By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin
Director of Formation Ministries
“And my soul in an excess of wonder cried out: ‘This world is pregnant with God!’”
–Angela of Foligno, Complete Works, translated by Paul Lachance, page 170.
I watch her eyes widen as she holds her small hand in front of her face, seeing, perhaps for the first time, her fingers moving in harmony with her thoughts. She gazes, completely engrossed, at what for most of us is a natural daily occurrence. Even now my fingers glide across the keyboard with swift coordinated ease.
My daughter is in the developmental stage many refer to as “the enchanted months.” Between 2-3 months old, babies begin to awaken to the world around them, including to their own being. Watching a baby discover the world, and herself, reminds me of Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s description of spirituality as “to be amazed.”
As a mother of young children in a perilous time, I have felt the pull between the wonder of infancy and the horror of the many devastating realities around me. The day my daughter was born a maternity ward in Ukraine was hit by Russian missiles. I watched on the hospital television as pregnant bodies, bloodied, and frightened, emerged from the wreckage. How do we hold this perennial paradox, the absolute miracle of it all with the atrocities that send us retreating into numbness?
Wendy Farley expresses this tension,
We often dull our capacity for beauty because we cannot bear to stay awake for the atrocities that we encounter when we love fragile creatures. It requires so much courage and strength to endure love for the beauty of the world. (Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion, xv.)
The season of Advent knows well the paradox of beauty and suffering. The fragile infancy of God in Christ is at the heart of the Advent story. This is God with us, discovering her own hands and fingers, enchanted at the stunning newness of everything. There are many breath catching moments of awe from Shepherds gazing into the heavens to the wise men “overwhelmed with joy” by the sight of the star leading the way to Christ.
The whole season is encompassed in wonder– a dimly lit, soft hue of candles and carols, a shush to the frenetic, a womb of calm for the soul. We “wonder as we wander.” And yet, the Advent story also bears the weight of oppression, empire, and violence.
Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore reflects on Mary pondering in her heart as a spiritual practice in this context. “Here in the small word ponder,” she writes, “is an image of a mother in turbulent spiritual waters, wading through the emotional swings of care... ‘stunned by wonder and stung by worry.’” (In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as a Spiritual Practice, page 47)
In these conditions, and in our own times, our focus tends toward the worry and away from the wonder. Wonder can feel like too much of a luxury when the world as we know it is burning around us. Yet, wonder is more than superficial appreciation of the beautiful or awe inspiring. Wonder is a vital spiritual stance and a radical act of resistance against despair. It refuses to believe that tragedy is the whole story and widens our view of reality to see that life can be stunning and devastating at the same time.
Wonder dares us to keep our eyes and hearts open, to fall in love with the world again, to see with exquisite detail the creatures and people within it. Wonder as a spiritual stance naturally confronts systems that dehumanize and oppress. It is love for its own sake, wide eyes and full heart and a joy moving within that cannot be contained. It is a source of power for transformation that grounds us once again in the sacredness that pours forth from everything all the time.
To truly see and love another in their own “integrity of being” (Farley, Beguiled by Beauty) is to be reminded of the width of the world outside our own immediate concerns. It is a wellspring of prophetic action, rooted in love, responding to restore and preserve that which needs our care.
There is something about the image of the infant Christ in the manger that calls our attention in a different way. Christ is not asking anything of us yet. He cannot form words to speak. He is, like all infants, fragile and resilient and totally dependent.
To love Christ in this condition is beyond words or beliefs. It is to behold mystery, to gaze in awe, to see the sacredness of flesh beyond its perceived usefulness. This way of seeing is about justice. Imagine how each of us have come into the world this way. Imagine all creatures filled with divine life, asking nothing of us to but to see and to love and to follow where that love leads.
In Community of Christ, the Enduring Principles Sacredness of Creation and Worth of All Persons invite us to the practice of wonder as a matter of deepest faith. We find resonance with these principles again in these words from Wendy Farley,
“We wake up to reality in its loveliness, fragility, conflicts and vitality and realize this is the sacred and holy truth of everything that exists. It matters, not because it matters to me, but because it shimmers with sacred worth... When we realize something other than ourselves is really real, that it suffers like we do and sings out its name like we do, compassion and justice naturally arise... Whatever our vocation turns out to be, conveying to one another how beautiful we are, how important and special each of us is, is a special work of compassionate resistance.” (Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion, pages 55-56.)
Take a few moments now to wonder about someone who is different from you, someone you find difficult to love. It could be someone you know personally, or a public figure representing a worldview different from your own. Imagine them coming into this world as infant. Imagine them enchanted with the world for the first time. Imagine their life and experiences. Imagine the Spirit breathing through their being right now. Notice how your heart softens, expands. Notice how love grows even in this surprising place. Notice how it is harder to wish harm upon anyone we dare to see through the lens of love. Notice Christ incarnate in the preciousness of their life.
Can we practice and sustain this holy gaze? How might it change our hearts, our world to embrace wonder as a primary act of faith? To respond to violence and injustice not because we “should,” but because we are madly in love with God’s creation and passionate about the welfare of all?
This year Advent comes not to suggest or invite, but to proclaim, wonder will save us.
There are many reasons to be weary, anxious, or afraid, but there are also many reasons to gaze in awe and love. To reawaken to the stunning beauty and sacredness of our lives and universe might be one of the most important things we can do to sustain our faith and action in hard times.
It is prophetic timing that at a moment when so much feels like it is falling apart, we have received the first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope, capturing as never before the unfathomable intricacies of the cosmos. We remember how small we are in the universe; how much we don’t know even as we discover more than we knew before. What does it even mean to be able to glimpse light from 13.7 billion years ago? What stretches the imagination brings reprieve. There’s so much more. We find healing in the humility that wonder brings.
This is the fullness of reality we are invited to embrace. Somewhere an infant is reaching out her hands to gaze in wonder at her own fingers. Somewhere a mother is watching in adoration. Somewhere life is continuing. Everywhere, Christ is coming. “This world is pregnant with God!”