“For the past eighty years (wrote the cellist Pablo Casals at the age of ninety three) I have started each day in the same manner…..I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach….It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning …It is a rediscovery of the world in which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being human.”
It is when we take things for granted, or get lured by the grasping, manipulating processes of the world, that we lose this sense of wonder and become indifferent to even the most familiar things that lie before our eyes waiting to be noticed and affirmed. “I have spoken of things which I have not understood,” says Job to God when his eyes have been opened, “things too wonderful for me to know.” There has always been in Judaism a strong sense of wonder and thanksgiving, and today a practicing Jew will thank God three times a day.
Now of course I cannot force myself into some permanent state of wonder. How I see the world depends on a hundred different things: on the sort of person I am, my upbringing, my environment, my relationships, the mood I am in, whether the sun is shining or the rain pouring down, whether I have had a good night or a sleepless one, and how life is treating me. What I can do, though it may take a lifetime, is to train myself to see, to notice, to give due attention to what is before my eyes. I can come to understand that there is no object (and certainly no person) not worthy of wonder, and that what makes them so is that each in its or his or her essence is a) unique; b) unlikely; c) ‘other’; and d) not capable of being understood, docketed and explained. Again, it is the child’s approach to the world that we lose, not because we have resolved its mystery but because we have become accustomed to its face.
In Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, the 67-year old Claudia, smelling eucalyptus leaves in post-war Cairo, is overwhelmed by ‘wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once.’
That takes us to the heart of the mystery. One day, when you are looking back on your lives, you will find that all the people you have ever been (and we play many parts), all the bodies you have worn, all the faces of people and the look of places you have loved, still live inside your skin; they are still lodged in that part of your brain that is the memory. And a word or a scent or a piece of music brings them flooding back as vividly as if it was yesterday. What you will discover, of course, is that a knowledge of how the eye works is worthless unless you have explored the experience of seeing; as worthless as possessing a left and right part of your brain if you have allowed one to atrophy at the expense of the other.
For me, facts and figures about this intimate stranger I call my body are impressive up to a point, but as the naughts are added my brain capitulates, and I would sooner leave you with an insight from William Golding’s novel, Darkness Visible which reminds me of Blake’s ‘to hold infinity in the palm of your hand’, and which conveys in one vivid image what it means to see with newly-sighted eyes the wondrous creatures I hope you know yourselves to be.
This is my last Julian offering as I move home in the next few weeks. I hope I have been able to promote an insight into the contemplative quality of prayer as encouraged by Mother Julian of Norwich, a 14th Century mystic who has inspired many generations across the world.