Thursday, March 14, 2013

Amazed by Wonder

Aristotle, as many people know, believed that philosophical reflection begins in wonder (thaumazein). I think this is something I, at least, take for granted: I spend a great deal of time trying to work out complicated questions, making things clear for myself and others, that it's easy to neglect being in a state of wonder or astonishment. It's easy, that is, to try to make things reasonable, understandable, manageable. 

On Sunday, while playing the accordion for an Irish dancing competition, my friend Theresa (piano) and I were seated behind the stages. Preparing to dance, the children would line up just in front of us before going on stage. After many years of playing, I'm the first to admit that I seldom watch the dancers any longer. 

Yet as I watched the kids line up and prepared to play, one little girl caught my eye. She was possibly six years old and clearly very excited to get up on the stage. As the stage monitor lined her group up, she could barely contain herself: she kept bouncing up and down and her arms swung wildly back and forth. My mind immediately went to my own observations of my niece and nephew who can, at times, get so excited that words fail them and their whole body seems to shake and jiggle and cry out.

I was amazed, at that moment, by the way children show amazement. We adults like to put our feelings of wonder and awe into neat phrases or categories, cleaning them up and making them sound "reasonable" or "rational." So often we suppress, tamp down, hold back, or control our feelings of joy or excitement. We may slap a high-five, let out a little shout of joy, or offer a wry smile. Yet the over-abundance of astonishment that quakes the child's body, we translate into language. 

In 2 Samuel 6 we read of a most astonishing event: King David dancing before the ark of God. I say astonishing because we can hardly imagine our leaders - politicians, CEO's, clergy - dancing. We expect them to be dignified, restrained, mature. Yet so great was his joy that David threw off others' expectations of what it means to be a leader and danced with joy before the Lord. 

Very often, it seems as though we think we need to "get the ideas right" in order to behave correctly. Certainly the pundits interviewed about the pope have this notion: first the pope would need change Church teaching (which, they hasten to add, is unlikely) in order that Catholics then could live the lives of faith they desire. I wonder if we have it totally wrong. In fact, I'm pretty certain we have it totally backward.

First we need to reconnect with our sense of childlike wonder, a surge of astonishment that shakes us in our shoes and overrides ours senses and makes our bodies cry out with joy. We need to learn to dance again, to dance freely with excitement, not because it's what is expected but because it's the only way we can celebrate: with our bodies. Then, after our dance, or even during it, we can reflect on it and see how our thoughts match our actions, rather than our actions having to match our thoughts. 

My hope for this new pontificate is that Pope Francis remains true to the way he has danced before the Lord: as a man of deep humility, of great prayer, and a love of the poor. I pray that he calls Catholics past the stumbling block of teaching, moving us beyond our heads and into our hands and feet, inviting us to join in building up God's Kingdom. Let the teachings catch up with the practice: as each of us work, as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ, the theology will emerge to describe who we are as a people. 

For those who want Church teaching to change, it won't happen in papal apartments or seminar rooms. It will happen in the barrios and housing projects, soup kitchens and refugee camps, where the embodied witness to the Gospel forces us to think anew how to describe the dance of faith we have begun. 

1 comment:

Brian H. Gill said...

I like the reference to Aristotle and a sense of wonder in the opening.

I agree with the idea that we *need* a sense of wonder, and that it's appropriate in worship and elsewhere.

About liturgical dance, I'm strongly inclined to think that my native culture isn't ready. (I live in the northern tier of states in the United States)