In his fantastical account of “The Unthinkable Theory of Professor Green,” G.K. Chesterton invites us to imagine an astronomer regaling his audience in great and gorgeous detail about a strange new planet he’s just discovered. Only gradually do we realize that this utterly amazing place is in fact our very own world, replete with wonders we’d scarcely been aware of before.
Isn’t this the whole point of travel? Not to poke around places and people of such weirdness that you’d swear you’d wandered onto a sci-fi movie set. Do we really want to run into a community of pod people while on holiday? Wasn’t it bad enough watching “The Night of the Living Dead” on television? Who needs a close encounter with the real thing on a vacation?
Again, Chesterton has the sense of it. “It is not,” he tells us, “to set foot on foreign land; it is to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” And isn’t this the challenge that awaits us all? How to arrest the attention sufficiently to allow us to stand in silent awe before the real world? When jadedness sets in, we need a sudden jolt to set the circuits going again. We need to open up the hood and let the wind sweep out all that is sour and stale on the inside. Indeed, without a sense of wonder, and at least some minimal capacity for surprise and delight, we will never awaken to that “dearest freshness deep down things” (Gerard Manley Hopkins).
But, really, how much wonder can we handle? “It must be a gift of evolution,” the poet Robert Hass has written, “that humans can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up from our knees if we could.” Certainly for Chesterton, who never stopped being as wide-eyed as a child, everything he saw looked luminous; the world he knew and loved seemed positively awash in the light and warmth of another. The sheer exhilaration of existence was enough to set his heart on fire. “A child of seven,” he tells us in Orthodoxy, “is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” Chesterton, by the grace of God, never outgrew that child of three.
So, too, in her own peculiar and reclusive way, the poet Emily Dickinson, who thought of life as something, “so startling that it leaves little time for any other occupation.” Imagine life lived at that pitch. An intensity of attention, no less, paid to each passing moment. And what happens when we are no longer capable of being startled? We’re dead, dead, dead.
What a pity that neither Miss Emily, who rarely left even her New England sitting room, nor G.K. himself, who only occasionally left Old England, ever ventured as far as Alaska in search of wonders to behold. So I guess I have an edge on these two literary giants since I’m about to shove off in that direction pretty shortly. In two days, in fact, I expect to witness a great many wild and wondrous beauties strewn about the Pacific Northwest. Daring to hope, as Miss Emily would say, almost within sighting distance of her elusive “blue peninsula /“To perish of delight.” Indeed, a consummation, as Mr. Shakespeare would say (whom I like to think must have travelled in these parts), devoutly to be desired. In other words, I can hardly wait to step aboard the blessed boat.
And it promises to be a luxury cruise, let me tell you. Eight swashbuckling days spent on the high seas … snugly ensconced in all the comfort and elegance of a Holland America Line stateroom … while in leisurely quest of dolphins and whales and, looking inland, sweeping vistas of glaciers amid ever so majestic snow-topped mountains. How this must sound like the slickest advertising copy!
Oh, yes, and, lest I forget … bears. Great big brown and black and grizzly fellows, whom I’m not especially keen on meeting. But, then, even bears have got to evince something of the grandeur of God. They exist, don’t they? And it is, after all, the common teaching of the Catholic Church that, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “every existence as such is good.” So I’ve really no choice but to bless and affirm the bloody bears. Yes, even when they appear madly bent on chasing me, in order, I suppose, the more quickly to dispatch and eat me.
What on earth would St. Thomas have made of bears? Who knows, perhaps he’d have eaten them. He was certainly large and formidable enough to do so. So—come to think of it—was Chesterton, who, when he died, the undertakers found his body too heavy to carry downstairs; so they simply lowered the thing out the window. (Once, while waddling along a London street during the Great War, he was accosted from behind by an indignant lady demanding to know why he wasn’t out at the front. “Madam,” he answered, “if you’ll kindly come around you’ll see that I am out at the front!”)
While both were exceedingly stout fellows, I expect poor St. Francis of Assisi was, by contrast, most frightfully thin. And would, I have no doubt, have been positively horrified at the prospect of eating a bear. Instead, like the wolf of Subbio, on whom he worked his magic, he’d have tried to convert the damn thing. After which he’d have handed it over to St. Thomas, who thereupon would teach it metaphysics, finding its company far more congenial than that of the Manicheans.
Let the Angelic Doctor have the last word on the subject of wonder. In his Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle (which I shall not be taking on board), St. Thomas reflects on the commonality of experience between the philosopher and the poet. It is the fact of wonder, he says, that unites them. Mirandum. The ability to marvel at that which is truly marvelous. And so, in happy pursuit of such marvels, I am off to Alaska. Pray I escape being eaten by bears.