D. H. Lawrence called wonder our sixth sense. At the 2002 Trinity Institute on "How Then Must We Live," Sharon Daloz Parks from the Whidbey Institute near Seattle proclaimed that there are two poles of orientation on today's global commons: suffering and wonder. We have a duty to look with compassion on those who are hurting but, as Dorothy Day put it, we also have a duty to delight.
Wonder arises out of our capacity to be amazed by things, to be awe-struck. This sixth sense is activated by our other senses of smell, touch, taste, hear, and see. Many people experience wonder when they are in nature, and so it is good to work with this spiritual practice in spring and especially as we approach Earth Day.
But our wonder is not confined to nature. It is, most simply, the ability to experience the world in fresh ways. That's what we've learned from reading a group of authors we affectionately call "The Wonder Writers." We encourage you to explore their works. Anything they have written will turn you toward the pole of wonder, but for our profiles we have singled out one book from each of them and even spotlighted particular passages.
DIANE ACKERMAN: Deep Play
Diane Ackerman is one of America's very best nature writers. Calling herself an "Earth ecstatic," she roams the planet, open to be amazed by the beauty, the intricacies, and the diversity of the natural world. In this book, she begins with a surprising encounter with penguins ("they enchanted me because they were still feathered mysteries") and ends with a wish on a comet for future generations ("May they never lose their sense of innocence and wonder. May they live to chase brash and astonishing dreams"). Ackerman showers our senses with dazzling sights and absolutely marvelous words.
JOSE HOBDAY: Stories of Awe and Abundance
In this juicy collection of stories and commentary, the author, a Franciscan sister of Seneca Iroquois descent, experiments with ways of keeping herself "green in the spirit," a term she got from Hildegard of Bingen. One of these, which she learned from her mother, involves picking a "Sacrifice Flower" to carry a burden and prayer to God. In a piece titled "The Land I Love," she recounts the gifts received from the desert, mountains, and farmland.
BARBARA KINGSOLVER: Small Wonder: Essays
In this searing collection of 23 essays, bestselling novelist Barbara Kingsolver opens our hearts and minds to uncomfortable truths about the American way of life and the predicament we find ourselves in after the terrorist attacks of September 11. She challenges us to face both the suffering and the small wonders all around us. Kingsolver is a contemporary prophet who demonstrates and encourages a deep sense of awe. In one essay, "Saying Grace," she moves from gasping at the beauty of the Grand Canyon to a powerful lament on American greed.
GUNILLA NORRIS: Being Home: Discovering the Spiritual in the Everyday
This paperback is a classic in the delineation of everyday spirituality. Similar to the ancient Celtic Christians, Norris shows us the wonders around us in our homes. She meditates upon the sacred lessons and liberations within daily activities. In "Paperwork," she surveys her desk and observes: "How marvelous that a nest of papers can be a place where new things come to be." In "Turning on the Light," she is awe-struck by a simple discovery: "Now light. Now dark. The switch turns, the wick catches fire. In that split second dark and light are one as is everything in the universe."
MARY OLIVER: The Leaf and the Cloud: A Poem
Mary Oliver is one of America's all-time great wonder poets. A Pulitzer Prize-winner, she is a gifted ambassador for nature, tutoring us in ways to deepen our connections with everything around us. She is a long looker and notices things the rest of us miss. In this astonishing book-length poem, she gives thanks for all the glories, celebrating the "deliberate music" of rocks, ears of corn, and a river. "I am the one who told you," she writes, "that the grass is also alive, and listening." And this: "I am a woman sixty years old, and glory is my work."
BRENDA PETERSON: Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals and Spirit
This superb collection of essays pays tribute to the marvels of animals birds, orcas, wolves, and many more. Brenda Peterson, who has lived for 20 years on the shores of Puget Sound in Washington State, challenges us to see how animals and humans are bound together by the tender ties of love, kindness, and compassion. In one of the best essays, "Apprenticeship to Animal Play," she thanks dolphins for expanding her capacity to play. In another about the day of the Oklahoma City bombing, she allows herself to be humbled and calmed by the presence of a great blue heron.
ANTHONY DE MELLO: Praying Body and Soul: Methods and Practices of Anthony de Mello adapted by Gabriel Balache
Finally, for those who want to try some spiritual practices specifically designed to increase astonishment, we recommend Gabriel Balache's book on the work of the late Catholic priest Anthony de Mello. "Contemplation gives rise to wonder, wonder gives rise to love, and love gives rise to the desire to imitate Jesus in our lives," de Mello wrote. For example, one exercise, "A Place to Pray: Vision of God in Nature," involves withdrawing in your imagination to some site that inspires praise; contemplating the nature around you still nature and nature in movement. Then "ask nature, the trees, birds, rivers, mountain, stars if they have some message to offer . . . Also ask the Lord what he has to say through nature. Wait for God's response. It may be a word, a phrase, or silence." The last part of the exercise is sure to give rise to wonder: "Invite God to see through your eyes the most beautiful things that God has created."