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Wonder, Awe, and Wisdom

We're re-homing (re-barning to be precise) our daughter's cat, who while cuddly and sweet with humans, transforms into a terror to birds and other cats in their residential neighborhood. We sequestered Cliff in a birthing stall in the barn for awhile, so he could become accustomed to the sounds, sights, and smells of other inhabitants of his new home before releasing him to explore the rest of the barn and then, a while later, the Great Outdoors.

I wonder what Cliff thinks happened to his somewhat cushy life and familiar people. As Mark and I hold him, he purrs and leans into us, eager for our affection. It does not appear as though he blames us for his demoted status to barn cat, though I do not sense that he is happy in his new circumstances. Cliff favors neither the goats nor Oliver (which is understandabe given Oliver's preference to chase Cliff through the orchard rather than engage him in curious conversation. I fault Oliver mightily for this, and he tells me he cannot help himself, but will resolve to be more hospitable. I am not holding my breath for this).

So I wonder as I watch these various beings encounter each other, leaning into the unfamiliar--the goats doing so with a graciousness I admire. I wonder what the birds, mice, voles, and moles make of this new Fern Creek resident, and imagine the word is spreading fast that Pollifax (a feline terror in his day) now has a successor and of their collective need to be onguard. I feel empathy for them, being as they and their kind occupied Fern Creek long before Mark and I showed up with carnivorous cats and dogs, and gentle--even if voracious--plant-eating goats. These little creatures have their own hopes and desires to flourish, and for their offspring to do likewise.

I experience a kind of awe when I consider my existence--and theirs--in this way. It drops me into a deeper, mystical place where I sense the pulsing connection of all things held together by God's living life and sustaining love.

I carry so very many questions. Many of them are of a troubling, heavy sort about environmental sustainability, war and peace, suffering, beginnings and endings, forgiveness, redemption. I know I am not alone here.

Yet just now I am wondering what kind of healing and hope might come from a collective shift in our questions towards those inspired by awe, those that remind us we inhabit an enchanted world full of storied lives. What good might come if we could stand in awe and touch something of the connection to God that is in, between, and beyond all things? Might it provide a kind of humble self-forgetfulness that would free us to imagine new ways of being in the world, loving it, inhabiting it, as God does?

Abraham Joshua Heschel [1] spoke of knowledge being fostered by curiosity and wisdom being fostered by awe. Those words are worth pausing over, re-reading. Awe is more than an emotion. Heschel says it is a way of understanding, of gaining insight into meaning that is bigger than ourselves and our understandable focus on the surface of our existence, which we manipulate this way and that. One way the world presents to me is as a thing I own--including my own life. This world is a marketplace of sorts, just now full of Christmas parties and all that entails, thoughts of shifting opportunities, troubled and/or new relationships, and always the acquisition of various experiences or things intended to enhance our lives and satisfy longings.

The other way the world presents to us is as mystery, if we allow ourselves to stand in it. This is a mystery engaged through awe, as one seeing the ocean for the first time, or intently watching a spider spin her web and wondering at her experience. Awe is recognizing Cliff has a story and an experience, as do the birds he will hunt, and the coyotes undoubtedly now aware of his presence.

I wonder if standing in awe with these wonderments might be a path to wisdom--and one less unpacked than it is experienced. I sense it's invitation this Advent--which offers mystery upon mystery if we let ourselves face into and engage it.


[1] Abraham J. Heschel, Who is Man? (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965), 88-89, as cited in the Center for Action and Contemplation devotions 12/5/23.


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