Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 11th August 2013
11 August 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Morality, wonder, failure, pleasure: four features of human experience, woven deeply into the texture of human life; four basic experiences of life which can help point us to God - and so four subjects I am talking about in this series of sermons at Matins throughout August. Last week, morality: this morning, wonder.
Wonder, like morality, is something almost every one experiences. But often best left to poets to actually express. Listen for example to the poet William Wordsworth, describing the memory of an experience he had as a boy when he escaped one summer night and went out in a boat on Derwent Water in the English lake district. This is how he described his experience that night, on his own on the water, surrounded by high hills. : 'Out of the dusk…a huge peak, black and huge..upreared its head…towered up between me and the stars…and it seemed with purpose of its own…like a living thing, strode after me. With trembling oars I turned, and through the silent water stole my way back..and for many days by brain worked with a dim and undetermined sense of unknown modes of being…'
Now - what is this? At one level just a small boy's imagination, spiced no doubt with a sprinkling of guilt because he had been playing truant. But not just that. He had also written in similar ways of other experiences when he was an adult: you may know some of these: he'd written of 'a host of golden daffodils, ten thousand at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly glance'. No hints of guilt or fear there! But what is common to both experiences, hills and daffodils alike, is precisely an awe and wonder at what he was seeing. And what is this wonder? The heart of it seems to be seeing these things of nature not just as inert objects: not just things in the way, to be surmounted, analysed, dissected, or discarded. Instead, he felt them as mysterious things to be reverenced, 'unknown modes of being' with a unique life of their own, things which affected him, even seem to communicate with him…
Former Bishop of Winchester John Taylor described something similar in a moment sitting in a railway carriage. He was watching a flaming English sunset and the long shadows it cast over the passing fields. And he described it as a feeling not just of looking at something but of being personally addressed by what he was seeing: as if the things of this world he was looking at were not just objects but things through which he was receiving some personal communication. It was, he wrote, the experience of a kind of 'current' between himself and what he was looking at.
This experience can be most intense when we are in the presence of another person, not just of things in the natural world. All too often people too can be seen just as inert objects in the way, to be walked around in a crowded street, or just used for our own purposes. But the more profound experience of people is, again, precisely this sort of wonder when we see them not just as objects in the way but with their own life, having their own 'unknown mode of being'; when we wonder at them for their sake not just ours; when let them really affect us, relate to us, and us to them. In other words, when we relate to them precisely as persons not just as objects. And when we do, it is a wholly different quality of encounter. That quality is the wonder we can feel, about nature, other people - and even our own selves: for we can also be caught in wonder about ourselves too: our own unknown mode of being.
This capacity for wonder is a vital spiritual experience. It is probably unique to humankind. It has fired philosophers as well as poets in their effort to capture and express it. It actually lies at the root of moral experience too. For it is precisely when we wonder at others or ourselves that we can begin to treat them properly. To wonder at the mystery of others, rather than just see them as objects, is actually the bedrock of all potential for love, joy, respect, all worthwhile relationship.
Small wonder, then, that it can also be interpreted specifically an experience of the God Himself. God the Holy Spirit. That is certainly what John Taylor thought. This current we experience which seems to flow between us and things and people, relating us to them and showing us their mystery, is the Spirit of God - what Taylor memorably called the 'Go-between God', flowing through us. And he surely must be right. For what else could cause such an experience? What else could create the dynamics of this wonder which plays like summer lightening between us and the objects and people of our perception? Try as I might I cannot see how the mechanisms of natural evolution alone could create this texture of experience. It is not a mechanism for survival. It is a much deeper and more mysterious reality than that. As Wordsworth himself put it: it really is a Spirit which 'impels us and all thinking, feeling things'.
And so just as last week I pointed to our experience of morality as a witness to God, suggesting how the near universal deep sense of real goodness can actually be a direct experience of God, so now I'm suggesting that the near universal sense of wonder may be the same. To wonder at the life of other things and people, to feel the mysterious current flowing between us, is an experience of the Spirit of God Himself.
Is this also an experience of Christ? Is this general structure of spiritual experience which all can have, an experience specifically of Christ? Not necessarily. But - it may be. And it can easily become so. Because the true Spirit of God's greatest role of all is precisely to lead us to wonder, not just at other people and the world, but above all to wonder at, and relate to, Christ…
So - let it do just that. Follow your sense of wonder humbly openly and honestly, everywhere it leads…and you will find that it will lead you not just to a new relation with nature and other people, but a new relation with God Himself in Jesus Christ.