Whitehead famously said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” If that’s true, then my rescue kitten, Raindrop, may be the greatest philosopher of all time.

While trail walking on a rainy Spring morning in early June, my husband and sister-in-law and I heard the urgent, distressing meow of a cat in a green thicket near a creek. We thought it must be a bigger cat, given the sheer volume of its voice, but when we finally coaxed it out of the bushes, we saw that it was a tiny scrap of life, alone, soaked, starving, and full of tics and brambles. Thanks to his persistent cries, he was saved. And fed. And loved to the hilt.

Eat, Play, Love

He-of-the-big-voice inhabits the tiniest of bodies (possibly the runt of a litter), who we hope will soon begin to fill out with our care. But tiny is huge in the realm of what matters. I realized after a week of caring for him, that he has so much to teach me. His needs are simple: Eat, play, love. But the wisdom from this relationship — kitten and me — goes much further.

Raindrop rekindles in me that foundational value of wonder that undergirds the best of spiritual traditions, poetry, science, and philosophy.

Philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom,” and I have dedicated much of my adult life to the study of philosophy and theology for this reason; but wisdom, I have discovered, comes not just from intellectual concepts, theories, and ideas; wisdom also comes to us through the wonder of nature, the earth, the body, the universe, intuition, imagination, music, art, and religious life. Wise thinking does not get caught in the hall of mirrors of its own logical certainties but returns with humility to the wonder-filled world of tiny, lost kittens and rain and the struggle to survive.

Divine Wonder

The gift of wonder comes from beyond us; it issues forth from divine places, both in heaven and earth, in sorrow and in laughter, in play and in love, in ritual and in music. The greatest thinkers are those who understand this.

Raindrop knows something about wonder. He is full of it, all 1½ lbs. of him. Everything sings and shines and calls out to be noticed: the sounds and movements from television, a toy ball that lights up, a soft pile of towels in which to sleep and dream. Everything is brand spanking new, fresh, scary, and wonderful -- everything, the whole “kit-ten” caboodle — from the ecstasy of his first lick of butter to the fear and awe inspired by his 20 lb. ginger brother.

Radical Amazement

In a state of wonder, we grow our souls, become curious and open-minded. Our creativity blossoms, and our empathy deepens. In a state of wonder, we become wholly present in the moment. Raindrop doesn’t worry about the future when watching squirrels and birds from his window perch. He doesn’t remember being abandoned and lost. He is too enraptured with life! At every turn, with every new discovery, his slanted green eyes grow large and full of nothing less than what Abraham Joshua Heschel’s called “radical amazement.”

Raindrop teaches me other things, too: when you’re in need, meow loudly until someone pays attention! Be persistent. Practice curiosity. Stand in awe at the bigness of the world. And, if everything around you is growing dark and scary, look for the patch of light streaming through the window and park yourself there as long as you need.

Be Astonished

It all begins with wonder. We can all be philosophers of wonder, with the wisdom that we are very small creatures in the scope of the vast universe. As Mary Oliver put it:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

We need these instructions more than ever. These are indisputably dark days, so it’s good to be reminded through our pets and children and poets how to live in a continuous state of awe and astonishment which keeps the door open to hope and fresh possibilities. For wonder is a form of deep intelligence that can host empathy, wholeness, and deep spiritual awakening.

The Wonder Remains

Of course, many great thinkers begin with wonder, but then lose it along the way as they get further into breaking things apart in the intellectual quest for knowledge. Things begin to be devitalized and life becomes bits and pieces of knowledge with no real embodiment. But knowledge is not wisdom. Intellectuals often forget to return their attention to what’s most real — and most important: the living, messy, ambiguous world. Good philosophy points back to the world, to nature, to the whole web of relationships that make up life. Wise thinkers balance their abstract concepts and ideas with wonder and mystery and the humility of being a tiny being in a huge universe.

It’s important to note that Whitehead did not only say, “Philosophy begins in wonder,” but he added significantly, “And at the end when philosophic thought has done its best the wonder remains.” The wonder remains! That is the key.

We all know that life itself begins in wonder, but for how many of us does wonder remain? We grow old, cynical, and forget who we are: stardust in a vast and beautiful universe — a part of the Great Mystery of Being.

Yes, Raindrop can tell us something about being a tiny tyke in a big, scary world, and how to see this vast world through a lens of wonder, awe, and pure astonishment. When I immerse myself in the wonder of my own aliveness — the tickle of rain on my skin, the delight of a good meal, the pang of loss, the joy of finding a lost kitten — I feel a deep conviction that this tragic and beautiful world is somehow held together by love.

And it all begins — and ends — in wonder.

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