Wondering, Wandering, Under the Sky
by Victoria Safford, minister, White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church
In a meeting the other night we lit a small chalice and someone shared a small blessing to center us down and gather us in for whatever work it was, and the blessing ended with the question, “What do you welcome in winter?” Around the circle we heard lovely, poignant, funny, wintry things. One person smiled and quietly said, “I welcome my old friend, Orion.” She talked about walking her dog in the dark on these December nights, with that familiar presence over her shoulder there in the winter sky.
He’s up there now, even in the daylight: “he” being an arrangement of stars and nebulae light years away. Orion the great hunter, who was given this place of honor in the firmament by Zeus, according to the Greeks, with his sword and his lion’s mane shield, his dog (the star Sirius) and his glittering belt.
He seems reliable up there, but astronomers assure us, just as the mystics do, that in fact everything is wandering and changing. By the year 14,000 Orion will be visible only in the southern hemisphere, and while his form will endure longer than most of the other constellations, because he’s made of younger stars, one of his brightest ones is a red supergiant, very close to the end of its life. It will die soon, “soon” meaning sometime about a million years from now (which seems long perhaps to us, but is imminent for stars). This star will explode, and that explosion, say the astronomers, will be dramatic, visible even in broad daylight.
Think of that: A million years from now. Very soon. Visible to whom? Science and mythology delight equally in mystery and both have their deepest source, their purest source, in wonder.
We’ve been doing this a long, long time, this staring into space, imagining. Everywhere and always we have done this, and as far as we know, we’re the only ones that do, or can. Cats watch the moon for hours; birds fly in its shadow; dogs howl when it’s full. But no one else makes stories, none make music or art or religion out of wonder. No one else is asking why? Or what if? Or how? Or what now?
Nothing else on earth that we know of—nothing else in the universe that we know so far—looks at the stars or the land, at their own existence or their own face in the mirror, with questions and terror and reverence and awe. We’re the part of all this that laughs and loves and notices, the part of the universe that can scratch its head in amazement, the part that falls on its knees in humility, in prayer. That’s our job in this world, our unique calling, perhaps the most important work we do.
Our calling is not just to notice, but to make a sustained and sustaining response, to act like a god. Our calling is alchemy: to transform wonder into something that endures even after the moment of wonderment passes; to transform awe into some kind of commitment, some kind of promise to stay awake and keep alive the change that took place in you, the emotion that took hold of you, the question that astounded you when you saw the star, or the flash of a cardinal’s wing, or whatever it was that amazed you. This is the practice of staying awake.
I wonder if you’ve ever heard of Snowflake Bentley, aka Wilson Bentley, born in Vermont in 1865. He was a natural naturalist, self-taught; as a boy he didn’t go to school, but read through his mother’s set of encyclopedias. He was a patient observer of beauty—grasses, flowers, insects—but what he loved most, even as a child, was precipitation: rainfall, the way dew gathers into liquid lace on spider webs, and most of al, snow.
When he was 15 Wilson began studying snow crystals under a microscope, and for three years he made hundreds of drawings, trying to capture the designs before they melted. His parents were farmers, but when Wilson told them he’d read of a new camera with a microscope attached, they took all their savings and bought it, even though it cost more than their whole herd of ten cows, even though everyone in town said, “Snow in Vermont is as common as dirt.” The abundance of it in no way diminished the miracle of snow for Wilson; in fact the opposite was true. How could there be so many millions and billions of six-sided designs?
Wilton had a steel-trap memory, and he guessed before it was proven that no two could be alike. The camera made pictures on glass plates, and over the rest of his life, “Snowflake” Bentley made thousands of images. When he died his plates went to college libraries, where they are still used not only by scientists but also by artists and designers. But most of them he gave away in his lifetime to friends, because what he loved most was sharing the beauty with others. In the summers he held slideshows for the people in the town, projecting enlarged images on a bed sheet over a clothesline, and it took their breath away. They’d lived waist-deep in snow all their lives, cursing it, and they’d never seen it.
