Seeing the World As If For the First Time- Mark S. Burrows, Ph.D.
As children, we did not have to be taught what awe was. We simply experienced it. Recall the first time you found yourself stretched out in a field, on a balmy, late-summer day, watching those soft, billowy clouds drifting across the sky, changing forms with a restless abandon. Revealing stories to your mind. Luring you into what you only later came to understand as “reverie.” Or recall the time you were alone, perhaps on a crisp, cold winter’s night, somewhere far from city lights, and began to see the immensity of the heavens open above you as the Milky Way revealed itself stretched across the skies like a soft, wide, glowing belt. Awe, in its first, unconscious form.
Later, as you grew older, you began to realize that these stars were not simply “up there” doing their twinkling magic, but were many billions of lightyears away—and gradually, you began to understand, however dimly, what “far away” could possibly mean. 32 billion lightyears might be somehow imaginable, but hardly conceivable. As with such magnitudes, such a notion bends far beyond the widest reach of our minds. And the notion that it is constantly expanding, that it is in a sort of outward migration, exceeds the limits of our minds. What is left, in such moments, but a growing sense of awe, if—as we grow older—one shaped by a self-awareness we did not have as children.
In such moments, we begin to wonder: Who am I and who are you, breathing for a span of years in the midst of such immensities? We are but one infinitesimally small speck—by comparison, at least—in this unimaginably vast and expanding canopy of space. And yet, and yet. . .we are a “center,” somehow, of a consciousness that allows us to imagine ourselves, however distantly, as a being among what begins to appear to us as an infinity of other creatures and things. How else can we take this in other than with a sense of amazement, perhaps edging toward bewilderment? The ancient Hebrew psalmist captured this sense of awe, writing: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Ps. 103. 15 – 16).
And yet, and yet: these days, each one of them, can be as treasured as a precious gift, as we approach it with awe. Yet we also know that if this sense is something we come by naturally, almost instinctively, as children, it is something we gradually lose sight of as we grow older. The presence of children in our lives can help, of course: a walk along a shell-strewn beach with a grandchild in hand, or a lazy bedtime hour reading some treasured book with them that we recall from our own childhood, as once again the whimsical characters of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, Christopher Robin and Eeyore come to life—such moments remind us of a delight we once knew without thinking about it. In their presence, we find ourselves touched again and again by awe as we watch them discovering their world, our experience as adults now seasoned with memory and the long arc of experience.
Rainer Maria Rilke was a poet, one might say, who felt himself caught up over and over again by the capacities of awe. It seemed to be the state of mind out of which his poems emerged, and he occasionally wrote memorably about it. In a French letter written near the end of his life to the talented young Swiss painter Sophy Giauque, he put it this way:
How all things are in migration! How they seek refuge in us. How each of them desires to be relieved of externality and to live again in the Beyond which we enclose and deepen within ourselves. We are convents of lived things, dreamed things, impossible things; all that is in awe of this century saves itself within us and there, on its knees, pays its debt to eternity.
He went on to wonder “how to speak this language that remains mute unless we sing it with abandon and without any insistence on being understood.”
Our work, as humans, is—in part, at least—to find our way back to this original posture of awe. To learn to respect, with a sense of wonder but also with “fear and trembling,” that we are part of a “whole” whose center is everywhere, and whose bounds we cannot even imagine. Ours is the work, as we grow older, of recovering this posture, of learning in an adult form the cadences of this strange and marvelous language, and finding a way to embody the rhythms of its vocabulary and the energies of its grammar in our life. Ours is the work of wandering in what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard described as the “intimate immensities” of our minds. Ours is the gift of learning to recall, as Rilke put it, that our lives are “convents of lived things, dreamed things, impossible things”—which is yet somehow necessary for the expansive collectivity that holds our wellbeing.
The poets we turn to in our desire to recover this sense of awe invite us to delve into this alluring sense of wonderment and linger in it, seeking those unexpected yet somehow familiar ways by which we remember to open ourselves to awe. Theirs are the voices and gestures that remind us of the boundlessness of our imagination, that elastic portal of our consciousness mind that opens us into what we have long gestured toward as the “heart.” Ours is the work of following their lead, and allowing ourselves to be “re-minded” that “all things” including ourselves, are in migration.
MARK S. BURROWS, Ph.D.
A longtime resident of New England, Mark S. Burrows, Ph.D. has spent the last decade teaching religion and literature at a university in Bochum, Germany, and was part of the “Bonn Rilke Project” that offered programs across the country blending original jazz compositions with meditations on Rilke’s poems and photographic images. He is the translator of what would become “Part I” of Rilke’s Book of Hours, published as Prayers of a Young Poet (2012/2016), as well as 99 Psalms by the contemporary Iranian-German poet SAID. Other recent publications include a collection of his recent poems, The Chance of Home: Poems (2018) and two volumes of meditative poems inspired by Meister Eckhart, written with Jon M. Sweeney: Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart (2017) and Meister Eckhart’s Book of Secrets (2019). The recipient of the Witter Bynner Prize in Poetry, he remains an active member of the Bochumer Literaten, a circle of professional writers living and working in the Ruhr Region of Germany.