Arts and Culture

The Experience of Awe And Wonder

  Sixth in a series

By Father Robert Lauder

In every philosophy course that I teach at St. John’s University, I start the course by pointing out to the students the distinction between a problem and a mystery as understood by the existentialist personalist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel. According to Marcel there were a number of important differences between a problem and a mystery.

A problem was outside the self. It did not directly involve the self. There was a final answer to every problem even if it might take some time to find that answer. The mood when dealing with a problem was curiosity. Another characteristic of a problem was that a problem could be studied by anyone. For example, I could study for several hours a computer that was not working, and then someone else could study the same computer.

Thinking about a mystery always involves the self. It is impossible to think about the mystery of death without thinking about your own death. If you try to reflect on the mystery of freedom, you must reflect on your own freedom or lack of freedom. The mystery of love cannot be reflected on without thinking of your own love relationships or lack of love relationships. Though you can go more deeply in your thoughts about a mystery, there is no final answer. Reflecting on a mystery is a very personal activity. No one can do it for someone else. Finally the mood is different. The mood is not curiosity but awe or wonder.

At the beginning of every course, I strongly encourage the students to try to discover how awesome and wonderful mysteries are. For example, the mystery of God, the mystery of freedom, the mystery of love are awesome, and I am hoping in whatever philosophy course I am teaching that I can help the students to be struck by the beauty and truth of mysteries. Even after many years of teaching philosophy I still experience awe and wonder when I think about the mystery of the human person and the mystery of love. I very much want the students to have a similar experience of awe and wonder.

If the mysteries that philosophy uncovers are awesome and wonderful, the mysteries of Christian faith seem almost infinitely more awesome and wonderful.

In Learning to Pray (New York: HarperOne, 2021, pp. 386, $27.99) Father James Martin, S.J. quotes the following from Abraham Heschel:

Awe … is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves … Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple.” (pp. 206-207)

The mystery of the Triune God is awesome and wonderful. The Incarnation is awesome and wonderful. That God has taken on human flesh out of love is awesome. That we can celebrate a Eucharist and the Son of God becomes present under the appearance of bread and wine is awesome and wonderful. That God loves each and every one of us, has created us out of love, and will never withdraw that love is awesome and wonderful. That God loves so much that we cannot even imagine or conceive that love is awesome and wonderful. That through sanctifying grace we share in the life of the Blessed Trinity is awesome and wonderful. That the Holy Spirit is always present to us and trying to help us to be more like Christ is awesome and wonderful.

That whatever heaven is, whenever we experience it we will be united to God and reunited with our loved ones who have died is awesome and wonderful. That when we meet God in heaven our deepest dreams and desires will be fulfilled is awesome and wonderful. That God has created every single one of us so that we can have an intimate loving relationship with God is awesome and wonderful. If we believe in the truths of Christian faith and do not find them awesome and wonderful then I wonder if we can find any truth awesome and wonderful.

Those of us who have learned our religion at a young age and have been Catholics for many years may have to battle taking our faith for granted. We may have to battle falling into a relatively thoughtless recitation of our prayers. We may have to be cautious not to allow any prayer to become merely an almost automatic recitation of words. One reason I have found Father Martin’s book so helpful is that it has for me been a book that helps me not to lose awe and wonder at what God has done for us, is doing for us, and will continue to do for us.