"Wonder on, till truth make all things plain.” The words, as I’m sure you know, come from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” "Wonder on" is an invitation given to the characters on stage. Things need to be sorted out and a play is just the thing to do it.
We’re also asked to follow the curiosity and confusion and hilarity of final act. The expectation—for those on stage and for us—is that what we’ll find is worth our curiosity.
Why else would we be in the theatre if there weren’t something worth finding out—about ourselves, our world, and the way it all coheres? And it’s even better for us if we’re surprised and delighted by what we find.
Humans love to be amazed. We can’t wait to be marveled. How else would you explain such intelligent creatures being so willfully baffled by things like sleight-of-hand magic tricks? How else would you explain our willingness to see a plain, wooden stage as another world to enrapture and entertain us?
This talk, in short, is about how we might chase those marvels—how we might apprentice ourselves to wonder.
Specifically, I want to talk about the importance of attention.
As people in theatre, you know that attention is a great commodity. I’d dare say that some of us are addicted to it. As actors and scenery makers and lighting techs, you know how to direct attention. You know that feeling when you hold it. You certainly know when you’ve lost it.
And you know that, in order to hold attention, the small things matter. Hidden wealths of wonder are discovered by giving our attention to small things. To the chagrin of marketers and media makers, the small things may be worth the bulk of our attention and are worth much more than what most often demands our time.
To break the spell that most media often holds on us, we must realize that our attention is often sought only in terms of the money we can spend. This has tremendous ramifications for art. Television and film and music is created (or at the very least distributed) based on what you can buy after you consume it. Thought is rarely given to how these art forms might shape your soul—for good or ill.
True wonder is set apart from this economy of attention. When wonder is involved, the economics of attention are almost totally inverted. Here’s the truth about wonder and attention: If you’d like to reshape your soul, give your attention to these small things. Attune yourself to the overlooked. That is where wonder is found.
And I do mean the small, material things in this world. I’m not just talking about giving yourself to the abstract idea of “precious little moments.” Don’t let anyone tell you that the material things in this world don’t matter. In her essay “Freedom of Thought,” Marilynne Robinson reminds us: “If the old, untenable dualism [between the physical and the spiritual] is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation.”
In other words, we must take Paul seriously when he wrote that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived . . . in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20, ESV). And God has no throw away wonders. The marginal and insignificant speak his name as clearly as the towering and timeless.
Fortunately, many artists and writers and theologians have shown us precisely how to give our attention to tiny wonders. Oddly, a few of my favorite writers have decided to give attention to insects. This may seem like an unlikely place to find wonder. I’d agree with you. But these writers make a compelling invitation.
Take, for instance, Jonathan Edwards’ fascination with spiders. Before he became a preacher, imagining sinners dangling precariously as if by a spider’s thread, he found himself simply enraptured by spiders—specifically a spider that could fly.
Sounds like a nightmare, right? I promise, it’s less frightening than it seems. This spider doesn’t have wings. This spider spins out a silky thread of web and essentially lassos the wind. Then it soars up to sail on the air like ships do at sea.
The point here isn’t necessarily the spider. But how incredible is it that a spider can fly so gracefully? The point is the attention that Edwards gives to the spider. Edwards didn’t consider himself a lover of insects. In his essay “Of Insects” he lets us know that he thinks spiders are pretty gross. What a marvel, he muses, that God lets such ugly creatures have so enjoyment in the world.
The point is that Jonathan was willing to go out and rattle each holly bush until he found a miracle. And then he followed this spider until he found out how it made its way from a bush to the top of an oak tree.
The point is that he wondered on. He leaned in closer to the world so he’d never miss a single shimmer of beauty. He found that spider webs weren’t the only things that shined. Edwards teaches us that if you search for the smallest beauties in the world, the bigger wonders open to you more beautifully than ever before.
I don’t mean to devalue great wonders. But, if we’d really like to see them as they are, we have to see them as part of a fuller story—as part of a world in which spiders can fly and flies sit on tulips as kings and female praying mantises eat their mates during reproduction. (That last fact is true, by the way. It should put your relationship troubles in perspective.)
Edwards and poets like Thomas Traherne and writers like Annie Dillard give their attention to the things we often pass right over. It isn’t their job to do it. They just follow the wonder, looking for clearer truths. It’s no accident that it is folks like these who lead us to see the greater wonders of invisible worlds.
For Edwards, after following spiders through his youth, he developed a whole theory of beauty that climbs the ladder of creation until love itself becomes an almost tangible force of beauty in the world. This kind of wonder in the seemingly obscure—and the greater coherence it leads us to—is at the very heart of what we believe.
Have you ever wondered why so many people flock to church on Christmas and Easter? No doubt you can explain it away as being induced by cultural guilt. But that reasoning would allow cynicism to rob us of a deeper truth, one that signifies that we are souls in search of wonder. Perhaps churches fill because, like us, people follow the wonder, hoping for truth to make things plain. Marilynne Robinson asks and answers this question in her essay “Wondrous Love”:
“What gives [these stories] their power? They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. They are tales of love, lovingly enacted once, and afterward cherished and retold—by the grace of God, certainly, because they are, after all, the narrative of an obscure life in a minor province. Caesar Augustus was also said to be divine, and there aren’t any songs about him.”
In other words, the insignificant things, when we give them our attention, become windows onto divine mystery.
What could be more ordinary than a mother and child?
What could be more plain than a wooden cross?
What could be more common than bread and wine?
What could be more divine?
I’d like to end with a benediction for your season by the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh.
Canal Bank Walk
“Leafy with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.”
May we all wonder on.