Arts and Culture

Experiencing Awe, and Wonder, and Mystery

Re-reading Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Translated by Alexander Dru, with an introduction by T.S, Eliot, New York: Pantheon Books, 1952, pp. 127) has been a wonderful experience for me.

This is probably the third time I have read the book, but this time has been special. The insights are jumping off the page at me. Pieper is suggesting a way to look at reality that speaks to me very much in relation to philosophy courses I teach at St. John’s University but also sheds light on my life outside the classroom. I think I now see why the book was so highly praised by Monsignor James Coffey when I was studying philosophy with him in my first year as a seminarian at what was then the major seminary in Huntington, Long Island. Re-reading Pieper’s book is like a totally new experience for me.

Mentioning how a person might step beyond the workaday world and experience awe, wonder and mystery, Pieper writes:

“Man also steps beyond the chains of ends and means, that binds the world of work, in love or when he takes a step toward the frontiers of existence, deeply moved by some existential experience, for this, too, sends a shock through the world of relationships, whatever the occasion may be perhaps the close proximity of death. The act of philosophizing, genuine poetry, any aesthetic encounter, in fact, as well as prayer, springs from some shock. And when such a shock is experienced, man senses the non-finality of this world of daily care; he transcends it, takes a step beyond it.

“The philosophic act, the religious act, the aesthetic act, as well as the existential shocks of love and death, or any other way in which man’s relation to the world is convulsed and shaken all these fundamental ways of acting belong naturally together, by reason of the power which they have in common of enabling a man to break through and transcend the workaday world.

“…And in regard to the similarity of philosophy and poetry, there is the little-known and curious saying of Aquinas which occurs in his commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. The philosopher, he there says, is related to the poet in that both are concerned with mirandum, with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel.”(pp. 73-74)

I confess that when I recently re-read these comments, I was surprised that Pieper was suggesting that aesthetic experiences such as reading poetry were grouped with love and death as experiences which can shake us up and move us to a higher level of living, almost move us into a new world.

However, as soon as I began to think of some of the aesthetic experiences that I have had the experience of seeing a great play, of viewing a film that is a masterpiece, of reading marvelous novels and absolutely beautiful poetry, I saw the important point that Pieper was making. A great aesthetic experience can move us into a world that is filled with mysteries. Great aesthetic experiences can profoundly transform us.

I will offer one example of an aesthetic experience that has moved me many times into a world of mysteries. Because I show it in a philosophy and film course that I teach at St. John’s University, I have probably seen the film “On the Waterfront” about 25 times.

The first time I saw it when it was initially released in 1954, I had one of the most profound aesthetic experiences I have ever had in viewing a film. Part of that experience may have been due to the fact that the next day I was entering the seminary to study to be a priest. But every time I see the film I am so touched by it that I want to become a better priest. Winner of eight Academy Awards, the film is a masterpiece.

I think it could be argued that every artist who was involved in the creation of the film did outstanding work, perhaps some of the best work of their careers.

Marlon Brando turned in the best work of his career as did Karl Malden. Eva Marie Saint’s performance was excellent. Elia Kazan’s direction, Budd Schlberg’s screenplay, and Leonard Bernstein’s music were outstanding.

At the beginning of every philosophy course I teach at St. John’s University, I lecture on the nature of mystery, hoping that students will be receptive to the life-changing truths that will be discussed in the course.

I know that it may be difficult for some undergraduate students to experience awe and wonder in a philosophy course.

Re-reading Pieper has encouraged me to continue to help the
students to wonder in awe at mysteries like freedom, truth, love, death and especially the mystery of God.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.