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Only Wonder Grasps Anything

by Fr. John Oliver

Until just this afternoon, the Fellowship Hall at my church had been a complete mess. It had been that way for almost a week. Debris was everywhere, and it was one of most beautiful sights I have seen in a long time.

Our young mission parish in Tennessee has just completed our first Vacation Church School, and each day of the week contained a substantial amount of all three – the chaos of Vacation, the content of Church, and the effort of School. We have a small Fellowship Hall, so everything from snacks to voices travels far, filling the room. Craft time has its own particular joy – each cluster of children whipping up its own tornado of crayons, paint, and paper, as young faces shift quickly between concentration and glee.

Like many religious grown-ups, I can be childish about my church life. It is easy to think of church as merely a shelter in the storm, a personal shelter where every item is always in its place and every sound falls below my personal noise ordinance. That’s childish because it’s selfish. But then, into that desire to control my surroundings falls Vacation Church School – a program of the highest necessity, because it helps the children become serious about their faith, and helps the adults to relax about theirs. For both of us – the children and me – it plays with our perceptions of what church is.

The history of dogmatic theology involves setting fences around the unknown. Those church fathers involved in the great struggles against heresy did not seem primarily interested in analyzing God or developing systematic explanations of Him. Rather, they seemed interested in maintaining a defense against certain false ways of speaking or thinking about God. Instead of focusing on what God is like, they felt focused on what God is not like. They set fences around the central, unknowable mystery of God, and encouraged all of us – heretic or not – to approach God in humility. Those fathers told us to be prepared to be totally surprised by what we find in an encounter with God, and that is a freedom that rigid and systematic thought does not have.

Perhaps this humility, this potential for surprise is what we are to have before us when we hear among the opening words of the Anaphora of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: “…for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…” What we are hearing is that God is not knowable, not conceivable, not visible, not comprehensible, so we had better be restrained in our speculation about Him – as restrained in our speculation as the church fathers were in theirs. We might think we know exactly what God is and should be, but is that not a certainty loaded with risk?

Several years ago, I was having breakfast with a group of ministers from various Christian traditions. After some vigorous discussion about predestination and election – the idea that, before the creation of the world, God had decided who would be chosen for heaven and who would not – a Presbyterian minister said in frustration, “All I know is that God sends some people to hell. I don’t know why He does that, but He does.” That particular point was aimed at my forehead, since I had been the one to question his interpretation of certain biblical texts on the subject.

That, I thought, brought the idea of the mystery of God into sharp relief. There is a difference between saying “God sends some people to hell,” and, “We do not know if God sends some people to hell.” It is not that the Orthodox saints have nothing to say on the subject of predestination – St John of Damascus devoted lots of ink to that very subject in his great work An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith – rather, the saints reveal an attitude of profound humility toward one of the central mysteries to our faith: who will be saved and who will not. The saints give God room to breathe, room to move, room to be God. They appear skeptical of anyone who has too many fixed perceptions about Him.

It has been said that God is like an ocean – shallow enough so that a three year old can wade in and get wet, but deep enough so that the greatest theologian can never touch bottom. God is like that, the Bible is like that, the Church is like that, our faith is like that: shallow enough so that a child can experience and enjoy, deep enough so that none of us will ever touch bottom. The fact is: what we don’t know is more than what we do know. And the moment we think we know all there is to know, the moment we stop appreciating mystery and stop seeking God, that’s the moment we become either proud or lazy. And this is a particular temptation for the Orthodox Christian – he or she who, as we sing toward the end of every Divine Liturgy, “has seen the true light, has received the heavenly spirit, has found the true faith…”

The best word for what we’ve been describing is probably wonder. We must never lose that central wonder we feel about life and people and creation and the God who fashioned it all. Truth comes to those who pray for it, search for it, hunger and thirst for it. God will not be reduced to a platform or an ideology or a concept. As St Gregory of Nyssa famously said, “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”

As I write, I can still hear the hum of the vacuum cleaner in my head. A few of the older children from Vacation Church School volunteered to vacuum the Fellowship Hall, and I should have let them. But, I was being uptight in exactly how clean I wanted the carpet to look, so I vacuumed the Fellowship Hall myself.

All week long, the children have been reminding me that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. The broad faith, the abandon with which they throw themselves into a moment, the ease with which they forgive, the frequent absence of self-consciousness, the delight in simplicity and color and form, even the delight they take when things get out of their control – these are among my Vacation Church School lessons this week.

Books and art supplies were everywhere and tablecloths were speckled with crumbs. I found half of a pretzel under my desk. What a great catechism this week has been. My silly preference for a peaceful and quiet and orderly church has been shaken again, and I enjoyed a fresh appreciation for the lively mystery of the Body of Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven perforated my construct, like a hundred shafts of light piercing the walls of an old barn.

Isn’t the freedom to be surprised one of the great treasures of life?