In the mid-1990s, a novel by Robert Waller, The Bridges of Madison County, took America by storm. It was the number-one, best-selling book for an entire year and eventually was turned into a popular film of the same title.
The story runs like this: A photographer for National Geographic, played by Clint Eastwood, is driving around in rural Wisconsin, looking for a set of historic bridges he has been commissioned to photograph. He’s lost and the story opens with him driving up to a farmhouse to ask for directions. As chance would have it, the unlucky husband has just left for a week to attend a cattle-show and his wife, played by Meryl Streep, answers the door. There’s instant karma, soul-connection. They both feel it. She invites him for dinner and before they meal is over they’ve fallen in love, deeply and irrevocably. Before the evening is over, they’re also in bed with each other.
What’s wrong with this? People can fall in love instantly, deeply, and permanently at first glance. It only takes 15 seconds for the whole world to change, Iris Murdoch used to say. What’s wrong is that we are supposed to believe that something sublime has taken place, something so profound and deep that the rest of us can only contemplate it in envy. But that’s the fallacy. When two people who have known each other less than six hours make love with each other, how sublime can that be? Isn’t that tantamount to gestating a baby in one evening, writing a doctoral thesis in two hours, or doing a painting or a novel at one sitting and purporting it to be a masterpiece? How sublime can something be when there hasn’t first been some sublimation (at least for more than a couple of hours)?
What we have here is an instance of what the gospels call “amazement”. What is this?
In the gospels, we see a number of instances where Jesus does or says something that catches people by surprise. The evangelists then tell us: “And they were amazed.” Almost immediately, Jesus says: “Don’t be amazed!” He has a deep suspicion of amazement. Why? Because he knows that the same people who are so impressed with him one day so as to want to make him king, need very little altering of circumstance to begin the chant: “Crucify him!”
What is amazement? We are amazed (in the biblical sense) when we simply let energy flow through as a wire conducts an electrical current, when we simply take in the energy of the group around us or the energy that spontaneously arises within us and, without holding, carrying, or transforming it in any way, act on it and let it flow through us. That’s good at rock concerts and football games, but it’s also the root of selfishness, bigotry, shortsightedness, group-think, mob-mentality, gang-rapes, and crucifixions. Ultimately, it’s the opposite of compassion.
Compassion begins with what the gospels call “pondering”. To ponder, in the biblical sense, is to resist having energy simply flow through you and instead hold, carry, and transform it so as to not give it back in kind. When I’m amazed (as opposed to pondering) I give back in kind: If someone comes up to me and says: “I like you!” my spontaneous response will be: “And I like you too!” Conversely, if someone comes up to me and says, “I hate you!” my response will also be in kind: “And I hate you!” When I react in this way, I simply let energy flow through me, like a conduit. This is what Jesus calls the virtue of the scribes and pharisees: “What virtue is there in loving those who love you? Can you love those who hate you?” Virtue requires the transformation of energy. But …
We live in a culture of amazement. Sometimes this is wonderful, when we all get caught up in an energy that draws us together in community and celebration, as when our football team wins the national championship or we have all seen and enjoyed the same movie or television series. Mostly though amazement fuels mindlessness, narrowness, and the suffocating group-think of both the right and the left. And this has many apparitions: I remember a pastor of a local parish phoning me one day, when I was acting-dean at a theological college. His words: “Your students often do more harm than good! They take a few classes and then come back to their parishes and roll their eyes in disgust at everything. I don’t doubt that they’re right, but don’t you teach them any compassion?” What’s the problem here? These students are amazed. Amazement is the opposite of compassion.
When Mary stood helplessly under the cross, she was silent. Why? Because had she spoken that day, hers would have been words of amazement. Instead, unlike the characters of The Bridges of Madison County, she held, carried, and transformed a great tension into something truly sublime, full compassion.