Finding Wonder

Tonight the Olympics begin. And they begin with the spectacle of the opening ceremony grandly titled ‘Isles of Wonder’. From what I’ve heard it’ll be quite a show, around 160 000 people have seen the two rehearsals this week meaning enough has seeped out to wet the appetite, explanations of scenes that can probably only be seen to be appreciated, all no doubt part of a clever marketing strategy. Glimpses of grandeur hidden behind calls to #savethesurprise. A couple of moments, so I’ve been told, that will make the hairs on your arms stand on end.

It’s not only the cold that gives you goose-pimples. My old drama teacher used to refer to that as his measure of whether a performance was hitting the high notes he was looking for. It happens with scenes taut with emotional suspense, it happens when things occur which defy expectations. Or when someone goes above and beyond. The three men who stood in front of their girlfriends as the shooter spewed bullets and death into the Aurora theatre last week. Such goodness defying such madness.


We find it in landscapes that speak of God the great artist. And in constructions and paintings that display his hand behind ours. It’s there in the laws that we use to explain how the universe sits in its fine balance. In the equations that come together out of mind boggling complexity. I once declared that a proof was pretty. My friends mocked my choice of words and my teacher was complicit in their reproof. Beautiful, elegant perhaps, but she had never heard a mathematical proof described as pretty.

My life is too crowded with notifications and appointments, demands and deadlines, responsibilities and expectations. I schedule activity to the most infinitesimal degree, even when I have nothing to do. I plan and scheme and orchestrate. And often I miss these moments of wonder.

But sometimes things go wrong. That’s what lies behind the ‘broken cameras’ part of this blog’s title. I was in Vienna on the second day of a break on my own escaping it all and my camera broke. No more pictures of European cathedrals. No record of my travels across the cities of central Europe.

I didn’t want to break my camera. I generally don’t like it when things go wrong, but it serves the essential purpose of reminding us that we do not live in a perfect world. In short: things go wrong.

A different trip abroad took even less time to go wrong. I had only just picked up the car from the rental agency in Portugal when while fiddling with my wing mirrors I managed to take one off another car. This little adventure underlined the truth of the well worn phrase,’less haste, more speed’. I was just trying to get on my way, but ended up shaken up, with a lighter wallet and it slowed me down.

Ironically that was exactly what I was trying to do.

Escape the rush of life, the busy diaries. The need to feel like I was busy when really I was not. Contrast the guilty pleasure of a quiet day with the faux contentedness of continual nights in. The pressure to seem like your life is full can be quite a draining exercise, leaving room for little else.

And then the real contrast. The village with seven inhabitants. The nearest shop a service station on the motorway that passes by without a sideways glance. The goat bells ringing their very own dawn chorus. The gnarled olive trees that litter the landscape. From the shops on the street corner that simply do not ever close transported to a world where a loaf of bread is unobtainable in the early evening setting sun.

Even on a last minute trip to the Portuguese wilderness there is the temptation to set agendas, daily reading targets, plans for action. So perhaps it was better that I got a bit of trouble early on to remind me that the perfect break is not going to happen quite yet. Each time I have to learn to stop.

And relax.

And watch.

The world go by.

Even if it is the distant hum of traffic or the crickets in the trees.

And watch the sun as it stoops low in the sky before titling below the horizon. The long shadows it cast vanish and all that is left is a gentle hue of colour where the sun once hung. And as the colours turn to dark and the sky lights up with countless stars, those names and unnamed.

Because that”s the other part of this blog’s title. I’m not particularly well versed in art and its appreciation. When I was in Vienna I thought I was going round a grand old house and it turned out to be an art gallery. Being the philistine I thought I might be I set to walk away but I saw it housed a collection by Gustav Klimt so instead pressed on. I stood before ‘The Kiss’ and gazed in wonder. This painting should not work, it is a catastrophic mix of colours and forms, with oils and gold leaf and other materials overlapping in a chaotic collage.

But it is beautiful. Somehow the wonder transcends the mechanical list of compounds. I want to be overcome with wonder more. I want to look at the world and fall to my knees. I want to see in those around me the reflection of the love of God. I want to see in myself the unending grace of God as he finds ways to surprise me.

I’m beginning to think that disruption is at the root of wonder. Only when we break from the normal, stop our routine, step out of the comfortable, do we see the wonder of God that surrounds us.

To close, a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from whence comes the title of a book by Eugene Petersen that I’ll be rereading this summer.

Alpine Disruption

© Museum der Moderne

As I stared across the night-time vista of Salzburg and gazed between the spires and domes of a plethora of churches to find the turrets and parapets of castles and fortresses, my eyes fixed on a rather large white box. The garish sign blazoned across its entrance reminded me of an out of town sportswear supermarket. That it is not, it is the Museum of Modern Art.

Before you get worried I am not about to embark on a rant against planning decisions, or provide a comprehensive review of Salzburg’s architecture. Instead this was something that got me thinking. It disrupted my thoughts and sent them on an entirely different track.

Perhaps I should set the scene. I had gone away on holiday on my own with a train pass purchased and a return flight booked from nearly 1000 miles away. The first stop on my tour was Salzburg in Austria and I had only allocated 22 hours before moving onto Vienna.

I started off determined to do everything that there was to do in Salzburg, yet by mid afternoon, my flight had only landed at 10.45, I was a little worried that I would run out of places to visit. Being a tourist isn’t just about doing things, it is about enjoying the ambience of a place, breathing the air that the locals breathe and other such nonsense.

So my slightly revised action plan kicked into gear. I decided to enjoy some wheat beer while sat in a tavern in Fortress Hohensalzburg, and in the evening went into the 300 year old Cafe Tomaselli to savour some cake and coffee while watching the world go by. Oh, and I read a book. I like to read.

As I visit different places and am not numbed by familiarity, thoughts that had previously been dry and academic come to life. Sometimes it is self-reflection, probably a bit too much of that, and at other times the things around me. I have found God in some of the most unusual places, and other times I long to have something profound to say and nothing comes. Yet I see God at work all over the place. And that most unusual place, well that’s me. The fact that God chooses to work in my life astounds me.

This is the start of me trying to explain what Broken Cameras and Gustav Klimt is, it’s going to take a while, I’ll pop in and out, and hopefully you’ll start to get the picture. Some of the examples from my life you may find just down right quirky. I may have some explaining to do to a few people. But in at least some I hope the lessons are universal.

Anyway, back to Salzburg. Before I went back to the Youth Hostel I thought there was plenty of time left for a little more sightseeing. I wandered along a magnificent little street where the houses on one side are built into the cliff face. Actually, I walked along it one and a half times as I realised I had joined halfway along so went back to the start to do it from the beginning.

The final item on that day’s itinerary (Yes, I had made itineraries for each of the eleven days I was to be away.) was a walk up a hill on the opposite side of town to a convent to catch a night-time panorama of Salzburg. It was when I reached the summit and sat on a convenient park bench on a specially located viewing platform that I was confronted with this glaring floodlight white building.

It had struck me as I was walking (for the second time) down this quaint street and up the hill that you just cannot ‘do’ ambience. And when you try, annoying little things like modern architecture shatter the pretence. Something can seem real enough but really it is just a show.

In the same way that you cannot just do ambience, can we ‘do’ God?

I don’t think you can. And when you try, you generally sell either yourself or God short, and usually both.

Because God is not something that can be summed up in a whistle stop visit or captured on a postcard. There is no one-hour audio guide available in ten different languages with special versions for children in German, Italian and English.

God is not sanitised, convenient, or marketed to the masses.