The Freedom of Astonishment

“And they were astonished…”  (Mark 1:22)

To be “astonished,” a word coming from the Greek ekplēssō, means to be struck with amazement.  When are we struck with amazement?

A good example of astonishment would be the birth of a child.  Here, the very being of the child is displayed… this new, unrepeatable, completely unique human being is thrust into the world, and parents share in a collective “Wow!” upon the delivery.

But isn’t something like the birth of a child an anomaly?  Is it really possible to live in a spirit of astonishment?  What would it do for our lives?

The Self-Made Man

This summer I passed a billboard for a community college.  The sign read, “Self-made men and women made here.”

It is interesting that these self-made people are made somewhere outside of themselves.  They go to a school, encounter hundreds of other students, dozens of professors, and read many authors in order to make themselves.  Certainly, the motivation of a student and the drive of will to succeed cannot be discounted.  But, self-made implies a certain individualism – an isolated thrust to create a world of success.  Ultimately, the billboard used a buzzword – “self-made,” – and connected it to a self-refuting one – made “here” at this school… as a result of this school.

The billboard points to a truth that it most likely didn’t intend – even the most valiant attempts at self-creation depend upon others.  Reality exists outside of me (it would even exist without me), and I simply participate in it.  Reality is simply a given – it is given to me.  My engagement with reality is filled with “givens” – namely, my wife, my children, my good health, my sufferings, etc.  Not even my job is self-made.  Any success in the workplace can be traced back through a network of “givens” – my schooling, the virtues passed on to me by my parents, support received from co-workers and employers.  I think a purely self-made man would never escape his own mind, though I’m not sure what would be in that isolated mind.  Failing to recognize the mistake in this “self-made” conception of life squashes any chance of astonishment.  Self-made implies a self-imposing will, forcing life to conform to given standards.  There is little room for surprise, only careful calculations.

Life is meaningful, not because I create my own perfect reality, but precisely because it is given.  Life is gift.  Life within reality has been given to us as a sort of intimate relationship – like that of child given to parent, and parent to child.  Questions about what makes life meaningful, or where am I going, find their full flowering of meaning by plumbing the existential depths of my being.

Reflecting upon my humanity, my real dependence (dependence upon my parents, and therefore their parents, and therefore their parents, etc. plus the innumerable other factors that constitute my being) really does move me from the common “make thyself” mentality, and into a truer position of “knowing thyself” and the dependence of my situation.  This is the difference between imposing my will upon reality (self-made mentality) and allowing reality to speak to me (resulting in astonishment).  This knowing of myself as fundamentally dependent necessarily demands an answer to “Upon whom do I depend?”  Who started this generational gift-giving?  Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete cuts to the heart of these questions in the movie The Human Experience.  Here, he says, “I do not ask the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Instead I ask, ‘Who are You?’”

The Anonymous Gift

The gift of life is a big ordeal – like receiving an incredible and unexpected gift that shows up at your doorstep from an anonymous source.  I suppose there are fewer gifts that are greater (only the sacrifice of the Incarnate Son of God comes to mind right now). Recognizing this gift sets us on a multi-faceted pursuit of answers.  When one receives an anonymous gift, the progression of questions moves from…

“What is it? (What is life?)  How do I use/live it?” to: “Who gave this to me? (Who are you?)”

As I grapple with what my life is and what it is to become, I must seek out the Giver.  In fact, by discovering the Giver of the anonymous gift, the gift itself makes more sense and becomes more meaningful.

Asking the natural question, here, “Who?” implies a “You”.  Coming to understand who is this “You” (who is the ultimate source of my being), makes the gift of my life make sense.  In fact, only within this relationship, only within this position of humility before the Author of my being, can my life fully make sense.  Now, I can find truly satisfying answers to the questions:  What is my life?  Why am I here?  Where am I going?

This position that completely and freely takes into account all that I am and all I have been given reveals the depth of my dependence.  Everything is given:  my life, my circumstances, reality, and so on.  As Fr. Luigi Giussani says in The Religious Sense, “Here is the paradox: freedom is dependence upon God. It is a paradox, but it is absolutely clear. The human being – the concrete human person… me… you – once we were not, now we are, and tomorrow we will no longer be: thus we depend.”

Pope Benedict XVI recently took up this topic during his recent address to the German Parliament.  He said, “Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”

How can the recognition of my dependence be freeing?  Simply because it is true and the truth sets us free (Jn. 8:32).  This existential truth of my dependence moves me to a position of astonishment before being – before my life, reality, all that has been given to me.  And so, it is possible to remain in this state of “astonishment” that we hear about in the Gospels, and through such astonishment, we experience true human freedom.  It is precisely within this freedom resulting from dependence that humanity responds to God with gratitude and prayer.

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About the Author

Brad is the Director of Youth Ministry for the growing youth program at St. Gertrude Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is actively involved in planning, leading worship for, and speaking at retreats and youth events in the Cincinnati area. He received his BA in English and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Following his graduation in 2008, he spent a year teaching English in Denver at Bishop Machebeuf High School. Brad and his wife Katie spend much of the day chasing around their 18 month old daughter. They are expecting their second child in October. In his spare time, Brad enjoys reading classic pieces of literature, writing, playing sports, listening to classic rock, and thinking about how funny he thinks he is.

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