The title of my service – ‘Eyes Remade for Wonder’- is taken from the title of a book by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling weary and jaded recently in response to all the bad news stories, and the demands of these difficult times. When I become over-preoccupied with my own stuff and the weight of all that’s wrong in the world, it’s as though I become blind and deaf to the marvels that are ever before me. As a Hasidic Jewish saying puts it: “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so life’s everyday routine can prevent us from seeing the radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world.” At such times I need to ‘wake up’ – I need my eyes to be ‘remade’ so that I can notice the beauty that is hidden in plain sight – and tap into the sheer wonder of just being alive. For me, as for so many, spending time in nature is the key to unlocking this sense of wonder; despite the shock of the news and the grit of daily life – when I look up at a starry sky, or peer into the radiance of flower – something shifts, and I touch that sense of awe that anything exists at all – and with it a sense of deep gratitude, that I am part of this great mystery. And it was a sense of wonder and awe that Albert Einstein saw as being the hallmark of religion and of being fully alive:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [They] to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead — [their] eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of true religiousness.” (Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies)
Just consider the vastness of space. I don’t often star-gaze – I have to be reminded to open my door and peer out from the artificial light of my house into the dark. Occasionally – usually on holidays – in remote places with less light pollution, I remember to go outside and look up – and every time I do – I am reminded of words by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If the stars should appear once in 1000 years, how we would believe and adore, and cherish for generations the memory about city of God we have been shown.” From the macrocosm to the microcosm – viewing ‘worlds within worlds’ through a microscope – the tiniest veins of a flower petal, the jewelled glow of tiny bugs eye, and the shimmering dust of a butterfly wing…. “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.” (William Blake – Auguries of Innocence). Whether we believe the universe was created by God or some intelligent first cause, or whether we believe it came about through sheer chance … either way it’s an unbelievable miracle that any of it exists. And when I really start to think about it – it just hurts my head! The beauty and wonder of the universe surely deserves a response.
Sometimes if I am in a churlish mood, or just through sheer distraction and busyness – it’s as if I cover my eyes and stop my ears – and in doing so, a part of me ceases to be fully alive. As Jacob Trapp writes, “We can stop our ears, each with one finger, and not hear the world’s music. Our sins are many, but our greatest is that of omission; the beauty we could turn to every moment, but we do not.” In our modern world, when we have by and large lost touch with the rhythms of nature and the seasons, we may have to make a special effort to notice and reconnect with the universe to which we are so intrinsically connected. Sometimes we get bogged down – at least I get bogged down – in the minutiae of life – and the sameness of routine – especially in lockdown! But even the most common day for those of us fortunate enough not to have to struggle for survival, for those of us with more than enough food and resources – is a most uncommon day if only we had eyes remade to see it. As Emily exclaims in Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’: “Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realise you,” followed by the anguish question, “Do any human beings ever realise life while they live it – every, every minute?” Today is one common day, one more chance to be fully alive. Welcome it!” And it’s not just the natural world that causes me to swoon with wonder; despite the shadow side of technology, have you ever stopped to think of the sheer ingenuity behind the lump of metal and glass that is your smart phone (if you have one! or the tech that makes this service possible by Zoom? As I sit here typing on my keyboard – it seems astonishing that the words instantly appear on my screen. Even more astonishing the moving images and sounds of things happening half-way round the world instantaneously beamed into our homes or whilst we’re on the move. In the 21st century we can become blasé about things that would have filled our ancestors with awe, wonder – even terror! Ordinary things are in fact extraordinary.
Sometimes we marvel at what we see around us but cease to wonder at ourselves. Those of you who are parents and have welcomed the miracle of a new life into the world, have a head start. How can we not marvel how sperm and egg join to become the intricacy of the human body, inhabited by consciousness? As the writer of Psalm 139 in Hebrew scripture expresses: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me… You understand my thoughts afar off… And are acquainted with all my ways….Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it. For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.”
And Pablo Casals, the Spanish Puerto Rican cellist, composer and conductor – has this to say about the marvellous potential of each child: “Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe… that will never be again. And what do we teach our children? …that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michaelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.”
When I conduct child blessings at the Chapel, I sometimes offer parents words by Rachel Carson, ecologist and author, who in the 1950s, warned against the degradation of our planet (if only we had listened!) Carson wrote: “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world, be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life – as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and distraction of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources our strength.” Carson’s words need heeding more than ever, because a strong sense of wonder, may just be the thing that stops us from destroying the planet entirely. I believe that what will get us through these hard times – and what may just save us individually and collectively, is if we reawaken to a sense of wonder about the universe we inhabit, and our place in it. One result of modern secularisation is that we no longer see the world as sacred as our ancestors did (and as indigenous people still do.) And with this desacralisation has come the destruction of the planet. Yet despite the atrocities that humanity is capable of wrecking on the planet and each other – there is also within the human spirit something noble that rises up again and again – another source of wonder.
When we consider our place in the universe, it should generate inside us a feeling of humility – not obsequious scraping before a tyrant God, or depressed helplessness in the face of a meaningless universe – but rather a healthy awe which recognises our place in the vastness of all that is. As the writer of Psalm 8 exclaims: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!… When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God (or the angels) and crowned them with glory and honour.” The 19th Hasidic Jewish teacher Rabbi Simcha said each person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a note saying: “I am but dust and ashes.” When we feel high and mighty, we should take it out and remind ourselves of our smallness in the universe. In the other pocket should be a note saying: “For my sake was the world created.” When we feel discouraged or lacking in self-worth, we should reach into this pocket and be reminded of our unique place in the scheme of things.
Whilst reason and scientific enquiry is a hallmark of Unitarian tradition, we do well to remember the words of the Former Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold: “We die on the day when I live ceased to be illumined by the steady radiance renewed daily of a wonder, the source of which is beyond reason”. As UU minister Tom Owen Towle writes: “Reason is a tool to facilitate growing, but there are times when we leap in faith beyond reason to embrace a person, cause, or conviction. The wonder Hammarskjold refers to might be the wonder of an imagined love, unspeakable strength, unmerited forgiveness, and the source of all such wonders carries us beyond reason. Reason cannot get its logical arms around wonder.” And it’s worth remembering the word ‘wonder’ is both noun and verb: it refers to a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable, or unfamiliar. It it also denotes the desire to know something; to feel curious, to doubt. To live our lives in wonder is to allow ourselves to be stirred by amazement, to make room for mystery, and to never give up asking questions.
To end with words from Lawrence Kushner’s book – Eyes Remade for Wonder: “It is as if the primary act of creation is to simply become conscious, and that through becoming conscious we – like God – create ourselves. The first and most important creation that human beings and the One of Being can give birth to, is awareness. Eyes open, remade for wonder. Eyes that see, Ears that hear. Hands that feel. Breathless for a moment, we behold the dawn. The first light. An idea dawns. And what was nothing comes into being: Let there be light.” May it be so
In Faith and Hope, Sheena