One Advent, I was captivated by the phrase “Desire of Nations” in the “O Antiphons,” particularly the word “desire.”[i] When I checked the etymology of the word “desire,” I was intrigued to know that it is derived from the Latin de sidere, that is, “from the stars.” Desire, then, is similar to the light falling from the stars; we can see the starlight but we cannot possess these ephemeral rays. Paradoxically, once we possess something, we no longer desire it. We can desire and long for a vacation in the mountains, but once we have arrived at our destination, we have fulfilled the desire. Similarly, we refer to the manner in which we long for knowledge or the manner in which we stretch our intellects to consider new ideas and possibilities as “wonder.” To understand more fully the relationship between desire and wonder, and its importance in catechesis, we will first establish their meanings as defined by St. Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas defines wonder (admiratio) as “a kind of desire (desiderium) for knowledge; a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or faculty of understanding.”[ii] Wonder leads people to inquire and seek answers in a deliberate and purposeful manner in order to gain knowledge. St. Thomas identifies that we associate the desired person, event or object with what is “pleasing” and “scarce.”[iii] Simply, the wonderer glimpses an elusive knowledge to pursue.
Wonder may have several manifestations or guises. On a natural level, wonderers might be assiduous and plan a strategy with a clear outcome, such as building a rocket to send people to the moon. Other wonderers are enthralled by a phrase or a melody that lingers in their minds and develops, by incremental steps over the years, before its fruition as a poem or a symphony. Many experience wonder in awe or as wordlessness, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses in his translation of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro Te Devoto, as he describes us “lost all lost in wonder at the God thou art” when gazing upon the Eucharistic Lord. In these examples, the time and experience of the pursuit prepares the wonderer for the ability to obtain and possess the knowledge, but this search is not mere curiosity.[iv]
In the mid-twentieth century, two English Dominican friars, Conrad Pepler, O.P., and Gerald Vann, O.P., preached on the importance of wonder in the spiritual life. Tracing the movement from physical sensations to spiritual desire, Pepler explains the foundation of the physical sensations in this way: “The sense world is the proper object of his reason; he first knows and desires what he sees and smells and tastes and touches, and from these he learns to look and desire beyond. He is not satisfied with what satisfies the body, but searches for something higher at the back of all his senses can know.”[v] While desire begins in the physical senses, wonder presses it to search beyond the senses; and this wonder spurs man’s spiritual journey, which leads to the ultimate end, fulfillment in God. When a person standing on the rocky shore of the Atlantic Ocean, is overawed by the vast power of nature, he may advance from the wonder he experiences in the natural world to a wonder at the mystery inherent in the created work of God: “LORD, God of hosts, who is like you? Mighty LORD, your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule the raging sea you still its swelling waves” (Ps. 89: 9-10).
Wonder also occurs within our interior life, and Vann delves into the importance of linking desire to its end within our moral life:
Desire means a longing for what is not present, but a longing the fulfilment of which may be known to be inevitable and requiring no effort; thus in heaven the heart desires and yet is at rest since it knows that its desire will be effortlessly fulfilled. . . . desire for one thing does not prevent happiness in another: still the subject will not have arrived at that perfect bliss which beatitude surely demands till all its desires are fulfilled.[vi]
Vann connects the concrete physical sensations to the realm of mystery; thus he demonstrates that the desire and search for God can lead to a height not palpable to the senses. He defines wonder as “that capacity which is given us by poetry and philosophy, by love and religion, to marvel at things, at the mystery of being, and in Heraclitus’ phrase, ‘to listen to the essence of things.’”[vii] Wonder is therefore essential to the spiritual life: “without wonder and reverence we shall never learn the secret heart of things.”[viii] Vann declares that wonder is not a matter of a desire to seek earthly answers, but it is “of theological importance.”[ix]
Various snares can lead us astray, however, including the temptation to stop at the physical pleasure offered by the mere surface satisfaction of the initial, natural desire, as well as messages from the secular culture that often try to convince us of the lie that quick physical gratification will bring fulfillment. Prudence, therefore, must be operative to assure that we order the desire to the right end.
In this context, catechists need to discover how to nurture wonder and desire in students so that they may encounter the Triune God. Catechists may foster wonder by asking open-ended questions or simply modeling questions, such as “I wonder how. . . ” Students who respond to these questions with wonder have “the desire of learning the cause,” that is, the why and how of the question. In searching for a solution, the students, the wonderers, “learn something new,” either the answer or a related topic to investigate.[x] Wonder, then, is not a passive lens we use to view the world but is the “imaginative response to life.”[xi] Wonder is not an additive, a bonus, to be associated with learning, but an essential element that assists in directing desire towards contemplation, that is, gazing at God.
Wonder is a gift that we may take for granted, mistake for curiosity or, paradoxically, we may only notice wonder if it is absent. Perhaps in a manner similar to a plant that gradually begins to wilt or yellow from an absence of water or sunlight, the absence of wonder gradually reveals a loss of fervor, not only for learning but also for life itself. Vann suggests that wonder has to be actively cultivated:
All day long we are seeing things but we never find time to stop and look and wonder at them: to be still, and concentrate our gaze on them until they begin to reveal their secrets to us, the mystery which lies within them. We never stop to look, and so the beauty of things passes us by; equally, we never stop to look and so we fail to notice all the ugliness and squalor with which we surround ourselves. Wonder is one of the faculties most easy to lose: we have it in childhood, undiscriminating no doubt but vivid and deep; we all too easily lose it as we grow older and become immersed in our daily concerns; and so, unless we are very careful, not beauty only but life itself passes us by. For inevitably life loses its meaning when it loses its mystery.[xii]
Wonder has a certain affinity to mystery, and maintaining an attitude of wonder throughout life is a way to halt the advance of boredom and apathy. By preparing the mind and soul to ask and seek and contemplate the truth, wonder is a precursor to contemplation; moreover, this contemplation deepens our recognition of not only the truth but of he who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Sr. Thomas More Stepnowski, O.P. is Vice President of Academics at Aquinas College, Nashville, Tennessee.
[i] The “O Antiphons” are the Magnificat antiphons used during Vespers and for the Gospel Alleluia verse from December 17-24. The verses of the Advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel are based on the O Antiphons.
[ii] ST I-II, 32, viii.
[iii] ST I-II, 32, viii.
[iv] Curiositas is not interchangeable with wonder. St. Thomas identifies curiosity as an effect of acedia, one of the seven deadly sins, in ST II-II, 35. He describes a “tendency to wander, if it reside in the mind itself that is desirous of rushing after various things without rhyme or reason, is called ‘uneasiness of the mind,’” (ST II-II, 35, iv, ad 3). Curiosity, while it has the desire to know, lacks the structure or discipline to know the height, depth and breadth of a topic. Curiosity lacks the ability to “dwell intently,” and its pursuit for knowledge is analogous to the alleviation of a symptom instead of healing or restoring the desire of knowledge to full health.
[v] Conrad Pepler, Sacramental Prayer, (St. Louis: Herder, 1959), 21.
[vi] Gerald Vann, Morals and Man, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 213.
[vii] Gerald Vann, Modern Culture and Christian Renewal (Washington, D.C.: Thomist Press, 1965), 11.
[viii] Gerald Vann, Water and Fire, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954), 31.
[ix] Ibid, 177.
[x] ST I-II, 32, viii, ad 1.
[xi] Conrad Pepler, Riches Despised, (St. Louis: Herder, 1957), 68.
[xii] Vann, Water and Fire, 18-19.
This article originally appeard on pages 28-29 of the printed edition.