Rachel Carson & Thomas Merton on the Sense of Wonder

In yesterday’s DM, we brought together the unlikely prophet of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, and Catholic monk Thomas Merton who responded profoundly to her groundbreaking book that disturbed the powers that be of academia, corporations and government.

Portrait of Rachel Carson. Originally posted to homepage of RachelCarson.org

Today, I want to carry on that synergetic friendship twixt Merton and Carson around the theme of another book by Carson, one that she did not finish before her untimely death in 1964 but that was published after she died.  It is called The Sense of Wonder and it is essentially an essay she wrote in 1956 in Woman’s Home Companion with the title, “Help Your Child to Wonder.”* 

In the book version it is wonderfully buttressed with rich photographs of the richness and beauty of nature.  She had laid out plans for the book before she died.  “We plan for it to be rather lavishly illustrated with the most beautiful photographs we can find some color and some black and white,” she told  a friend.  And so it is.  Before her death, she wrote, “I want very much to do the Wonder book, that would be Heaven to achieve.”

The book begins with the story of her wrapping her 20 month old grand nephew Roger in a blanket and taking him down to the beach at night during a rain storm.  “I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us,” she testifies.  By the time Roger was four years old, they continued their adventures in nature both in the calm and the storms, in daytime and at night times.  These encounters were “based on having fun together rather than on teaching,” she informs us.

Young couple delighting in a new child. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

There are deep insights here for what eldership means and why it is so important to work—“without a why”—as Meister Eckhart tells us.  Carson instructs us: 

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.  Carson knew nature’s role in keeping the Via Positiva alive.

Thomas Merton had this same sense when he writes: 

Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life.  It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.  It is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being.

As prophets (who interfere and say ‘No!’) and as mystics (who celebrate wonder and say ‘Yes!’), Merton and Carson are brother and sister.


*See Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (NY HarperCollins: 1998).

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 47ff.

To read a transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: The wonder of transition. Photo by Huper by Joshua Earle on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Are you one of those adults who assist children to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder?  Did others do that for you when you were young?

Recommended Reading

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

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14 thoughts on “Rachel Carson & Thomas Merton on the Sense of Wonder”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you ask us in our Queries for Contemplation: “Are you one of those adults who assist children to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder?” I believe I am one of those kind of adults. With Rachel Carson I agree that: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” This I do with both of my grandsons. With the older of the two we speak about dreams together, and the idea of creation and a Creator/trix. With the younger of the two we just play and go for walks out on my daughter’s family’s land up in Washington. Oh, and both of my grandson’s have relationship with “Luna”–and the stars and visible planets. I also agree with what Merton has to say about contemplation: “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life… It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being”–in a word, it is the Via Positiva.
    “Did others do that for you when you were young?” A creative writing teacher in High School and a number of professors in college and seminary–and most especially those who taught in our program at the University of Creation Spirituality… including YOU Matthew!

  2. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    Fortunately one of the blessings I did receive from family relatives was not only a sense of wonder about creation, but also a curiosity and a sense of gratitude for its beauty. I remember family get togethers at my uncle’s, where he would delight us with his slide shows and stories of his encounters with nature. I remember my Mom, sister and myself… spending hours curiously investing flowers in nature with magnifying glasses… amazed at seeing things so close up. My husband and I instilled all of this into our son… taking him on yearly canoeing and portaging trips in the wilderness from the age of 2 until he was 21. I think this is why I got into photography. My first camera was a 110 at the age of 13. I’d lay on the ground, on the shores of Lake Erie, trying to capture interesting angles. To this day I still delight in the wonder, curiosity and beauty of nature in this way, sometimes with my point and shoot digital camera, a journal, or water colour paints. Nature is the best story-teller ever. Like Aquinas says, nature is the other Bible, that tells the story of God. I’ve truly fallen in love with nature, and God, whom is the most amazing artist of all.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, When you write: “I remember family get togethers at my uncle’s, where he would delight us with his slide shows and stories of his encounters with nature”–I only hope that I will be remembered in that way by my grandsons.’ Thank you for sharing…

  3. Avatar

    For decades I have given R Carson’s book about wonder to friends and family when their first child is born….!

  4. Avatar

    Even as the Earth is dying, (some say sooner, some say later), it is vitally important spiritually and emotionally that we continue to care for her, and one another too.

    Such care must begin with education wrapped in appreciation and gratitude. This has been increasingly my life’s passion.

    Mitákuye oyàsin, hozho naashadoo, beannacht.

    }:- a.m.

