‘I have been thinking about existence lately…’

I have been thinking about wonderment and amazement, and I came, again, across this rich passage from Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead. The Reverend John Ames, writing to his son, recalls an early morning:

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial–if you remember them–and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There were all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, it is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees still can astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.

What does Reverend Ames wonder? He does not say. Perhaps: ‘How could a row of oak trees, so ordinary otherwise, evoke such awe in me today?’ Perhaps: ‘This human existence–what is it all about?’ Perhaps: ‘How come I walk past the oak trees so often and only today and as I remember do they crackle and burst with terrible life?’ Or more aptly: ‘How can I be so full of admiration for existence that I cannot enjoy it as much as I would like? I am beset, pleasantly so, by paradox.’

What astonishes Reverend Ames? That he can be so old and still feel like a newborn. That the beauty of the world still–after all this time observing and beholding–still cannot be fathomed by him. That the things of the world perceived as if once could so dazzle the eyes that the mouth could not speak of them. What language could say such singularity! I see and see and something still escapes me.

‘I was a bride married to amazement’

From Mary Oliver’s poem ‘When Death Comes,’ I pick up beautiful images. Like this one on wonderment:

I want [when death comes] to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And this one on amazement:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.

Wonderment arises for the speaker only because she has begun imagining in what way death could come for her. In view of the fact that death will come for her, she relates how she ‘looks upon everything’ now and this day and everywhere with delicate, wild, honest love. How she beholds. How the natural beauty is there for the beholder.

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How does insistence manifest itself?

In what typical statements does insistence manifest itself?

  • I know how it is (and must be and cannot be otherwise).
  • This is how we’ve always done things around here (and this is how we’ll continue to do things around here).
  • That’s how I was taught (and I’m just doing what I was told: you should too).
  • This is the right way to proceed. (Other ways are not worth considering.)
  • I know what’s best for us.
  • Based on my experience, we would be best off if we were to–.
  • The most effective way of–.
  • We should–, we ought to–.
  • We must–, we have to–.
  • Everyone is supposed to–.

When we review the list above, what do we discover are the linguistic indicators or telltale signs of insistence?

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Say what you believe, do not insist, be open: A paradox

Say what you believe. Do not insist that it is so. Surrender in openness.

Can any sense be made of these three statements, of this apparent paradox?

Yes. ‘I believe that P’: this is where we begin.

You do not claim to know that P. You do not insist that P must be the case. (When you say that P, you add, ‘but I may be wrong.’) So, we inquire to discover: is it true that P?

As we inquire, we surrender in openness. Could it be Q? Or R? We ease into the otherwise.


A case may illustrate the three-fold character of stating what you believe, of not insisting that it is so, and of being open to whatever comes to pass.

You believe that X is the best way to proceed with this business project. But you do not know that X, and you could be wrong about X. We inquire about X, both of us being open to the possibility of Y or Z, etc. It turns out that X is not the best way to proceed. We discover that Y is.

We affirm the conclusion Y.

And… we begin again with another question by saying what you believe, by not insisting that it is so, and by being open to whatever comes to pass as the line of inquiry unfolds…

Insistence, Openness, Wonderment, Amazement

1. O cease your insistence. Nothing has to be just so. You do not know how it has to be, do you? Without insistence, you are open. And free to let what is be.

2. O surrender yourself to openness. Nothing being just so, whatever is here is here. Whatever is not here is not here. The absent is not present, the present not absent. What unfolds unfolds at the pace of its unfolding.

3. Now be open to wonder. Ceasing your insistence, surrendering yourself to openness, only now can you wonder. About what is unknown. About what is knowable. Lift your eyes, raise your spirit.

4. Let wonder lead you to amazement. ‘I behold, yet I cannot comprehend what it is that I behold’: this is amazement. The viewer is the vision.