Wonder and Compassion – in the Museum and in the Liturgy

We live in dynamic times – globalization, the digital ecology, heightened competition for time and attention and dollars. … With the rise of the digital economy, prognostications among technologists have been commonplace that liturgies and other established cultural institutions tied to a building, a physical space, would shrink in importance. Like almost every industry, from media to music, many churches find themselves struggling to navigate the new digital economy of mobile devices and big data.

So what is the role of the liturgy today? How does the church reach out to a younger generation of digital natives? How does the liturgy, a guardian of cultural history, embrace innovation, attract talent, and encourage risk-taking?

The above quotation is, sort of, from Chris Farrell’s introduction to “Conversations on the Creative Economy” which aired on Minnesota Public Radio on Thursday. Except the original context wasn’t the church or the liturgy at all. It was a conversation about museums. Farrell was talking with Kaywin Feldman, director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But the conversation is such a strong analogy to what is going on in the liturgy in today’s culture that I simply switched out church and liturgy for museum. It fits surprisingly well.

FeldmanFeldman is a bundle of energy. She is certainly embracing innovation, attracting talent, and encouraging risk-taking. It seems that millennials aren’t attending museums like baby boomers (sound familiar?), and museums are undergoing massive shifts in their way of operating (sound familiar?). There is a lively debate between the old-time classicists who think museums should be dedicated above all to good art as its own end, and innovators who think the emphasis should be on the experience of the people one wants to draw in. Feldman is one of the latter. (The analogy to liturgical discussions should be quite obvious.)

Do listen to the whole conversation here. (Don’t miss the weird bit on “museum speed-dating” on Valentine’s Day… not everything has a liturgical connection, I guess.)

There is much in the conversation, but for now I want to focus on what Feldman has to say about wonder. Switch out liturgy for museum in what follows (I’ll preserve the original from here on out, including its conversational character), and see what you think of these intriguing words:

 (27:27) I have only become more passionate about wonder. Our vision statement is “inspiring wonder through the power of art.” And so I’ve always been interested in the emotion of wonder, which is a very complex one.

 It’s when we stand in front of something – obviously my primary interest is in a work of art, but you can have it just as easily in front of the Grand Canon or outside your house looking at a beautiful flower, however you find it – but it’s a moment where you stop and stare.

And it interests me so much because it’s intellectual, it’s emotional, it’s physical. You know, you have this moment where your sort of brain pops. And a 13th century Benedictine described it as the journey of a man who doesn’t know, on his way to finding out. And obviously we’re an institution for life-long learning, so I like the idea that it’s about a journey of understanding.

It’s something that I’ve had really transformational experiences in my life, having these moments of wonder. And then over the last four years I’ve noticed an increase in articles by social scientists about what happens when people feel wonder. And as I say, I think it’s been a largely a dismissed emotion, because it makes people uncomfortable.

But this new focus on wonder … several professors from about five different universities, interestingly enough, have found that when people experience wonder, or awe, that it actually is a moment where we become less narcissistic. We stop thinking about ourselves, those articles we need to read, busy worlds we have, what we look like, where your selfie stick is, and you actually have a moment where you connect with humanity, and you feel a part of a global world. You feel compassion for other human beings.

And in the studies that people have done, they’ve found that people are much more likely to volunteer, and to give of themselves, during this moment when they feel wonder.

And I think in our busy, stressful, narcissistic world that we live in, if we can offer a place where people can stop and connect with the rest of humanity, and be reminded of what it is to be human, and then I think museums have a great place in the world going forward, because it’s only going to become more important.

Becoming less self-centered, connecting with other, feeling compassion, being more likely to give of ourselves to others – isn’t that what the liturgy too is about?



  1. I wonder!

    “Not like
    A lone beautiful bird
    These poems now rise in great white flocks
    Against my mind’s vast hills
    Startled by God
    Breaking a branch
    When his foot
    (14th Century Persian Mystic, Hafiz; translated by Daniel Ladinsky.)

    Wilbur Reese writes of the opposite mindset:
    “I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
    Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
    but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
    or a snooze in the sunshine.
    I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
    or pick beets with a migrant.
    I want ecstasy, not transformation.
    I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
    I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
    I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”

    Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote of a realisation on a basic level in How to be a Lunatic, chapter 4 of his Autobiography. He offers a blend of rational and intuitive. Be ready for the last three words of this extract:

    “But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing …
    At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder.”

    Is every liturgy a “sunrise of wonder”, although many of them will pass us by?

  2. … “in front of the Grand Canon” – the grand style of liturgical celebration by all the Cathedral Canons dressed in ermine … just stir in a cardinal or two?

  3. Fascinating discussion, and analogy between museum and liturgy.
    I wish there was a way to get actual references to the work of the professors she mentions.

    And Fr Anthony, do you know the identity of the 13th century Benedictine she quotes?

    Kaywin Feldwin just wrote from Europe to say that the 13th century person referenced is Albert the Great – a Dominican, in fact. One study on wonder was written by Katherine Vohs at the University of MN, and another is by Dachner Keltner at Berkeley. She will send more info later.

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