Sermon for Matins: This Sunrise of Wonder

12 November 2006 at :00 am

When Michael Mayne wrote his second book, he called it This Sunrise of Wonder, Letters for the Journey. 'This sunrise of wonder' was a quotation from G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography: 'At the back of our brains, so to speak, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic or spiritual life is to dig for this sunrise of wonder.' The journey was that of his grandchildren, Adam and Anna. Last week I spoke about A Year Lost and Found, the little book Michael wrote about the year before he came to Westminster, when he was profoundly ill with undiagnosed ME. Today I want to reflect on his second book, This Sunrise of Wonder.

A Year Lost and Found, just 86 pages long, came out in 1987. From the response it was clear that Michael had touched a nerve, but it was eight years before his next book appeared - eight years of immersion in the relentless business that goes with being Dean of Westminster. What this book reveals is the sheer richness of his inner world, of all the poems and paintings and carefully recorded, minute observation of nature that sustained him amid the outward pressure. It is the fruit of a relatively sort period of 'study leave' - just a month - spent in a chalet high in the Swiss Alps. It consists of twenty-four letters to his grandchildren dated from May 20 to June 15: the book must have been written in an astonishing burst of creativity. However, it is clear that Michael had been thinking about it for years. The range of quotation is extraordinary - he must have had a carload of books, and, no doubt, carefully annotated and organised notebooks, the fruit of years of reading and reflection. By writing for his grandchildren he keeps what he says simple. He can focus on the most important things. In just a month, he wrote an account of what to him were the most important things about being alive; the things which he wanted his grandchildren not to miss.

Throughout this book Michael shows himself as at heart a mystic, nourished by a rich tradition of mysticism in which Traherne, Blake and Wordsworth were major influences. His sense of wonder at being alive takes him into poetry, novels, art, music, cosmology and biology. He describes the delight of his daily walks and the glimpses of the Alpine world around him as he writes. In this wonder he finds his route to God. Not once does he offer or even mention any of the theologian's traditional 'proofs' of the existence of God. He simply invites us to consider our own experience of being in the world:

My subject is wonder, and my starting point is so obvious it often escapes us. It is me, sitting at a table looking out on the world. It is the fact that I exist, that there is anything at all. It is the givennessthat astonishes: the fact that the mountains, the larch tree, the gentian, the jay, exist, and that someone called me is here to observe them. (p. 15)

This astonishment at simply being alive returns again and again, like what he would later call a musical cantus firmus. He believes:

I can come to understand that there is no object (and certainly no person) not worthy of wonder, and that what makes them so is that each in its or his or her essence is a) unique; b) unlikely [are giraffes and flamingoes likely? Is the humming bird? Or Mozart?]; c) 'other' and d) not mastered, that is to say, not capable of being fully understood, docketed and explained. (p. 88)

With huge energy, Michael takes us on a literary journey into the workings of the human body and the human mind, into outer space and into the cell, just to show us in his own way and his own words how extraordinary it all is. But his real homeland is the arts:

So much of what I want to share with you in succeeding letters could be summed up by saying: to ask, 'What is art?', 'What is poetry?', 'What is music?' is one way of asking 'What is a human being?' (p. 25)

His question, though, is not about any old human being (if there were such a thing): it is about this human being or that human being - my husband, my wife, my child, my boss, my supposed enemy - and, of course, myself - looked at with wonder and joy.

Michael's answer to his own question is that a truly human being is one who senses there is more to life than meets the careless eye. What that 'more' is we experience in a sense of wonder, mostly generalised, but sometimes intensely present in specific and unforgettable moments:

Have I known such utterly convincing moments? Yes, a few. There was such a moment some forty years ago, when swimming in a translucent sea off the Dalmatian coast; another twenty years later high on a hill in a summer night in Iona; a third in the stillness of a Romanesque church in Burgundy. These are moments that remain as vivid in my mind as on the day I first felt them. (p. 43)

But, the moment, I think, that really marked him was that of his father's suicide, when he was only three. To that, he went back frequently:

He must have known a lot about pain and anguish secretly borne, for one day in May he climbed the church tower in the village where he was rector, threw himself down, and was killed almost instantly. I was three, the same age as you, Adam, are now. Sometimes I wonder what they were like, those genes which I carry, and I long to know what they cared about and believed to be of value' (cf pp. 5-6).

Finding himself alive and growing up, with his father dead, was a vital component in Michael's astonishment at what it means to be alive in this extraordinary world. But he was not going to leave his grandchildren to wonder what he cared about and believed to be of value: he was determined to write it down.

Michael's intense sense of the beauty and fragility of being alive was always close to the reality of intense pain and loss. One of the most striking paragraphs in his book is not his own; but, of course, he chose it and it was his decision to quote it at length. It comes from Brian Keenan's passionate and moving book, An Evil Cradling, in which Keenan wrote about his experience of being held hostage in Beirut, often in solitary confinement. After an interminable time of sitting in the dark, Keenan is brought some small oranges:

My eyes are almost burned by what I see. The fruit, the colours, mesmerize me in a quiet rapture that spins through my head ... I lift an orange into the flat filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange. Before me is a feast of colour. I feel myself begin to dance, slowly, I am intoxicated by colour... Such wonder, such absolute wonder in such insignificant fruit. I cannot, I will not eat this fruit. I sit in quiet joy, so completely beyond the meaning of joy. My soul finds its own completeness in that bowl of colour ... I want to bow before it, loving that blazing, roaring, orange colour ... In there in that tiny bowl, the world recreated in that tiny bowl ... I focus all of my attention on that bowl of fruit ... I cannot hold the ecstacy of the moment and its passionate intensity ... I am filled with a sense of love. (pp. 231-2)

Isn't this precisely the literary equivalent of a C├ęzanne still life? For Michael, as for Keenan, the look of wonder, the painter's real look, is the look of love, and that is the look which sees to the heart of reality. Here is an ordinary, extra-ordinary experience of the sacramental, of the divine, given through an orange - an experience infinitely transferable to the look of love shared with another human being.

And once - heaven help us - that way of looking is lost, then our humanity is lost; when that look of love perishes, we too perish with it:

Once wonder goes; once mystery is dismissed; once the holy and numinous count for nothing; then a human life becomes cheap and it is possible with a single bullet to shatter that most miraculous thing, a human skull, with scarcely a second thought. Wonder and compassion go hand-in-hand. Seeing is a radical activity. It affects everything. It is Rilke's 'you must change your life'. (p. 235)

The message 'you must change your life' gives to Michael's mysticism its radical edge. He does not thrust this message upon us; after all, we are listening in as he talks to his grandchildren. In the end, as a Christian, he relates his bubbling sense of wonder to the 'changed life' he sees in Jesus and to the changing of our lives that comes about through regular sharing in the eucharist. But the most eloquent chapters are those in which he shows how the artists and the poets and the writers help to change our way of seeing the world - to prepare us for Christ and the eucharist; how they teach us to look upon our own existence, our world and one another with love; how they call us to 'this sunrise of wonder'; how they call us to 'change our life'.

This Sunrise of Wonder, Letters for the Journey

1. Michael Mayne, This Sunrise of Wonder, Letters for the Journey (London: Fount, 1995)

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