says, the “power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.” A group of men brought their friend, who was paralyzed, on a mat and tried to get him through the crowd to Jesus, hoping for a healing, but they couldn’t find a way through. Someone had the good idea to take him up to the roof and lower him down on his mat through the ceiling tiles, placing him right in front of Jesus. Those are some dedicated friends! Those are some people with a strong faith in the healing abilities of Jesus and a great trust in God.
Seeing how their faith flowed into their considerable effort, Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Of course the Pharisees and teachers of the law began grumbling immediately, saying among themselves that Jesus was putting himself on par with God, which was blasphemy. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and called them out on it. “Which is easier,” he asked, “to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,” or “Get up and walk?’” He told the man to pick up his mat and go home, and the man did just that, praising God all the way. The last line of this story says, “Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.’
It’s wonder, isn’t it? They were in the presence of a force much bigger than themselves and they recognized it and marveled. Divine love and light and wisdom that shone forth with such clarity and goodness that it forgave sins and healed illnesses and revealed deceit and ill will. The light of God, shining clearly, inspires awe and brings wholeness. It touches our hearts and opens our spirit and we know—without even needing to think about it—that we God is near. That’s how wonder connects us—instantly, experientially—to God. It could never—it can never—it will never be another way.
I like the way Douglas Gwyn writes about this in his book A Sustainable Life. In his first chapter, he writes,
“[The] focus and intention [of Quaker spiritual practice] are evoked by two guiding images of early Quaker counsel: light and seed. They are two aspects of a single reality. Just as physical light has the qualities of both a particle and a wave, so “that of God” in each of us manifests in these two ways. Quaker faith and practice is lived in the dynamic relationship between light and seed, between knowing and being, between insight and action. What the light reveals to us changes the quality of our being. The seed of a new creation is “raised up” in us. We feel compelled to act differently. Likewise, as we begin to act differently, the light reveals more truth to us. We continue to grow in this dynamic interaction. Meanwhile, this new creation is grounded in the old creation. We embody it in our natural bodies.” P. 2-3
Light and seed. Knowing and being. Inspiration and action. Two aspects of our relationship with God that continue to be lived out as call-and-response as our faith deepens and grows. God inspires us to deeper understanding, and we move forward in our lives, changed, lifted, and ultimately healed. Instead of relying on friends to bring us closer to an experience of divine love, we take up our mats and walk.
The research on wonder revealed that people often experience that feeling of transcendent awe when they are out in nature, surveying a beautiful scene or drinking in the peaceful quiet. In 1898, when he was 56 years old, the great psychologist and philosopher William James decided that he needed fresh inspiration for his writing and he undertook a great hiking journey through the Adirondack [ad-i-RON-dack] Mountains in upstate New York. He undertook this quest, carrying an 18-pound pack on his back, right after he finished reading the Journal of George Fox. Inspired by Fox’s experiences, he hoped to have his own “openings” along the way that would bring him a sense of spiritual illumination. In particular he was hoping to experience a transcendence that he could share with others in the Gifford lectures he was soon to give at the University of Scotland.
His quest in the mountains proved to be a turning and deepening point in James understanding of spirituality. Before that time, always fascinated with religious experience, James had researched and explored the topic with an intellectual approach—he thought about it, he read about it, he studied it, but he hadn’t felt it. The sense of the numinous he experienced in the Adirondacks brought him a felt sense of wonder, a knowing that comes only from having been touched—truly touched—by the grace of God’s presence. Now James had his own “openings” to share with his listeners at the lecture series. He wrote that he now would be able to
“load the lectures with concrete experiences of spontaneously seeing beyond the limited self, as reported by predecessors like Fox, the Quaker founder; St. Teresa, the Spanish mystic; al-Ghazali, the Islamic philosopher.”
This echoes the words from George Fox’s Journal we know so well:
“There is one, Christ Jesus, who can speak to my condition. And this I knew experientially.”
That last word is vitally important. Experientially, Fox says. Not intellectually, having reasoned out that yes, logically, Jesus can probably help us. Not academically, having studied all there is to know about Jesus and deciding that he probably is who people said he was. Experientially—as in I experienced this, I myself was the man on the mat lowered through the ceiling by my friends. I myself was the widow who put her last coins in the treasury. I was the Samaritan woman at the well, the man who’d been robbed along the road, the lost sheep. I discovered, felt, knew the saving, healing, loving power of Christ in my own soul and body and life. That’s experiential faith. Fox—like William James and all the mystics across time–had an experiential knowing of the power and presence of God. They had an experience of wonder, in which they felt the awe of transcendent love that is so much bigger than the small and fractured world of conflict most of us walk around in each day.
In the verse you heard from Psalm 27 this morning, David is expressing how vital it is for him to see the goodness of God at work around him in the world. He needs it, he says. I like the translation from the New King James Version, which reads,
“I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
David needs to be continually reminded of God’s presence at work in the world, his intention toward goodness for his children. Without it, without hope and the experience of wonder and transcendence God brings, David said he “would have lost heart,” which means he would have been full of sorrow and despair. He would have lost of courage. He would have given up.
Is it possible that we, today–as we struggle through a pandemic of historic proportions, as we wait with trepidation to see how bad the looming financial crisis will be, as we mourn with those who hurt and pray with those seeking justice, as we witness the lack of civility, distrust, and anger from coast to coast—is it possible that we are a people who have lost our sense of wonder? It often feels—as the nun in Grantchester said—that all we have left is judgment. Perhaps when that rises in us—a tendency to judge our neighbor, to reject instead of trying to understand those with different views, to be hard and harsh in our ideas about things we may not completely understand—perhaps we can stop and pause and recognize our hunger and thirst for a real, experiential sense of God in the here and now. We need an experience of wonder.
If we are open to it, God will calm our hearts and open our minds and be a balm for our tired and aching spirits. There is one, Christ Jesus, who can speak to our condition, especially now. We know who he is. We know where to find him. We, like George Fox and William James, can know this experientially. Let’s let our sense of wonder—the doorway into an immediate connection with God—be our leader and guide this week as we do our best to carry and share the loving light we are given, in the hope it will bless and calm and encourage a hurting world.
- OT Psalm 27: 13
- NT Luke 5: 17-26
- Research on wonder: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201505/the-power-awe-sense-wonder-promotes-loving-kindness
- William James: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James