The Faculty of Wonder

The mother of Holy Father Dominic allegedly discerned an “odor of holiness which always clung to” the preacher of grace. Bl. Jane of Aza must have reared her son with wonder and admiration, rejoicing at the mysterious designs of divine providence, praising God who had entrusted this light of the Church to her. Not unlike the Immaculate Virgin Mary, who “pondered [these things] in her heart,” Bl. Jane presumably lived in wonder of her son and the many occasions by which grace evidenced the hand of God in his life.

St. Thomas defines wonder (admiratio) as “a kind of desire (desiderium) for knowledge; a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or faculty of understanding” (ST I-II, q. 32, art. viii). Regrettably, this faculty of wonder, so prominent in the lives of Our Lady and Bl. Jane, has substantially weakened in modern man, who has grown accustomed to information on-demand. The world has become, well, all-too-familiar. Nothing astonishes us. Nothing startles us. Nothing is veiled by mystery. In 1958, C. C. Martindale, S.J. offered a commentary on this hapless occurrence, observing its effects on our understanding of holiness:

The use of the words “saint” and “sanctity,” “holy” and “holiness” is certainly much less frequent among us than it was. We respect a man who tells the truth, who is straight in money matters, who shows courage and good temper, who is faithful to his wife, and so forth. We may say a man is a very “fine character,” but are unlikely to call him “holy,” if only because we associate, however vaguely, the word “holy” with “religion,” and a man such as I described might have no definite religion, or none at all, and never say any prayers. . .

In 2018, sixty years removed from the aforesaid critique, has the faculty of admiration weakened further still? Are we ever astonished or even startled at the elevation of human nature by grace? Do we use words such as “saint” and “sanctity,” “holy” and “holiness” to describe another man or woman alive today? What’s more, if we can readily identify the signs of love in human relationships, should we not be able to do likewise when the soul is enraptured by the most lovable person, that is to say, the Person who is Truth?

I suppose we should ask ourselves, then, in light of Martindale’s critique, whether we could admire the lives of well-known saints, if they lived today? Would we be astonished or even startled at their exceptional virtues? Would we be astonished or even startled at encountering Christ in their souls? Would we have the humility to use words such as “saint” and “sanctity,” “holy” and “holiness” to describe the “Apostle of Rome,” “Don Bosco,” and the “Little Flower?” Or would we miss the extraordinary character of their lives?

Let us learn from the Blessed Virgin Mary and from Bl. Jane of Aza, and wonder at the goodness of God, so very present in the life of the Church today.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea (circa 1821)

From Dominicana Journal