Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Astonished Again

A wise man is astonished by everything.Image by Todd Huffman via Flickr

Yesterday I posted this short poem by Mary Oliver:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Since then, I have been thinking about the people in my life who allow themselves to be astonished and what exactly that word might mean, to me or to others. I should probably more accurately say that I wonder how we live into that word. For me, it has meant wonder and awe, an occurrence that causes something inside me to shift, to slide over just a little bit and create a new spaciousness. I recognize that I have associated astonishment with something positive and that the experience of it brings some degree of ease.

The interim pastor at my church is someone who embodies astonishment for me. If he loves a particular hymn or song he will jump up from his seat, sing loudly and with gusto, and swing his arms around for emphasis. All the while there is a huge smile on his face. Also, during our time of sharing our joys and concerns in the worship service, he will get out the local newspaper and read to us some of the things that moved or surprised him. One day it was about how many homeless men have died here in Anchorage over the past year. Another time it was about the burden that our local military bases carry as they lose men and women in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These things deeply sadden us and we bring them to prayer together.

These are both examples of astonishment. My computer dictionary says that astonish means to surprise or impress. But as I look for a deeper understanding (as contemplatives reflexively do) I find that its derivative in Old French is to thunder and its original meaning was stunned, dismayed, bewildered.

This shadow side of astonishment certainly fits with my previous understanding of the word. If I keep my heart open and aware, even the pain and the sorrow in this world will allow something inside me to shift, to create more room, and to move more spaciously and hopefully, lovingly, in the world. Astonishment is intimately related to feeling, and Mary Oliver and Pastor John are inviting me to feel all of it. And thank God, I have places to tell about it.

What is thundering, a low rumble, a cracking boom and all points in between, in your own life? What is your response?

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Anonymous said...

I feel like I am surrounded by thundering, low rumbles and cracking booms right now and what is my reponse? I am mostly hiding from it. that is my truth right now.

Rebecca Johnson said...

As a spiritual director here is one of my very favorite things: Honesty!! You would be shocked at how brave it is of you to be so honest. Thank you for risking.

Anonymous said...


Beth Knight said...

Rebecca - you ! astonish me with your wonderful writing these days !
You are so talented and I love your questions that lead us all to responding :)

Yesterday I responded to your first astonishment writing and then deleted it... it was something I decided should not be so public ...
but it was a good exercise in writing for me never the less.

Today, I had a wonderful chat with my priest and he gave me an astonishing gift... two words to take with me on the journey. One word is "bi-lingual" which he tells me I am spiritually since I can move back and forth between two faith communities that are so different. And the other word was "re-deployed" in regard to a recent decision I made about servant-hood. So I came away astonished at the gift of a spiritual comrade' that God has given me who "gets it" about my unique journey and affirms what often feels lonely. The gift of a person who "gets" the other person can be so meaningful. I am astonished at the spiritual friends God sends me when I need them!

Rebecca Johnson said...

Another friend's blog was talking about being able to speak her truth and not being silenced. As I pondered what she was thinking, I became very aware of the places in my life where I am truly heard. They are not hugely numerous, but they are very deep. Being truly seen and heard for who we really are in this world is a rare and exquisite gift. I am so glad that you were loved so well today.

I completely understand the "bi-lingual". Blessings on that gift.

Roy said...

I have no words to answer your questions.
To answer in words require thinking.
Thinking is overrated.

I will sit in silence.
I will sit and wait,
I will wait and watch,
Until I am swallowed up
By the silence from which all words come.

There I go.

Tess said...

I had a brother (he died last year) with Down's syndrome. Not until near the end did he lose that immediacy of astonishment, whether it was conducting an imaginary orchestra when music he loved came on, dancing with gusto and very badly, or laughing unrestrainedly, from the belly. Sadly in his last years his astonishment was often a response of sadness as those around him died and their memories crowded his failing mind. But it was an unabashed sadness, a howling and keening, none of the apologetic sniffling that I was doing.

Today I'm astonished and fascinated by a spider sitting in its web across my kitchen window, catching flies and dealing with them so gruesomely but effectively. The natural world (of which we are part) is pure astonishment.

(And Roy, your words in your comment are beautiful.)

Suz said...

I am so moved by all your responses. I attended a spiritual director's retreat with Rebecca over a year ago and I am so happy to reconnect.

And what is thundering in my life? I am finally learning, after ten years of struggling with pain, that there are many ways to lead a life, and all of them are valid.


Rebecca Johnson said...

Tess, What a gift your brother must have been for you and what a wonderful teacher. I'm sorry for you loss. I was very effected by the image of expression of his grief. I agree with your term "apologetic sniffling". When we hurt and when we feel lost, a howling lament feels like the truest action.

Rebecca Johnson said...

Roy, I will echo Tess, your comment is beautiful. AND a universe of possibilities are wrapped up in that one word, gulp. My mind is wild with wondering, What just happened there?

Rebecca Johnson said...

So good to see you here! I am filing your statement away in my "favorite quotes" file. How very, very true. Keep reminding all of us. Love....