One of my favorite examples of the human ability to wonder at the glory of creation comes from a woman who lived much of her adult life indoors. As in, “shut-me-away-and-throw-away-the-key indoors.” She was Julian of Norwich, a 13th century English mystic. Some believe that Julian’s call to ministry came after her husband and children died from the black plague. Whatever the source, hers was no ordinary vocation. She was an “anchoress” who resided—voluntarily, mind you—in a small room that had been bricked off within the sanctuary of a church. There, with her meager sustenance passed in through a small window, she devoted herself to a life of unceasing prayer (1 thessalonians 5:16–18) and sewing clothes for the poor. Yet rather than feel cut off from creation, Julian’s spiritual visions kept her immersed in it. In the most
renown of what she called “showings,” Julian saw the whole world revealed in something resembling a hazelnut:
With this insight, he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. It seemed to me as round as a ball. I gazed at it and thought, “What can this be?” The answer came thus, “It is everything that is made . . . . It lasts, and ever shall last, because God loves it. All things have their being in this way by the grace of God.”
An occasional escape to a bricked off room for some prayerful peace and quiet does sound tempting, as impractical (and illegal per the building code) as that may now be. Yet despite lives that are noisier and busier than anything Julian could’ve imagined, we can still see God’s wonders in the most basic elements of creation.
I realized this when I came to see a mountain
range revealed in a pile of dirt—all from the
confines of my Ford sedan.
The dirt pile was the remnant of some endless Michigan road construction project. It stood near a traffic light where I stopped on the way to work, and for several weeks I had no reason to give it a second glance. You know how it is with the everyday landmarks of life. After a while, we don’t as much see them as see through them.
It took a business trip to California to change my perspective. On my flight into San Francisco, the weather had been clear. As the plane made its descent I had seen the contours and crevices of the Sierra Nevada Mountains revealed in unusually vivid detail. It reminded me of those plastic relief maps that I loved to touch as a child, the kind that displayed all the earth’s terrain in bumpy hues of green, brown and blue.
From the airplane’s window, I could see how the Creator had similarly caressed the earth below. He’d planted conifer forests to hold fast the flanks of the mountains. He’d sent rains and snows to carve streams, creeks and canyons into the granite slopes. He’d robed the peaks in snowpack and glacier so that rivulets from summer thaws would fill rivers and reservoirs. While each mountain had a distinct character, each followed the same unified principles of natural design. And you could see a master’s hand in all of it.
On the Monday morning after the San Francisco trip, I stopped at my usual red light and stared absentmindedly at the dirt pile. This time, I began to see something else: the pile was more than an anonymous mound of misplaced earth. There’d been a hard rain in my absence and fresh gullies had gouged the pile’s flanks. The runoff had forked into tiny streams that carried the lighter sand to the bottom where it spread into an outwash plain. Grass had sprouted in a little valley where the eroded soil accumulated.
The pile had in fact become a matchbox version of a mountain, a scale model of God’s immutable laws in action. Maybe it was the jet lag, but I began to picture a tiny white farmhouse in the valley. I imagined a miniature red pickup truck and a flock of sheep in the “meadow.” Now granted, the pile was eight feet tall instead of 8,000. Yet one could plainly see that the same principles of gravity and physics—as applicable here as in California—had shaped it all.
It was so fascinating that I didn’t notice when the light turned green. Until, that is, a guy behind me honked and made a certain gesture to suggest he wasn’t as smitten by the pile as I.
Yet that’s what’s wonderful about wonder. It doesn’t care if we’re idling at a stoplight or studying a quasar with the Hubble telescope. Wonder kicks in whenever we stop to ponder an aspect of creation that our human senses find significant. Wonder grows as we cultivate a sense of holy amazement about how any creature—terrestrial, aquatic, or galactic—came to be. Wonder also lies at the heart of scientific inquest, even for unbelieving scientists who don’t yet understand the source of their questing nature.
It seems that humans are predisposed to wonder. To ask “why and what if?” are essential for a species that seeks to grow and advance, materially and spiritually. Nonetheless, even if we”ve been equipped to wonder, we still have to heed its calling in ways large and small.
The prophet Elijah did as much when he waited in his cave on Mount Horeb (1 kings 19:11–13). The word of the Lord had instructed him to, “Go outside and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord; for the Lord is about to pass by.”
You may know the rest of this passage, with its call-and-response rhythm that’s a favorite with children. How there came a strong crushing wind—but the Lord was not in the wind. How after the wind came an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake. How after the earthquake came a fire—but the Lord was not in the fire.
What comes next, after this great tempest of environmental theatrics, reminds me of what poet Carl Sandburg wrote about fog: how it rolls across the harbor, with silent unfolding, “on little cat feet.”
The revelation that came to Elijah on Mt. Horeb was of the quiet sort that only a person attuned to wonder could perceive.
“After the fire came a gentle whisper (some translations call it a ‘small, still voice’). When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
Few of us can withdraw to a mountain and pray as Jesus and the prophets often did in Scripture. What we can do is look anew at our surroundings and wonder at something that’s been waiting there all along.
As a ready example, look now at the back of your hands. See the veins that branch and pulse just beneath your skin? They have faithfully done so since an avocado-sized version of you stirred in your mother’s womb. They quietly carry all the oxygen and nutrients you need to live and move and have your being. They are both evidence and constant reminder that you are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made” (psalm 139:14).
Picture next an aerial view of a great river delta: the Nile, the Mekong, the Mississippi. See how it distributes the outflow of water and sediment with such artful yet mathematic efficiency? More to our point, see how the delta’s fan-shaped network of lesser streams resembles the roots of a great tree? Or our veins, for that matter?
For me, it’s this faithful repetition of divine patterns that invites wonder of a most prayerful sort. When I see the spiral shape of the snail shell I hold in my hand duplicated by the spiral shape of the Milky Way galaxy overhead, that’s wonder. The millions of light years that separate the two could never contain it all—no more than all the world’s books could contain all that Jesus did during his time on earth (john 21:25).
Wonder, thus observed, provides a springboard for further discovery. Once developed, our sense of wonder can become a spiritual muscle that helps us see divinity in any natural circumstance.
In the book Praying with Julian of Norwich, there’s an excerpt from a one-woman play about her by J. Janda. In this scene, I picture an aged holy woman near a narrow slit of medieval window that overlooks a little courtyard on a drizzly March day. See how she marvels at the greatness of a world so small:
Cedar and shrub
(She puts out her hands
to feel the rain)
Everything is being
you can hear the rain
splashing off the eaves
the fat drops are
the size of herring scales,
there is a smell
of wet earth
in the cool air
a mother robin
in the hawthorn . . .
she is brooding
with wings spread
over the nest.
she is warming
the new life,
the shelled promise . . .
&ldsquo;God is all that is good
as to my sight,
and the goodness
that everything hath
it is he.’
And the Christ
he came to make
all things new,
and his death,
it was for love; . . .
It runs plenteously
as rain off the eaves.