Ask for Wonder
by Vincent Petruccelli | Petruccelli is a junior at Benedictine College and a Gregorian Fellow.
It is about that time of year when Amazon acts like it knows me.
After seeing all that filled my cart preparing for the school year, this online shopping jungle has been slyly dropping hints that it indeed does know me. And, yes, I am interested in the iPhone cases and poetry books it suggested for me. Amazon even seemed to want to help me with my classes, offering different introductions and resources on Early American Literature and Philosophy of Mind, all with the allure of free shipping. However, going back to order all of the books I forgot and skimming through its recommendations, I suddenly saw that there is one thing Amazon is wrong about with me.
Amazon thinks I am Jewish.
This would be the fault of a certain Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom I discovered in the Fall semester of my sophomore year. After my first encounter with him, I bravely set out to Amazon to buy his entire corpus. In the end, my bank account won that battle unscathed and I have only one of Heschel’s works, but the time spent trawling through the selection of the rabbi’s books has confused Amazon about my religious orientation.
The first encounter happened on Fall break of 2012. A book caught my eye in the tightly packed “Spiritual” section of a bookstore in Omaha. The title was I Asked for Wonder. I could tell he was Jewish from the name. (Anyone well versed in the Bible or from the East Coast will have said skill of recognition. Sadly I receive it more from the latter than the former.) I have had encounters with modern Jewish authors that, although brief and often second hand, have been tremendously profound. So, I picked it up and, in the introduction, the eponymous quote was given in full:
I did not ask for success, I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.
I won’t be converting to Judaism any time soon and I won’t be buying all of Amazon’s hints that they know me, especially after they already cleaned me out for anthologies and textbooks. But I took the gentle reminder from Amazon as a chance to reflect on that phrase from Rabbi Heschel in light of another academic year.
Success is the name of the game for education these days. It is not a subtle fact that this is the case. And success is a good thing. It is not simply unbridled vanity and pride that we students want to get the A, or pass, find good jobs, make a good living. But if it is the only thing we ask for, then we find our lives less fulfilled and less alive than we thought.
Wonder is a sign that we are alive in some deeper part of ourselves. The experience of wonder shows that we do not live to produce results but that we live for things beyond measurement: joy, beauty, friendship. Our experience of reality begins in wonder, whether we remember this primordial relationship with the world or not.
Wonder is that impossible-to-manufacture event of seeing that something is both familiar and strange, reasonable and mysterious. It is the joy and excitement of seeing that life is much greater and more beautiful than how we usually regard it. As the German writer Goethe is recorded as saying, “the very summit of man’s attainment is the capacity to marvel.”
In the end, wonder can be the beginning of love, that is, the beginning of affirming the value of things just because they are. There is a qualitative difference between a relationship of love and a relationship of utility. Anyone with basic human experience will know this difference. Likewise, there is a qualitative difference in a classroom or a group of friends studying between those who ask for success and those who ask for wonder. It is likewise easy to identify this experience. In a classroom full of wonder, led by genuine openness and fascination, time does not drag on, an experience we all know too well.
Instead, time is full, or even, time seems to stop, to cease. It is as if time has been replaced by the shock of the beauty and strangeness of the world. Of course, always expecting this may be fanciful, a wishful exaggeration.
But (to continue the analogy) love does, in some sense, transform time. Being taken in love, moved by the presence of the beloved, time loses its ticking quality and becomes more full, more alive. In love, in wonder, our life is not just lived from expectation to expectation, but our life is lived from event to event. “Event” in the sense of something new, surprising, wonderful. In this kind of life, both small and great things awaken us to the familiarity and mysteriousness of the world.
Like I already said, echoing Rabbi Heschel, life based on this wonder is qualitatively different than a life based on success. The latter is essentially a life based on myself. The life of love and the life of wonder is a life of relationship, of going outside of myself towards a world everyday more marvelous.
In a world enslaved by time and deadline, by preparation and success, we need to ask for more love. We need to ask for wonder. And He will give it to us.