Wonder

I curse my studies. Sometimes, anyway. What good is it to be following a Bible reading plan for the faithful when half of what is going on during my reading is (Lord, have mercy!) a critique of the translation, a mental retroversion to the Hebrew and/or Greek involved, mental notes on historical illumination and literary parallels, and all manner of distractions. The wonder is often gone. I hate that.

Just the other day, I read the Book of Jonah. It’s such a short book amongst the Twelve Prophets, it takes only a few minutes to read through. But what a powerful book! It’s a story that has struck people down through the ages, and was a popular artistic subject in early Christianity (Jonah either going into or coming out of a sea monster; or Jonah resting under his vine hut). And it’s the taking of that story at face value that gives it such power, as a real tale of something that happened to a real prophet of a real Israel, having dealt with a real sea and real giant fish, and a real city of Nineveh. Where does my mind go? Oh, to thinking about this period of Assyrian weakness just before the Neo-Assyrian empire expanded its border at the expense of any number of smaller nations; to thinking about the city Nineveh at that time, how it was not the magnificent place that Sennacherib would begin to make it, and how the description and the book’s writing really must therefore date to the seventh century; to thinking this book’s popularity may partly be due to its having the smallest vocabulary of all the LXX books, yet still being a cracking good tale; to thinking of “gourd” and “vine” and Augustine and Jerome. There is too much noise. This is not reading, but something else, and it is certainly not joyful or enlightening. I have to force myself to step back and turn off that running commentary, that mental footnoting, imposing silence. The silence is necessary.

Then the story unfolds, and wonderment with it. The darkening skies and the heaving sea. Threatening waves and a flimsy boat. Kindly sailors who don’t want to throw Jonah in. Sinking, sinking, “Full fathom five Thy prophet lies….” Seaweed wraps a drowning head. Then a salvific gulp. And this wayward prophet’s last act before dying is prayer in the belly of a fish. And that, his death, is important to recall. He did not, as in Disney’s Pinocchio, live inside the fish. He died. He was dead for three days. And then he was alive again. This was “the sign of Jonah” recalled in the Gospels: three days dead, then alive again. Jonah lives again, still in the belly of the fish, and prays again, and then [blah] he’s freed from the fish. His last act and first act were both prayer: a lesson. And oh, oh, oh, look at Jonah’s “righteous” anger, and what lesson do we gain from that, the tale of an anger that thinks it knows better than does God? And what a strange, but entirely merciful ending: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Confused or ignorant people deserve pity, not anger, and certainly not destruction, though that would attend Nineveh in time, which is something that seems to be inexplicably hanging in the air throughout the book.

It’s time to take back the wonder. Give the glory to God!

12 Replies to “Wonder”

  1. Amen! It is a peril, I think, in many fields. It must be challenging for a musician to just listen to and enjoy a performance, rather than be critical in either sense of the word.

    Without the critical study we wouldn’t have the translations that make books like Jonah accessible to a wider audience. But those of us engaged in that sort of detailed study do need to step back every so often and just enjoy the texts.

    Thanks for this post!

  2. Wow does this resonate. I find it incredibly difficult to read devotionally anymore. I’ve downloaded the latest “draft” pdf of the Psalter from the EOB project. But instead of worshiping with the psalms, I’m analyzing them. “Why did they choose this wording here? Why is that word in brackets there? How does this reading compare with MT?” Argh. I’m so far from the discipline of inner silence.

  3. Someone once told me that scholars, particularly Bible scholars, don’t read; they discern. I thought he was right on the money in my own experience, and, it seems, in yours. Good luck rediscovering awe.

  4. Thanks, gentlemen. It’s really kind of heartbreaking. In beginning to learn all these things, the language, the history and whatnot, I think we all have in mind that this stuff will in the end be of benefit, that it will actually enhance devotional reading. To a small extent, that’s true. But I’m no longer convinced that the extent of such study is really actually worth it, you know? Thousands and thousands of dollars in tuition and books and hours spent on verb forms and palaeography and cognate language studies and so forth and so on, and in the end you can no longer even sit down and enjoy the works you’re seeking to understand so well. God’s voice is drowned in footnotes. That wasn’t part of the deal. I used to have so much more joy in this reading. Now I feel somewhat tainted by all this learning. Lord, have mercy!

  5. Great post. And it is a great little book isn’t it.

    P.S. I have enjoyed watching your “transformation” over time on this blog. Learning is good. But not when it gets in the way.

  6. Kevin,

    My studies are but a fraction of yours, but I too often find my reading of the Bible paralyzed by it. What is to blame, I think, is not so much the extent of my learning (since it is quite rudimentary) as it is a kind of intellectual dissipation, a want of askesis in the mind. It’s gotten a bit better of late, though I’m not sure exactly what’s changed or what I’ve been doing differently.

    Like you, I hope to rediscover wonder and joy before the Scriptures–the kind that drives one to one’s knees. I too long for what Fr. Sidney Griffith captured so well in the title of his lecture on St. Ephrem and the Bible: a “faith adoring the Mystery”. May God help us all!

    W.H.

  7. Yes, Wei Hsien, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is not so much the learning itself, but its overcoming of the selflessness that is a necessary component of wonder. A “want of askesis in the mind” is a beautiful way of putting it. Approaching the Scriptures without humility will result in our imposition of ourselves upon it. The “still, small voice” of God will be drowned out by our own noisy enforcement of disordered thoughts (truly the patristic logismoi) upon the Scriptures. The blessing “Peace be unto you, the reader” takes on a whole new meaning now!

  8. I was pointed to this post by Roger Pearse’s blog and was struck by it; it puts me in mind of some words of St. Augustine:

    “What is the trouble with us? What is that? What did you hear? The unlearned rise up and take heaven by storm, and we, with all our erudition but empty of heart, see how we wallow in flesh and blood!”
    Confessions, 8.8.19, tr. Msgr. John K. Ryan (1960)

  9. Which, for me, brings to mind these:

    5. Someone said to the blessed Aresenios, How do we, with so much education and wisdom, not understand, and these farmers and Egyptians acquire so much goodness? Abba Arsenios said to him, We understand nothing from our education in the world, but these farmers and Egyptians acquire goodness through their own hard work.

    6. Once Abba Arsenios asked a certain Egyptian elder about his own thoughts (λογισμων). Another saw him, saying, Abba Arsenios, How do you, having such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this farmer about your thoughts? And he said to him, I have a Latin and Greek education, but I do not even know the alphabet of this farmer.

    from the Apophthegmata Patrum, Arsenios 5-6 (my translation)

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