When we visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, a certain tour guide spontaneously offered us a private tour of the sacristy. The middle-aged Italian, looking furtively to either side, took us up the private staircase to a second floor chamber, building our sense of excitement — were we going to see some secret holy thing or some never publically-viewed piece of art?
Obviously, it was highly unusual for a group to enter this area of the Church, or he would not have seemed so nervous or excited. With all the drama and emotion of a Wagner opera, he kept indicating that a surprise awaited us at the top of the staircase.
When we reached the sacristy, we were confronted by two ancient cabinets standing on opposite sides of the wall. Our guide’s dark eyes sparkled as he asked, as if offering us a chance to land on the moon: “Do you wish to see inside?”
“Yes!” we all breathed at the same time, as if being offered a free pass to heaven — and we expected little less, for his excitement was contagious, and we were all on tiptoe waiting to see what lay behind those doors. He flung back the doors to the first cabinet with a dramatic flourish and revealed to us … an ornate set of vestments. Beautiful, truly, but it was hardly stunning and not something we would typically have gone out of our way to see.
Yet at that moment we found it absolutely amazing and incomprehensibly beautiful. We had fallen into the strange and magical communion with our tour guide that is sometimes achieved when people make themselves vulnerable to wonder. Pure, unadulterated wonder caused us to break into spontaneous clapping after the big reveal. The Italian’s face lit up with joy as he saw us appreciate what he obviously loved so much. He was bursting with pride as he dashed to the other side of the room to the other cabinet.
“We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders,” G.K. Chesterton tells us. Wondering is an art, the art of allowing oneself to be amazed by what is tempting to call bland or ordinary. Perhaps our very lack of wonder is making us a little bland and ordinary ourselves.
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom,” Socrates says. The University of Dallas is a perfect place to perfect this art as we study many different fields and volumes, some we are enthralled by, and some we might never have really wondered about. But let us learn the art of wondering while we still have our tour guides — that is, our professors and mentors, friends and advisors, who, if less Italian, are no less enthusiastic than our guide back at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.