Prayer Wednesday: Wonder and Prayer

Prayer Wednesday: Wonder and Prayer April 1, 2020

The common mother of art, philosophy, science, and religion is Wonder. The world pours out torrents of wonders upon us and it is the most human thing in the world to ask, “Why?”  In antiquity, nobody had set up walls between these four different ways of exploring the wonders of the world.  Consequently, Solomon could write Proverbs and meditate on the ways of God and see no conflict between doing that and learning about plants, birds, and bugs.

Likewise, Pythagoras saw no conflict between thinking about mathematics and speculating about the transmigration of souls.  Given that numbers and spirits are both real while not participating in the slightest in time, space, matter or energy, there’s no particular reason he should not have done so.

Likewise, the Magi saw no conflict between astronomy and astrology.  Like pretty much everybody in antiquity, they regarded creation as an interconnected thing and saw the work of man as being about trying to figure out what the connections were.

That’s still the work of artists, philosophers, scientists, theologians–and children–today.  And the more we learn about the connections between things, the weirder it all gets:

Ancient Israelites had a sort of proto-sacramental view of the world which simultaneously distinguished between Creator and creation while also seeing it crammed with meaning from God. The twelve tribes marched under banners that identified them with the constellations. Why? Because they regarded them as images of the “heavenly hosts”–the angelic powers who helped Israel (the “earthly hosts” of the LORD).

The Book of Revelation (following Ezekiel) likewise identifies constellations as signs pointing to heavenly powers.

The point is not that the authors of Scripture are trying to do science. They aren’t. The point is that Scripture is written in a time before philosophy has teased out the distinctions between the four different ways of trying to explore the wonder of the world.

And Catholic sacramentality retains something of that porousness to this day.

It’s one of the reasons I love the Catholic intellectual tradition. For the Fathers of the Church literally everything was grist for contemplation. People who know nothing about history imagine that the early Christians feared the life of the mind. In fact, they reveled in it. Some of the stuff they ponder is just amazing:

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And then, of course, there is the marvelous Augustine, geeking out about the strange possibilities of life on other planets remote islands like any fan of sci-fi today:

Whether Certain Monstrous Races of Men are Derived from the Stock of Adam or Noah’s Sons.

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth: others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks Pigmies: they say that in some places the woman conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth. So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvelous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee: they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet. Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities. What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?  But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities.  But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.

There is no sin in asking “how? when? what?” (the business of science).  Nor is there any sin in contemplating the beauty or the ugliness in things.  Nor in asking “why?” (the work of philosophy).

Nor in asking “Who?” (the work of theology, the Queen of the Sciences).  The idea that Thought and Prayer are somehow opposites is a form of modern madness I will never ever understand.


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