Calling from the pay phone in our dorm lobby, I told my mom that I had decided to major in philosophy. Some parents would fret about their son or daughter studying something so impractical. But not my mother. She reacted as if I were announcing my engagement to a member of the royal family.
A week later we were having another long-distance conversation. My mom said, “I didn’t know what philosophy was, so I looked it up. It means love of wisdom. That’s you. You love to learn.”
When a friend since childhood found out that I had been ordained to the priesthood, he said something like, “How did a cynical hedonist like you end up doing that?” Ouch. The truth can sting.
As I entered my late teens and young adulthood, I had gradually developed a Timon-like attitude toward the world. You may recall that Timon is Simba’s meerkat companion in The Lion King. His philosophy of life is summarized by the phrase “hakuna matata.” No worries. No worries because nothing really matters.
To clarify, Timon put it this way, “When the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world.” Cynics expect the world to let them down. So they refuse to get suckered by any of the world’s promises.
I can’t speak for any other recovering cynics, so you can take or leave what I’m about to say about the roots of my own cynicism.
My parents divorced. Living with a profound speech impediment left me feeling isolated. I was ashamed of our perpetual financial struggles. And I hid from everybody the dark secret that a neighbor had sexually abused me as a child.
Initially, I mistook my cynicism for wisdom. And in my hands philosophy functioned like a sort of scalpel. Reason revealed untruth and uncovered hypocrisy lying just beneath the intellectual skin. Other people’s skin that is.
With some embarrassment I admit to feeling a sort of smug satisfaction at dismantling other people’s naive beliefs or rubbing their noses in their intellectual and moral inconsistencies.
In the midst of my campaign on behalf of intellectual anarchy, I guarded a dirty little secret. Especially from myself. Even while I delighted in showing people that only a chump would put their trust in something, I was struggling to believe in me. To believe that my life really matters.
Cynicism, as it turns out, is the opposite of wisdom. Cynicism distances us from one another and erodes the sense of our own worth. By contrast, wisdom imbues life with meaning by drawing us into ever deeper relationships. No wonder the young king Solomon asked God for wisdom above all things. (1 Kings 3:9)
In the Psalms and in Proverbs we read that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Hebrew word rendered as “fear” is better translated in this case as “awe.” Awe is the beginning of wisdom.
Anne Lamott helps me understand the experience of awe when she discusses the third basic kind of prayer in her book Thanks Help Wow. Wow is the prayer we utter when we encounter something or someone whose beauty and grace and goodness exceeds our capacity to think, much less to speak.
In other words, “Wow” is what we say when we experience wonder. To be in awe is to be wonderstruck. When we encounter God—whether in a sunset, a starry sky, the Holy Sacrament, the lines in an old woman’s face, or the immensity of the sea—we experience wonder.
Some philosophers like Immanuel Kant have used the word “sublime” to refer to encounters like this. When a finite heart and mind crosses paths with the infinite. When an incomprehensible magnitude stretches to bursting all the limits we place on our thinking and our feeling.
Wow! We don’t have the words. And we are not the same after such an encounter.
But being stretched by the infinite is only part of the story. Awe reveals to us that we matter to this infinitely good and beautiful and powerful being. The divine has brought us into being and sustains our existence as an act of inexpressible love.
In the nanosecond that awe holds me in its grasp, I realize that—in my Maker’s heart—I am irreplaceable. I cannot be interchanged with anyone or anything else. I am peerless. I am the Aretha Franklin of the creation. Just like every woman, man, screech owl, goldfish, and proton.
We feel awe as the Infinite Love stretches us. Stretches us to receive more of God. More of each other.
I once was mostly immune to wonder. These days I’m susceptible, at least in my better moments, to being wonderstruck.