My Mystical Encounter with Wonder

My Mystical Encounter with Wonder
Brian Zahnd

(This mystical encounter with wonder occurred twenty years ago today. It was life-changing.)

Art is often an attempt to recapture the wonder that is in the world when seen through the eyes of innocence, the eyes of a child. Wonder is so much more than empty amusement or an evening’s entertainment. Wonder is an essential ingredient if life is to be made livable. Wonder is the cure — the cure for life-killing boredom. Wonder is the drug — the natural drug without which people may turn to narcotic drugs. Sure, most people bravely soldier on without wonder, and even do so without drug addictions and self-destructive behavior. But is that the point of life? To soldier on long after the thrill of living is gone? That’s not life — that’s life with all the wonder crushed out of it and compressed to mere existence. Wonder is what we’ve lost. Wonder is what we miss. Wonder is what we want. Wonder is our hidden Narnia into which we long to step and explore.

Years ago I was thinking about these things while on a family vacation in the Rocky Mountains. During our long hikes I would muse on the role of wonder in finding satisfaction in life. One evening I found myself alone at sundown in the high country on a ridge well above tree line. A thunderstorm had passed through a little earlier and was now rumbling off to the east. What was before me as I looked to the west was a masterpiece sunset over the Never Summer Mountains. I wanted to thoroughly absorb the beauty that was on full display before me, so I sat down on the alpine tundra in that numinous world which the naturalist Ann Zwingler describes as “a land of contrast and incredible intensity, where the sky is the size of forever and the flowers are the size of a millisecond.” I remained in solitude until I was joined by seven bull elk who ambled up the ridge to where I was sitting. As the elk grazed they were aware of my presence, but entirely unconcerned. Then, just as the orange orb of the sun was touching the snowcapped peaks of the Never Summer Mountains, the largest of the elk drew closer, looked at me, and then lifted his head in such a way that his massive antlers formed a perfect frame for the majestic sunset in the distance. It was an encounter with such rare beauty that I can only describe it as sacred. Wonder rushed into my soul and I felt the full thrill of being alive. I prayed — “God, I want to live my whole life in a constant state of wonder.” Then God spoke to me.

In saying “God spoke to me,” I realize that such claims can be made in a reckless manner, and I try to avoid labeling my own thoughts and ideas as the voice of God — but this really was one of those rare occasions in life where the Infinite breaks through to the finite and the voice of God is heard by man. It was not a thought from within, it was a Voice from elsewhere. It was a genuine mystical experience. Though not audible, the Voice was as distinct and real as the rolling thunder I could still hear in the distance. The Voice said: “This is the greatest wonder of all — the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

At the risk of sounding cliché, I can only say that that moment at sundown in the Rocky Mountains was a significant turning point in my life. It was as if God had given me a golden key — the key to wonder. That key was the mystery of the Incarnation — the mystery of the Word made flesh, the greatest wonder of all. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. As I traveled for speaking engagements in other churches, I would bypass the regular chit-chat on church affairs with the host pastor and launch into my new favorite topic of discussion with a direct question: “So, what do you think about the Incarnation?” (Sadly, I found that not nearly enough pastors are actually interested in theological conversation.) Over time I have become obsessed with the sacred mystery of the Incarnation, and it is a magnificent obsession indeed. To think deeply about the Incarnation is sacred meditation. I have pondered long over the Apostle John’s poetic prologue to his gospel memoir. Allow me to reproduce John’s introductory poem in poetic form (with the narrative portions omitted).

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
The true light,
which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world was made through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born,
not of blood
or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
It is God the only Son,
who is close to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known.

There are some mysteries so transcendent, so sacred, so otherworldly, that they cannot be adequately communicated in prose, only poetry will do. The Incarnation is one of those mysteries. This is why the Apostle John opens his gospel with a poetic meditation upon the Incarnation. What follows the prologue is John’s unique telling of the Jesus story. John’s gospel (quite different from Matthew, Mark and Luke) is like a vortex, a whirlpool, that, if we fall into it — and the best way to read the gospels is to fall into the story — we find ourselves drawn to a single focal point. That focal point is this: Jesus is the full revelation of God. Jesus is the eternal Word of God made human flesh. Truly this is the greatest wonder of all. The wonder we long for is found in the sacred mysteries of the Faith, and a return to these mysteries can recapture the wonder. And recapturing wonder is part of salvation. We become jaded and bored because we mistakenly think there are no more mysteries to imbue us with wonder, but the Incarnation is an eternal fountain of mystery and wonder. In the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation is found the beauty that saves the world.

(This is an excerpt from my book Beauty Will Save the World.)