The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Watching for Wonder
I witnessed a disruption in the park recently.
A cluster of people gathered by the side of the road, some with cell phone cameras capturing the scene, others stopped in their tracks while on a morning jog. And they were all looking up.
Perched in a large tree overlooking a lake was a bald eagle. The eagle seemed unconcerned and unimpressed about the gathering crowd. The crowd, though, was delighted and fascinated by the unexpected appearance of such a dramatic bird.
I had as much fun watching the people as I did marveling at the bird. (And, yes, I took pictures of my own -- of both subjects.)
This eagle is an occasional visitor to Denver's Washington Park. It shows up for a few days most winters, drawn to the ice-free water of the shallow lake, and enticed by the fish that can be scooped up. Over the last several weeks, it has been there with some regularity.
Park neighbors keep their eyes open, watching favorite trees, but the big bird isn't there often enough that it becomes a routine sight. Folk seem to love the unpredictable sightings. Even those who are normally immersed in exercise routines or phone conversations stop to look, and even talk to strangers about this special experience.
I find hope and joy when I see jaded and preoccupied city folk captivated -- even for just a few moments -- in such a spontaneous expression of wonder.
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Wonder is a marvelously spiritual emotion, because it draws us outside of ourselves. That which inspires our wonder captivates us, claiming our attention, asserting an aspect of reality that is beautifully and compellingly "other."
Wonder is easily evoked, it seems, by wildlife. When a deer wanders near a campground, people fall silent and move carefully, so that they don't frighten this gentle creature. They want to prolong the moment, and treasure the opportunity in a time of shared presence.
In the mountains just west of Denver, there is a section of highway that is especially dangerous because a herd of bighorn sheep will sometimes graze right on the shoulder of the Interstate. Skiers headed for a day on the slopes will slam on their brake and stop in the middle of the road to see the powerful animals.
It isn't only "charismatic megafauna" that can stir this emotion. I have had the joy of being lost in wonder while gazing into the rolling water of a tidal pool, seeing a profusion of life in a bathtub sized hollow.
And wonder can come watching a bee poke through a cluster of flowers, or watching a spider spin a web, or seeing an infant discover its fingers for the first time.
Wonder calls us outside of ourselves, and that is a gift that we desperately need in a time when so many of us are stressed and overwhelmed and struggling to cope with a complex and conflictual world. When we are caught up with our own needs, when the world around us seems threatening and out of control, then a moment of wonder brings us back to a spiritual truth.
Theologian Sallie McFague describes two contrasting ways of viewing the world, which she characterizes as the arrogant eye and the loving eye. In "Super, Natural Christians", she wrote that the arrogant eye sees from a perspective that is distant, detached, and objectifying.
The loving eye, on the other hand, acknowledges complexity, mystery and difference. It recognizes that boundaries exist between the self and the other, and that the interests of other persons (and the natural world) are not identical with one's own, that knowing another takes time and attention.
Experiences of wonder are occasions when the vision of a loving eye breaks through. We see some part of the world around us -- some small and specific part -- as a being or a presence in its own right. We encounter a subject to be met and understood, not an object to be used and controlled.
In the introduction to the encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis looks back to his namesake, Saint Francis, for insights about how to live in right relationship with God's whole creation. He lifts up the saint as an exemplar of integral spirituality, remembering how "each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection." And the Pope stresses that such an attitude of relationship is essential for us all.
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
For St. Francis, love and wonder were the norm. For most of us, those attitudes are remarkable gifts.
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Wonder cannot be coerced, only invited. I don't think I can enter into wonder as an act of will, or as a scheduled daily discipline. But we can be intentional about nurturing a loving eye, and creating opportunities for wonder.
It is possible for wonder can break through our busyness and self-centeredness -- as the eagle in the park demonstrates -- but wonder is more likely to bubble up when we slow down and relax. Taking time to be in a natural setting or a garden, with a pet or a child, increases the odds that we'll notice and respond to some delightful other. Turning off the TV and the cell phone, and disconnecting the earbuds, opens a better space for wonder.
God's creation is inherently relational. From swirling galaxies to tiny atoms, in the web of ecological ties to the intimate love we celebrate this weekend with Valentine's Day, we are most honest and most alive when we recognize the astonishing variety of subjects and relationships that surround us.
When we allow ourselves to experience wonder, we are blessed with a taste of God's presence. This Lent, and in every season, be intentional about creating space for wonder.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org