    [translation: All are my relatives (Lakota), therefore I will walk in harmony/beauty (Navajo/Diné), blessed to be blessing (Irish Gaelic)]

  5. Avatar

    Beautiful meditation Matthew! The faith and grace of Divine Love~Wisdom~Creativity~Beauty~Joy (via positive/ Spark of the Divine) has been kept alive by many good people throughout human history, especially the mystics, saints, contemplatives, women and children of our universal spiritual mystical traditions and Indigenous peoples… The tragic, sad reality is also that there has also been a lot of ongoing ignorance, destructiveness, aggression, greed, egocentricity, suffering… in our human history as well, especially due to toxic masculinity and toxic patriarchal institutions (including our religions). Thus, also the importance of the ongoing spiritual prophetic and social justice traditions in our history that maintain the grace of God’s Spirit of Compassionate Love, Wisdom, Truth, Peace, Justice… within our evolving souls and relations with one another, Mother Earth and All Her creatures, the universes, the spiritual multidimensions, and All the ongoing Creative Divine Cosmos…. We’re All still consciously and eternally evolving with-in God’s Loving~Wisdom Diverse Creative Oneness….
    ?❤️?

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Damian, I just thought I would lay out your comment in the form of “Hegelian Dialectic.” Can you see the logic of your statement in this way ???
      THESIS: “many good people throughout human history, especially the mystics, saints, contemplatives, women and children of our universal spiritual mystical traditions and Indigenous peoples…”
      ANTITHESIS: “there has also been a lot of ongoing ignorance, destructiveness, aggression, greed, egocentricity, suffering… in our human history as well, especially due to toxic masculinity and toxic patriarchal institutions.”
      SYNTHESIS: “Thus, also the importance of the ongoing spiritual prophetic and social justice traditions in our history that maintain the grace of God’s Spirit of Compassionate Love, Wisdom, Truth, Peace, Justice… within our evolving souls and relations with one another, Mother Earth”
      Just something to think about!

      1. Avatar

        Richard, I’m not concerned with rational arguments of “Hegelian Dialectic” of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. I’m merely expressing my human observations (which are not too far fetched and generally agreed upon by most people), of the realities of ongoing human history. You seem to have a tendency to quote people’s ideas, observations, or feelings to rearrange them in the context of your own personal opinions or biases. This may be a shadow quality that you may have to keep an eye on. Truth, humility, and honesty are important spiritual values that I know you share in your ministry with Matthew Fox.

        1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
          Richard Reich-Kuykendall

          Damien, I was not saying that you should be concerned with Hegelian Dialectic–I just thought you might like to look at what your comment looks like in this logical format. If you noticed, I ended not criticizing your comment at all I was saying was: “Just something to think about!

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    My Buddhist fiancée posits that one way to look at “the fall” spoken of in Genesis is that the metaphorical Adam and Eve began to give names to things. He believes that when we give a name to a thing, calling it a maple or a ponderosa pine, an orchid or an otter, we no longer fully experience it. Perhaps to stand in awe of every living thing, we need to experience it without a name, as its own self, as something individual and miraculous.

    In answer to your query for contemplation, oh yes. I am one of those people who loves to introduce children to the wonders of nature. When my son Colin was 18 months old, I wrote an article published in Baby Talk Magazine called “Hiking with Baby.” It included photos of my son raising his arms in joy as he was carried in a backpack on my husband’s back in the California Redwoods. Now we are able to do that together with my son’s daughter Juniper.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Michele, Your story of hiking with your son and teaching children “the wonders of nature” sounds so warm and loving–and it is how we should want to teach our children. Thank you for that! You also write: “My Buddhist fiancée posits that one way to look at “the fall” spoken of in Genesis is that the metaphorical Adam and Eve began to give names to things.” You say that he believes that “when we give a name to a thing we no longer fully experience it.” This sounds very much like Eckhart when he speaks of the “Nameless God” or the “apophatic God.” The German philosopher Immanuel Kant taught that we can never know a “thing in itself” or in German the “Ding an sich”. What the thing is in itself cannot be known–he called this the “noumena” versus the “phenomena” which are the surface things that can be said about something. But I think that somehow, Kant’s “noumena”, Eckhart’s “apophatic God” and Heidegger’s “Being”–show themselves to us namelessly, though experientially… Thank you for your comment! Some things to think about!

      1. Avatar

        Thank you, Richard. You add clarification and reinforce what my fiancée is saying. I wonder if we can stand in awe of something without calling it a “sunset,” listen in awe of sounds without calling them a “symphony,” or read in awe without experiencing something as a “poem.” It might be worth the attempt. Perhaps it is also rather like Eckhart’s “I pray God to rid me of God.” This is why, I think, David suggests gazing ahead silently and not saying to our walking partner, “Oh my, look at the clouds,” or some such thing. Not that that is always inappropriate. But experimenting with that kind of conscious looking, while a challenge, could be worth the attempt. 🙂

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