On Rediscovering Wonder

Having the soul of a child is essential to the recovery of our lost sense of wonder.

‘Sunrise’ (photo: Soonthorn Wongsaita / Shutterstock)

Flying into Tampa on a recent early-morning flight from Pittsburgh, I watched in amazement as the eastern sky, illumined by the rising sun, exploded in colors of pure and radiant beauty. Not even nature herself could finally account for it. Sure, the light streaming through the window came unmistakably from the world outside, nature wearing her best colors for break of day, as it were. But God was the real artist here, and his palette this marvelous world he alone had made. Freshly remade that very morning, in fact, intended for the delectation of a couple hundred sleepy-eyed passengers bound for Florida. 

Suddenly a line or two from Gerard Manley Hopkins popped into my head, which I’d have gladly shared with my seatmate if only he’d been looking. It was the perfect footnote to the display outside:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed … 

He was not alone, of course, in not looking. The whole plane appeared indifferent to the spectacle. And why is that? Why do we refuse to look? Because we’ve seen so many sunrises before and would find yet another instance unsurprising, boring even? Unmoved by constant repetition, we pine for something new. Things once seen may momentarily dazzle, but if done too often they turn dull and we lose interest. Like a fireworks display that has gone on far too long. 

But children are not at all like that. My granddaughter, for instance, who has just turned 3, often comes to visit us, and she will take endless pleasure in putting the same blocks together to build the exact same wooden house that, catching on fire moments later, requires my calling the fire department to put it out. And every time I simulate dialing the number, I must remind them when attaching their hoses not to spray her, which they do anyway, and thus I am forced, over and over, to admonish the make-believe fire brigade. 

Does the exercise drive me insane? Of course, it does. But that’s because, like most adults, I no longer inhabit an enchanted world, which is my loss, not hers. Chesterton certainly knew that and during our descent, the sky still on fire with the morning sun, I was reminded of the passage from Orthodoxy, that great barnburner of a book he wrote before his conversion, where he throws into the most wonderful relief the great truth about the sun rising and the God who makes it happen day after day. Since I don’t usually take whole libraries with me when traveling, it wasn’t until after we landed that I found it. It’s in the chapter called “The Ethics of Elfland,” where he nails it quite perfectly. “Because children have abounding vitality,” he begins, 

because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon …

What a great line that is. An exhortation, actually, which God issues again and again to sun and moon in order to jump-start the heavens. And unlike adults driven mad by the antics of small children, he never tires of doing so. Why is that? Because God, says Chesterton, “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

I nearly substituted the word sin at the end of that sentence, but then I’d have gotten it all wrong. For it is we, the human race, who once were, in our pre-lapsarian state, younger than sin. And God, of course, remains infinitely younger than we. But if it be true, as the wise poet says, “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all,” then it is only Mary who may now be adjudged younger than sin, which is how Georges Bernanos describes her in Diary of a Country Priest, one of the great novels of Catholic France. 

Having the soul of a child, in other words, is essential to the recovery of a sense of wonder. It is evidence of life, testimony to the ageless instinct we have to be astonished, stupefied even, by reality. “This is proved by the fact,” says Chesterton, “that when we are very young we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened the door.” 

We have simply got, most of us, to relearn how to open the door. How else are we to see the great world outside, where the banquet of being beckons us to be? What finally counts in living a fully human life, what keeps us all from shriveling up like so many old prunes, is the rediscovery of wonder. Because it is for want of wonder that we shall certainly wither and die. And without wonder there will never be wisdom. Information, yes, but not wisdom, which can only come from a mind open to receive, for whom all reality is gift. Nothing else will enable us to rejoice. 

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,” declared Einstein, “is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” He may never open them again. Not even to take in the miracle of a sunrise.