“Admiration, astonishment, amazement, surprise caused by something unusual or unexpected” is, more or less, the first dictionary definition for “wonder” in the English language. It’s taken from Samuel Johnson’s famous English Dictionary. Johnson also offers a quotation from Shakespeare, given by the confused Prince Hamlet, in which the stars of heaven are compared to “wonder-wounded hearers” listening to some beautiful speech. Shakespeare and Johnson both ask us to consider what it means to be “wonder-wounded.” How could “admiration, astonishment,” or “amazement” wound? Have you ever watched a long line of deep blue water, beneath a silent sunset, and seen the symphony of colors, heard the airy balm of leaves rushing softly in the wind, and thanked God for a magical moment so touching and beautiful that it might almost be said to cause you joyful pain? No? Ah. Well. Perhaps, maybe, you should get out more, so that you too can be “wonder-wounded.”
The stars and the sun, the heavenly bodies, are not the only source of wonder, and Johnson gives us an example from the lofty poet John Milton to prove it: “Lo, a wonder strange! / Of every beast, and bird, and insect small / came sevens, and pairs.” This passage from Paradise Lost describes the wonderful animals and the miracle of Noah’s Ark. Milton’s poetic voice beholds animals, through which he sees the power of God, and he wonders.
Johnson also offers in his definition of “wonder” a certain line from the Old Testament’s first Book of Kings. The passage describes the craftsmanship involved in making the great Temple of Jerusalem, describing with admiration that grand edifice and especially “a kind of network” of intricate carvings “and chain work wreathed together with wonderful art.” Not only can the stars of heaven or the ocean sunset cause us to wonder, not only the creatures of the earth that move about by the natural and supernatural direction of God, but the work of artists and craftsmen can be wonderful as well. Not only can God’s beautiful artistry strike us with wonder but also the beauty conceived by human mind and crafted by human hands.
Now the Temple was, in part, designed to serve as a symbol of the natural world, as a symbol of the entire cosmos. That is, the “wonderful art” of the Temple was meant to imitate the wonderful art of Nature and Nature’s God. We call this wonderful whole of all things the cosmos. The word “cosmos” means beautifully well ordered. So the Temple was made to show the holy people, and all of us who learn from their example, that God’s house, his Temple, is, in a very real sense, the whole of the Natural world. From the furthest black hole to the nearest gopher hole, the whole of creation is a cosmos, a beautifully well ordered cosmos. And by artfully representing it in the intricate design and decoration of the Temple, King Solomon and his artisans, in obedience to God, brought wonder into the hearts of those who came to worship and to visit. And that wonder, at man’s skill, at the natural world that man’s art represents, and at God who beautifully made and ordered it all into a whole cosmos — that wonder is, in a sense, a wonder all its own, one beautiful to behold.
Isn’t Johnson wonderful? Little wonder I put this definition of his in my glossary for Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, which attempts to foster a sense of wonder in its readers — young and old — along these Johnsonian, or really Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian lines.
But why all this talk of wonder? Why mention the writers Shakespeare, Milton, and Johnson — and the Good Book as well? Why is wonder so important? And “why,” you might ask, “Dr. Mehan, did you write about mythical mammals rather than real rabbits and raccoons of the natural world? Perhaps I might simply offer the words of another great mind. Listen for a spell to Aristotle:
“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun, and about the stars and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant, whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for a myth is composed of wonders.”
Poetry, art, puzzle, riddle, mystery, and the strangeness of mythical representation — re-presentation of old truths remixed in new ways — this work is, I think, a kind of duty of every new generation toward the generation that follows. The first kind of ignorance is pride. We think we know, but really we do not. Wonder, that alliterative trio from Johnson of “admiration, astonishment, amazement” is an ideal way to reset the human heart and mind with a wonder-wound, so that mildly and quietly, in the inner recesses of our hearts, we might be led to say, without a word in vain, “My God, I do not know, I do not know the wonders and beauties of this world that you surely and beautifully have made. My God, I do not know myself and what a thing is man. My God, I do not know you. And deeply now I wish to know, love, and be wise.”
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