On Wonder, The Muse, and God.

When I was a child, I was paralyzingly terrified of sailboats. As well as I can remember through my own recollection and talking with my parents about it, it began one night when my family was staying at my great-grandmother's house, which is spooky in all of the glorious ways old, low-ceilinged houses should be: cases full of glassy-eyed, staring dolls, antiquated beams which creak under even the weight of thought, and what I remember to be an immense, looming, full-masted sailboat atop the dresser in the room I slept in. I don't remember the boat except for in the one mental snapshot I possess, so I cannot tell you if it was equally as scary in the daytime, or if I had even seen it before my sole memory of it. I may have been carried to bed by my dad after falling asleep on a couch, but I really can't remember.

But what I recall clearly: waking in the dead of night with the glow of a little yellow light illuminating the aging sails and the brown hull and spider's-web of twine representing ropes from afar, so that a thrice-as-large shadow was projected onto the wall behind it. It loomed enormous, starkly real against the dark void of the room, and I think that this is what terrified me the most. It was unusually tangible, as opposed to most things which after waking are vaguely foggy, as though clouded by barely-remembered dreams.

In all honesty, the thing probably wasn't all that big or fancy, it just struck my small brain as something truly big, and not big like jets or mountain ranges, but rather something unspeakable. Something of the Sublime: great beyond calculation or fathomability. The Big of nightmares, oppressing not just a volume of physical space but more a measure of your soul.

But despite all my attempts to remain terrified of them, I began learning (though I did not know it at the time) that wonder, marvel, and the kind of fear these boats inspired in me were merely knots on the same strand, and it turned to fascination.

I began collecting models of them, as much as a ten-year-old with nothing but an allowance can collect something that requires money to amass. The fear that once nested in my ribcage and made my chest feel hollow was replaced with wonder, and it was no less potent. When I think about it, that is what I collected, more than boats. I had harnessed a source of sublime fear and turned it into wonder.

When I grew older, I encountered the British Romantics and realized that they shared the same wonder, and had all sorts of lovely ways of trying to express it. Wordsworth described a craggy mountaintop lit by splitting lightening above a still lake atop which he floated in a stolen boat. Percy Shelley dedicated hymns to "The awful shadow of some unseen Power." Lord Byron describes a vacant Coliseum so vast, so desolate, with such a history of violence yet where his steps seemed "echoes strangely loud." John Keats called it the Nightingale, because of its mysterious, elusive nature juxtaposed with its infinitely enchanting song. Mary Shelley created a veritable monster out of the stuff, which her character Victor Frankenstein, even after laboring over every inch of him, describes his encounter with it: "I had desired it [the animation of his creature] with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."

You can hear it in the music of Sigur Rós, who sing sometimes in Icelandic, sometimes in nonsense, just because there is something that needs to be expressed but is bigger than mere words can handle. You can feel it in Hemmingway's "Hills like White Elephants" because to speak it would be to profane it.

The ancient Greeks called it the "Muse", The Romantics the "Nightingale." It is inspiration, and it is unbounded by human logic, unexplainable by empirical sciences, and untamable by any words or music or poetry that we could invent. It's wonder, sublimity, and breathless fascination that can present itself as crippling terror or as stillness after rain, and is the proper reaction to the things of God.

Yet still we think we can somehow grasp Him. We beg for the Truth, when in reality I cannot help but feel that Truth, all of it at the same time, would drown us in its crashing power. We talk to God, the designer of wonder and splendor, the operator both of joy that makes us light enough to fly and the kind of sublime terror that rots our insides, like He owes us an explanation. Cody Banette sings in the As Cities Burn song "Clouds": "I think that God isn't God if He fits inside our heads."

God Himself listened to 38 chapters of people bickering, reasoning, and trying to put words into His mouth before coming out of a whirlwind (!!) and speaking:

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

What is man to do with this? In the words of my friend Ariel Parsons... what even? We react to these unknowable Grand things in whatever ways we can conjure: - With radical skepticism - saying that if we can't understand it and explain it and because human rationality eventually circles back on itself, we can know nothing at all. Perhaps there is nothing at all. - With microscopic probings - thinking that if we can perhaps understand the very small, can we possibly work our way up to the very big (although we do not even understand these very small mini-universes that make up the material of our bodies by the trillion). - With art - perhaps even forsaking the search for answers to the questions and instead trying to merely understand the spirit that makes us feel the Grand crevasses in our chests.

I am positive that the only reaction to an encounter with God - with all of the Truth and all of the Joy and all of the inescapable, sublime Terror - is as Isaiah responds in chapter six of his book. Next to the Source of such grandeur, man can only feel trapped on a boat without a mast in the sweltering heat of Horse Latitudes, unless, of course, he is provided with a Path. Unless he is given sails and a strong wind to push him home.

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.