Reawakening Wonder: An Antidote to Boredom
As a child, I was nearly made into an atheist by my local Catholic church. For my youth ministers, faith was all about feelings: I was fed guitar music, forced to socialize even when I wanted quiet, and peddled ineffectual social justice initiatives. Therefore, my teenaged self was bored.
That experience of boredom put my faith in greater danger than many crises which shake the faith of adults. I had vaguely heard of clerical sexual abuse, inconsistent teachings, financial double-dealing, and liturgical innovation. I was fortunate that none of that truly touched me when I was young. No, I was touched only by persistent boredom.
Boredom comes from a reliance upon excitement and rousing feelings. It is a sign that we are living too much in the world, too much “in the flesh.” When we are bored, we have exhausted whatever satisfaction the world can give us at that moment. Yet this boredom means that we have closed our eyes to the divine and the supernatural, to Infinite Joy Himself.
Boredom comes not simply from absorption into earthly things, but from intellectual dullness. Unfortunately, our clergy and catechists often fail to stimulate our minds, to give us an interesting point to ponder. God is infinite, yet they avoid diving into His infinity. A high school catechist of mine could not explain what the “Communion of Saints” was—a fundamental teaching from the Apostles’ Creed. But as an adult, learning about the Communion of Saints fascinates me; how we are bonded through Christ, surrounded by saints and angels, able to speak with them, learn from them, see their workings in our lives. That catechist, perhaps, had not been opened up to this astounding mystery; he could not pass on knowledge and wonder that he did not have.
Boredom, therefore, often comes from letting only our feelings dictate our approach to our faith, while failing to engage our intellect and our will. I was bored with teen worship programs and weak catechesis; but I was bored because those very programs taught me, by example if not necessarily by word, that warm fuzzy feelings and busy excitement were necessary to love God, to pray, to be close to Him. When I did not have those feelings, I became disillusioned and bored with the Church; I didn't know better.
Boredom is dangerous because it makes faith repellent to us. It is a danger even to a committed Catholic, who may have many virtues and a God-given stubbornness to remain faithful. Boredom leads the faithful to spiritual lukewarmness: when the Rosary or Mass feels boring to us, then we do not pray them well, and we do not receive much fruit. Boredom leads us to avoid actively seeking out knowledge of the faith. The bored balk at reading a chapter of the Bible each day, do not know what to meditate upon, and cannot summon any sense that they love God. A bored Catholic begins to feel like his efforts are fruitless and empty. Finally, when suffering, a bored Catholic looks for positive feelings and experiences for relief, and finds nothing.
Paradoxically, this deeply entrenched reliance upon feelings can lead us to acedia, that great and deadly vice described by many monastic writers. We can understand acedia as spiritual sloth (desidia), a torpor that brings about the inability to work or pray; it is deep spiritual indifference, spiritual depression, or despair of spiritual things. Acedia leads to death of the soul, if left untreated; for the soul afflicted by acedia struggles simply to move.
The monastics would have given such a torpid soul a stern lecture and something to occupy his time, his hands, and his mind. We are not monastics, and many of us do not have a firm voice to wake us up and command us. But I believe God has given us all a gift we can use to revive our bored souls:
What is “wonder”? It is not doubtful questioning. It is not Sarah laughing and doubting the angels’ prediction, or Zachariah doubting the angel’s word. Wonder is the awe and curiosity of Our Lady, who ponders how God alone can do the impossible. It is, in part, a feeling, yes: admiration, curiosity, surprise, awe, appreciation, the sense of the inexplicable or the unexpected. But Catholic wonder is not a transient curiosity; it is a deep, abiding desire to know God more deeply. That desire never truly disappears from us, like feelings do; it abides forever, since we are made for Him and always drawn to Him.
To reawaken this wonder is to become like children. Do we not know that we must become like children to enter Heaven? When we wonder about Him, we sit at His feet in awe, humbling ourselves, recognizing the depths of our ignorance, learning from Him, and asking Him the questions that lie hidden in our hearts.
As a Catholic teacher, I hear questions about God all the time, and more often than not I have had to say: “I don’t know; you may ask the Lord in heaven.” Students ask me: “Will I speak to my angel in heaven?” “What will I look like when I rise from the dead?” “How does our soul move our body?” “Do angels have to move or do they just ‘be’ places?” Children ask questions that we adults do not think to ponder. By their pure wonder, they make me long to be a child, to have a child’s wonder. In allowing myself to wonder, the desire for Him rises up anew.
Gratitude is another path to wonder, and ingratitude, another path to boredom. My students made lists of things to thank their guardian angels for: good grades, injuries avoided, arguments resolved, siblings protected from harm, parents saved from accidents, new friends made, clear weather for recess, even something such as not tripping over untied shoelaces. Their gratitude gives them a boundless ability to see God’s work in the most mundane of events. To wonder and give thanks at the awesomeness of God is to foster in us holy fear, so necessary for our salvation.
There are so many more paths of wonder. The intellectual comes closer to God by study; the musician, by immersing himself deeper in the riches of the Church’s music; the scientist, by witnessing God’s creation. In our own lives, we can seek out spiritual reading on topics of interest and spend time with holy music and holy art. We can ask God the questions only He can answer; we can learn to listen for those answers in meditation and cultivate patience as we wait. We can seek God in all that we do; He is there, and each of our varied pathways is marked out by Him, made by Him, shows us more of Him, leads us to Him.
If we think that we have no more questions, that all our curiosity is satisfied, that there is nothing more to learn—then we are both proud and lazy. For if we lack wonder, it is because we have ceased to seek out God and to love Him. We who have fallen in love remember what it is like: we pursue every detail about that person, and even the smallest minutiae is an object of curiosity. Like so, we should seek God with a heart full of love and wonder; for He is eternal, and we will never exhaust His mysteries, now or in the life to come.