Bentley wrote, late in life:
The average dairy farmer gets up at dawn because he has to go to work in the cow yard. I get up at dawn, too. But it is because I want to find some leaf, hung with dew; or a spider web which the dew has made into the most delicate ropes of pearls… I take my camera with me, get down on my knees in the wet grass [or the snow] and photograph these exquisite bits of nature. Because I do this I can show these lovely things to people who never would have seen them without my help. They will get their daily quart of milk all right. Other farmers will attend to that. But I think I am giving them something which is just as important.
His vocation, his calling, was to transform his own very private experience of wonder into something tangible and generous and real. That’s our calling too: to transform raw emotion into something generous and real.
Here is another story, more recent, but in some ways far more distant from most of us. Pedro Reyes is a Mexican artist caught up in a very different kind of wonder, the wonder that is horror, the wonder that is grief. He lives in a place that’s been shattered by decades of violence. In 2008 he went to the city of Culiacan, home to one of the most powerful crime and drug cartels in Latin America. Hundreds of people have died there. With the blessing of the Mexican government, Reyes sent out a call through TV and radio ads, inviting citizens to turn in their guns, no questions asked, in exchange for vouchers with which they could buy household appliances.
The response was overwhelming: 1,527 semi-automatic weapons, rifles, pistols, shotguns of all kinds. In a public display he crushed them with an army tank, then flattened them with a steamroller while people cheered, tears streaming down their faces. Then he melted down the metal and made from the ruined guns 1,527 beautiful shovels. He sent them all around the world, to art museums, schools, campuses—they’re still traveling. Wherever the shovel exhibit goes, the requirement is that the people plant a tree, toward a dream of 1,527 new trees growing on the earth.
There’s more to the story of Pedro Reyes. This past year, he did a new project, called “Imagine.” Again, he called for people to trade in their guns, and this time more than 6,700 weapons were exchanged. Reyes collaborated with six musicians to build from these weapons an entire orchestra of musical instruments. He created lutes and violins, clarinets and harps, marimbas, drums, trumpets. They’re beautiful, and terrible. In each one you can still see the shape of the weapon, the barrel, the trigger, the magazine, the place to fix a bayonet—but it has been utterly transformed.
He commissioned composers and the music is astounding. Pedro Reyes writes:
The transformation was more than physical. It’s important to consider that many lives were taken with these weapons; as if a sort of exorcism was taking place, the music expels the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost.
Imagine the terror of this world.
Imagine the beauty of this world.
We’re stopped in our tracks every day by amazement. How could there be so many stars, so many snowflakes, so many gestures of goodwill? Every day you see it: courage and kindness, typically in increments as tiny and fleeting as crystals of snow, common as dirt, but they accumulate, they seep into the groundwater, these gestures of kindness and courage, human creativity to rival that of any creator-God, shaping the world just as powerfully.
We’re stopped in our tracks every day by amazement. 80,000 exquisite human lives blown to pieces by guns in Mexico.
We’re stopped in our tracks. The winter wind wails through the silences of devastation, desecration. We wonder, as we wander out under the sky, how it came to this, how we came to this.
To stay awake, past the moment of speechlessness, to speaking; past the moment of terror or beauty, which comes in a flash and then fades; to stay awake, open eyes and open heart, open mind and hands, and somehow shift amazement into art, into music, into stories of hope, stories of outrage, resolutions, revolutions, legislation; to make amazement into sacrament and holy scripture—something useful and generous and real—that is the holy work. To make wonder into something real, to make it the source of all your commitments, the reason behind every action.
Let yourself be moved to tears—then make something of that movement, something concrete. Make a whole religion of it, a way of being and seeing in the world that is not random but deliberate and disciplined, a way of being that befits a co-creator of the universe, the part of the universe that brings goodness and the light that is hope. Out of wonder, make stories and music and justice. Make love and prayers and real peace.
We have seen and known amazing things. Our response could be a compassion to which we are so committed that in time (very soon—perhaps a million years, or less) it could almost feel instinctive, it could almost be pre-emptive. Born of wonder, our love of this world and each other could be a wonder in itself.