MYSTERY, AWE AND WONDER IN LITERATURE AND PHILOSOPHY

 

ADAMS, DOUGLAS

 

  Several billion trillion tons of superhot exploding hydrogen nuclei rose slowly above the horizon and managed to look small, cold and slightly damp.      Life, the Universe and Everything.  Ch. 7.

 

  If he is an astronomer, then one of the things you could ask him is how far away the sun is.  The answer will probably startle you.  If it doesn’t, then tell him from me that he hasn’t explained it very well.  After he’s told you how far away the sun is, ask him how far away some of the stars are.  That will really surprise you.  “For Children Only,  The Salmon of Doubt, p79.

 

 

AUDEN, W. H.

 

  Whatever its actual context and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe.

The Dyer’s Hand.

 

 

BROWNING, ELIZABETH BARRETT

 

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries...

“Aurora Leigh” in Masterpieces of Religious Verse, New York:  Harper Brothers, 1948, p.16.

 

 

GASSET, JOSE ORTEGA

 

“To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand.”  The Revolt of the Masses.

 

 

HOPKINS, GERARD MANLEY

 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed.  Why do men now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

For all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things...

And though the last lights off the black west went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

 

KANT, IMMANUEL

 

  Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.  Critique of Practical Reason, p. 166.

 

KAZANTZAKIS, NIKOS

 

  The highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe.   Zorba the Greek.  Ch. 24

 

KEEN, SAM

 

  A mature sense of wonder does not need the constant titillation of the sensational to keep it alive.  It is most often called forth by a confrontation with the mysterious depth of meaning at the heart of the familiar and quotidian.  Rare birds–the scarlet tanagers and indigo bunting of experience–do upon occasion delight us, but a mature sense of wonder may be evoked by starlings and English sparrows.  One is reminded of the incident in Zorba the Greek when Zorba and the boss meet a peasant riding on a donkey.

 

            “One day, I remember, when we were making our way to the village, we met a little old man astride a mule.  Zorba opened his eyes wide as he looked at the beast.  And his look was so intense that the peasant cried out in terror:

            ‘For God’s sake, brother, don’t give him the evil eye!’  And he crossed himself.

            I turned to Zorba.

            “What did you do to the old chap to make him cry out like that?’ I asked him.

            ‘Me?  What d’ you think I did?  I was looking at his mule, that’s all!  Didn’t it strike you, boss?’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Well. . .that there are such things as mules in this world!’” Apology for Wonder p. 23 - 24.

 

 

  When I was six years old I was walking by a courthouse in a small town in Tennessee.  A man came out, followed by a large crowd.  As he walked past me, he pulled a knife from his belt and said, “I present you with this knife.”  Before I could see his face or overcome my shock and thank him, he turned and disappeared.  The knife was a strange and mysterious gift.  The handle was made out of the foot of a deer, and on the blade there was something written in a foreign language which no one in town could translate.  For weeks after this event I lived with a pervasive sense of gratitude to the stranger and with a wondering expectancy created by the realization that such a strange and wonderful happening could occur in the ordinary world of Maryville.  If nameless strangers gave such gifts, what surprises might be expected in the world?  ibid. page 211.

 

KOONTZ, DEAN

 

  Because we are imperfect beings who are self-blinded to the truth of the world’s stunning complexity, we shave reality into paper-thin theories and ideologies that we can easily grasp, and we call them truths.  But the truth of a sea, in all its immensity, cannot be embodied in one tide-washed pebble…In each little life we can see great truth and beauty, and in each little life we glimpse the way of all things in the universe.  If we allow ourselves to be enchanted by the beauty of the ordinary, we begin to see that all things are extraordinary.  If we allow ourselves to be humbled by what we do not and cannot know, in our humility we are exalted.  If we allow ourselves to recognize the mystery and the wonder of existence, our fogged minds clear.  Thinking clearly, we follow wonder to awe, and in the state of awe, we are as close to true wisdom as we will ever be.  A Big Little Life, pp. 7-9.

 

LEWIS, C. S.

 

            “Oh, yes!  Tell us about Aslan!” said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling – like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.

 

            “Who is Aslan?” asked Susan.

 

            Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know?  He’s the King.  He’s the Lord of the whole wood.”

            “But shall we see him?” asked Susan.

 

            “Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for.  I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.

 

            “Is–is he a man?” asked Lucy.

 

            Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly.  “Certainly not.  I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea.  Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts?  Aslan is a lion–the lion, the great Lion.”

 

            “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he – quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

 

            “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

 

            “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

 

            “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver.  “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?  Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”

 

            “I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

 

            “That’s right, Son of Adam,” said Mr. Beaver. 

            From The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. pp. 74-76.

 

 

LUCADO, MAX

 

  I’ve seen you stalking the malls, walking the aisles, searching for that extra-special gift.  Stashing away a few dollars a month to buy him some lizard-skin boots; staring at a thousand rings to find her the best diamond; staying up all night Christmas Eve, assembling the new bicycle.

 

  Why do you do it?  So the eyes will pop, the jaw will drop.  To hear those words of disbelief: “You did this for me?”

           

  And that is why God did it.  Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way.  Say nothing and listen as heaven whispers, “Do you like it?  I did it just for you.”  The Great House of God (Word). 

 

 

MACHEN, ARTHUR

 

  Every branch of human knowledge if traced up to its source and final principles vanishes into mystery.  Quoted by Michael Reagan in The Hand of God.  P. 150.

 

MASEFIELD, JOHN

Sea Fever

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s

            shaking.

And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.

 

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea gulls crying.

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a

            whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

MEACHAM,  JON

 

  Magic means there is a spell, a formula, to work wonders.  Mystery means there is no spell, no formula – only shadow and impenetrability and hope that one day, to borrow a phrase T. S. Eliot borrowed from Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  NY Times Sunday Book Review of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years   December 17, 2010.

 

MENCKEN, H. L.

 

  Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable.  But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.  Quoted by Michael Reagan in The Hand of God.  P. 145.

 

 

SAGAN, CARL

 

  Look, we all have a thirst for wonder.  It’s a deeply human quality.  Science and religion are both bound up with it.  What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate.  There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world.  Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.  Contact, p. 178.

 

UPDIKE, JOHN

 

  Our brains are no longer conditioned for reverence and awe.  We cannot imagine a Second Coming that would not be cut down to size by the televised evening news, or a Last Judgement not subjected to pages of holier-than-Thou second-guessing in The New York Review of Books…All mysteries are subject to the modernist dissolution.  Self-Consciousness, p. 216, 218.

 

 

VON GOETHE, JOHANN WOLFGANG

 

  The highest happiness of man. . . is to have probed what is knowable and quietly to revere what is unknowable.  Quoted by Michael Reagan in The Hand of God.  P. 73

 

 

WHITEHEAD, ALFRED NORTH

 

  Philosophy begins in wonder.  And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.  Nature and Life, p. 46.