“In the end I would rather wonder than know,” writes poet Mary Ruefle in a collection of lectures she titled, Madness, Rack, and Honey (Seattle/New York: Wave Books, 2012). She continues: “Because I would rather wonder than know, my interests and talents lie in the arts rather than the sciences, although, like the monk who discovered champagne – an accidental event that unexpectedly happened to his wine – I have on occasion come running with open arms toward another with the news, ‘Look! I am drinking the stars!’” (101).
I get Ruefle’s point, at least for her personally, that it is because she would rather wonder than know that she followed the path of the arts rather than the sciences. But many scientists I have known did not seem to have such a dichotomy between wonder and knowledge. I think, for example, about the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. The breakthrough in the thinking that led to the discovery for which he won the Nobel Prize for Physics came while he was watching a student in the university cafeteria spinning a plate on a stick. Feynman was swept up in wonder that led him to try to figure out the math behind the phenomenon, and one thing led to another. So, let’s not force wonder away from knowledge, but allow wonder to serve as the muse for knowledge in whatever human endeavors we happen to be involved.
Perhaps this is what Rumi was getting at when he wrote:
“With us, the name of everything
Is its outward appearance;
With the Creator,
The name of each thing is its inward reality.
In the eyes of Moses, the name of his rod was
In the eye of the Creator, its name was ‘dragon.’
In brief, that which we are in the end
Is our real name with God.”
(Kabir Helminski, editor, The Rumi Collection: An Anthology of Translations of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Boston: Shambhala, 2005, 84-85).
Wonder knows that God gives everything its true name. Wonder invites us both to stand back and say, “Wow!” and to look beneath the surface to ask “Why?” The question does not violate the reality at which we wonder. In fact, both “Wow” and the “Why” are impulses of wonder. And these two impulses of wonder are not at war with one another; each requires its own manner of respect, its own reverence.
As the ancient Tao Te Ching reminds us, our deep calm allows us to perceive the mystery of the eternal, while our deep longings lead us to see the diversity of phenomena in the world that surrounds us. “These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.” (Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, trans. (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1989), 3).
Wonder may lead to spiritual rapture, silence of the creature in the presence of the Holy. Wonder may also lead to months, even years, of disciplined scientific research to understand more fully a phenomenon that might have beneficial application to humanity. Wonder, whether explicitly recognized as such or not, is a kind of prayer. And the potential for such prayer surrounds us every day.
Anne Lamott writes: “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. ‘Wow’ means we are not dulled to wonder…. ‘Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.” (Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Riverhead, 2012, 71).
So much of life is like the monk’s discovery of champagne, it seems to me. So often we find ourselves at dawn on the banks of a salt marsh, or in rapt admiration of the beauty of a newborn child, or in the afterglow of a long conversation with an old friend wanting to run to the nearest crowd of people with the news, “Look! I am drinking the stars!” When we are open to wonder, a lot of life tastes like Dom Perignon.