I cannot at the moment remember the conversation that caused it to be sent, nor do I recall its author, but I have before me a paragraph that came from Claire, entitled, Stand Still and Consider. The paragraph is about radical amazement – allowing oneself a sense of “maladjustment to conventional notions and mental clichés.” It is what we do with our “higher incomprehension.” This sense of wonder is the necessary prerequisite for awareness of the divine. It seems it is also a prerequisite for humility.
Radical amazement is taking the time to experience out-of-the-box observations and interpretations of the ordinary, to look with willful non-recognition – forcing a second and third look. (Yes, it’s a Norway pinecone on my desk. But, look at it. Observe how the bracts spiral in both directions – 8 to the right, 13 to the left.) Why? How do they line up so perfectly? All pinecones do this. Nautiluses and snails develop the same precise curve as their shells increase in size without changing shape or proportion. Mountain sheep’s horns form the same spiral, so do seeds in a sunflower. Double helix strands of DNA, the Milky Way galaxy, bathwater down the drain, and moths drawn to your porch light – all the same equiangular spiral. René Descartes first described this logarithmic spiral mathematically in 1638. Jakob Bernoulli (1654-1705) called it the spira mirabilis, or wonder spiral, and wanted it engraved on his tombstone with the words, “Eadem mutate resurge.” (“Although changed, I shall arise the same.”) Spirals are part of nature’s mysterious efficiency and an ancient sacred design. But, why does nature form spirals and why are they deeply, visually, and spiritually satisfying?
Back to Claire’s quote: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind[sic] will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder.”
That’s where I’m heading. Spirals are an interesting sidetrack because I picked up a pinecone this afternoon and have been staring at it willing words to appear. One hears precious little tolerance for wondering these days. Relentless, immutable certainty seems to be required. It is a hallmark of trustworthiness and political stability (so we are told). Theological certainty proves mature faith (we hear). Except that it isn’t and doesn’t. As in the case of the naked emperor parading his fictional finery, we actually know quite the opposite to be true. The ability to introspectfully change one’s mind or point of view signifies growth and wisdom. Setting aside popular convention, questioning even that which is personally agreeable, altering rigidly (not rationally) held beliefs, ignoring intimidation, repetition, and volume – these skills are actually the sign of considered, adaptive adulthood and maturity. The ability to wonder, to imagine alternatives, to enter a higher incomprehension in peaceful mental silence, is to participate in the creative realm and activity of God.
Job wanted God to answer for the perceived injustice done to him. Job followed the rules – he bettered the rules, raising the bar of accepted righteousness. Job’s friend, Elihu, counseled him to remember the walking humbly part. “God thunders marvelously with his voice; great things does he, which we cannot comprehend… Listen to this, O Job: Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.” Job 37:14
Elihu speaks with the voice of conventional wisdom. “God is God and you are not. God knows best. Accept the things you cannot change or understand.” But Job holds out. “Why would we expect confinement to human conventions of justice of God? Amaze me! Show me the ways of the living LORD!” Job longs to be brought into the mystery, not to be squashed by it. In his refusal to be comforted, in his persistent hunger for justice, for understanding, Job is suspended in wonder. It’s not a comfortable place to be. Stand still and consider. This is not musing about pinecones. This is vulnerability. This is opening yourself to a course correction. This is a searching and fearless moral inventory. And, as those who follow the other 11 steps in AA can attest, this is the spiral way to transformed life. “Although changed, I shall arise the same.”
Stand still and consider. It is our calling as people of faith and as citizens – how are we to love our neighbor, for example? What does equal opportunity look like?
What is it ‘we’ have that ‘they’ do not?
Is life (or redemption) a zero sum gain system where one must lose if another rises? Can justice and judgment be meted out in empathy and the difficult work of reconciliation more effectively than through punishment, violence, force?
In your life, what needs to be opened to radical wonder and change?
Do we truly embrace the book of sacred stories: all people created equally in the image of God? [T/F]
…. no longer slave nor free, male or female, Jew or Gentile (or Muslim, or Sikh, or…. no more defined or confined by color, race, creed, economics, ability, love)? [T/F]
…. the Christ event already has redeemed – once and for all? [T/F]
Can you enter open-heartedly into that wonder? (please say, “Yes!”) Can you extend that holy imagination to others, experiencing God revealed in ordinary, persistent life (with radical amazement)? “[We] will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. … What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder.”
The COVID-19 virus has stopped us in our tracks. This isn’t normal. We are seeing things in new ways – dropping our mental clichés about relationships, racism, intimacy, environmental | social | medical consequences of behavior and belief, brutality, poverty, politics of peevishness and spite, creativity, home, kindness. We have been awakened. We have a unique opportunity to change what is normal toward what is good. We have the option and the power – do we have the attention span? – to implement a societal course correction toward what is sustaining for the common weal. It may not be comfortable. It won’t leave you unscathed. Change rarely does. God rarely does. But it is good and right and holy.
Stand still. And consider.
*Found the quote: Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.”