A wonder-filled life
“People often think the basic command of religion is ‘do this, do that.’ It isn’t, it’s look and wonder.” – Philip Toynbee.
By Roland Ashby
A sense of wonder is a vital part of Esther de Waal’s faith. For the renowned author of books on Christian spirituality, including her latest Lost in Wonder – Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness, wonder is a vital part of spiritual growth because it enables us to see life as gift. “And if you see life as gift then there is a double reaction – the first is that you treat a gift with reverence and respect and responsibility, and secondly with gratitude, which leads to praise. Praise is so fundamental. An attitude of praise can really change the perspective of one’s life, and particularly one’s prayer life.”
So how, I ask, can we begin to recapture a sense of wonder? Esther suddenly produces a small magnifying glass, which she keeps with her at all times. “I use it to look at the most ordinary things. Dung is wonderful, and bird and animal droppings are extraordinarily beautiful put together. So too are stones, leaves, ferns, mosses, lichen, the bark of trees. And of course, the centres of flowers are exquisite.
“In towns I love pavements and just walking about the streets. I love the quality of the built environment. I am always in great danger on pavements because I stop to look at manhole covers and drainage covers – and the different patterns in the ironwork and the quality of the construction. If I ever find an old post box then that is sheer delight for the quality and colour.”
There’s a need she says to see with a child’s eyes. “My grandchildren often see in an almost magical way. When seeing the sun shining on the pebbles at the bottom of the stream that runs through my garden, one will exclaim ‘but they are gold!’ Down the road from my home in Hereford, on the English/Welsh border, lived the 17th Century mystical poet Thomas Traherne, and he sees the world with the childlike innocence which is at all times anew, radiant, full of light.”
A sense of wonder she says depends on our “being aware with all of our five senses,” an awareness which depends on our slowing down. “In the cities I see people trudging along, burdened with consumer commodities, or they’re going at top speed because every second matters, or talking on their mobile phones, which means they are totally unaware of and cut off from the people and scenes around them.”
Wonder is also about “the sacrament of the present moment,” she says. “This is about the Benedictine vow of stability which is being present to the present wherever you are and whatever situation you find yourself in. The Desert Fathers called it nepsis – controlling your thoughts and being determined to be totally present to the reality of the moment. Simone Weil said ‘absolute attention is prayer.’ Michael Mayne also says that giving proper attention is what love is, and that ‘this is the surest way to God.’
“We are often speculating or anxious or wondering or dreaming, or there’s a tape playing of an interior conversation, perhaps because things have gone wrong, or perhaps because our self-esteem has been damaged. That sort of inner conversation St Benedict says is very insidious in taking one away from where one really is.
“And this reminds me of a wonderful phrase of [the Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams, ‘God doesn’t work with unreality’ – he only works with reality.”
“When we become aware and awake to the present moment,” she writes in Lost in Wonder, “We are also awake to God, and then everything can become a moment of miracle, a mysterious reality. For God is only to be found in the reality of the present moment.”
She believes wonder is also connected to silence, which she describes “as one of the greatest gifts which we neglect at our peril.” “Australia has such an amazing natural heritage in the Aboriginal concept of Dadirri.” In Lost in Wonder she writes that Christian Aboriginal artist, Miriam-Rose Ungummer, “calls it tapping into a deep spring that is within us all. ‘When I experience Dadirri I am made whole again,’ she says. She tells us:
My people are not threatened by silence.
They are completely at home with it…
I can find peace in this silent awareness.
There is no need of words.
There is no need to reflect too much
And to do a lot of thinking.
It is just being aware.
Our Aboriginal culture has taught us to be still
And to wait.
“This is waiting on God, and it cannot be hurried.”
Silence, she writes in Lost in Wonder, is “not absence but presence… As the silence opens up in our hearts, and as we listen to it, it is as though we begin to feel the secret presence of the Word expanding ‘like a marvellous hidden smile.’” She then quotes from Isaac of Stella, a 12th Century Cistercian monk:
Let the Son of God grow in thee,
For he is formed in thee.
Let him become immense in thee,
And may he become a great smile
And exultation and perfect joy.
Lost in Wonder is a treasury of such prayers and poems, many of which Esther de Waal first encountered in the Roman Catholic daily office. “I begin the day with the office of readings because it gives us daily excerpts from the Fathers – men like St Augustine, St Gregory the Great, the Eastern Orthodox St Ephrem and the Cistercian St Aelred of Rievaulx. It is a living tradition of great insight and riches.”
Although Esther de Waal experiences life intensely as gift, she is also acutely aware of life’s dark side, which she says is always with us. “As someone who suffers from recurrent depression I am so tired of having Mother Julian quoted at me – ‘all will be well and all manner of things will be well,’ because when you are actually at the bottom of a very dark tunnel and there is no daylight at all at the end that is the last thing you want to hear.
“Ultimately there can only be one point of reference and that is making the whole paschal mystery a reality for oneself, and continuing to believe that against all the odds new life can flow out of darkness and pain. However, pain and darkness don’t disappear and I am so glad that the resurrected Christ had wounded hands and wounded feet.”
Esther de Waal is a scholar in Benedictine and Celtic traditions. Her latest book, Lost in Wonder, is published by Canterbury Press Norwich. This article first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican, of which Roland Ashby is editor, and is reprinted with permission.