“We were made and set here, the writer Annie Dillard once wrote, “to give voice to our astonishments.”
The word “astonish” comes from two ancient words “ex” and “tonare”. The word “ex” meant “out of” and “tonare” meant “thunder.” In other words, (literally, in other words!) astonish means to be as one might be after having been shocked by a very immediate thunder-clap. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been stunned by the light and clap of a lightening strike nearby your person?
There is surprise. There is fear. There is a sense of being small and even perhaps helpless. There is an emaciated sense of weakness and even a sudden reminder of death’s omnipresence in life. I remember how jittery my mother was when a thunderstorm arrived. I quite liked the drama and the excitement – I always have loved weather’s drama. But my mother hated it. One day I suddenly realized why my mother so hated thunderstorms.
At the age of seven, the tiny version of my mother was a little girl in London during the Blitz. She spent many nights in a small hole dug out from her back garden. It was reinforced with curved steel and had a hatch to the outside. The family would run to the underground bunker when they heard the wailing of the air-raid sirens and the rumble of distant and sometimes not so distant explosions as bombs dropped on London – a carpet of fire and rubble. She said one day, as thunder rumbled around us in a thunder storm “I could read by the light of the fires which came through the crack in the door.”
That realization of my mother’s fear of thunderstorms has stayed with me as a reminder to be compassionate with the people around me. I remember wanting my mother to come out onto the porch in a storm so that we might watch the light show. But she would not. It took her many years to be honest about why she trembled in a storm.
We really do not know what people are going through – have been through. Will go though.
I am not a huge fan of St. Augustine of Hippo. He wrote a lot of theology and I was obedient in seminary as I read much of it. He always seemed to me to need a hug. And perhaps rather more breast-feeding than he got. And perhaps a therapist. Definitely a hug. But one thing I believe is attributed to him is the call to be kind to one another, aware always that we know very little of what each other is going through – of what is behind our words and actions.
My beloved dog Kai, a companion of 15 years is dying. He has illnesses, yes. But mostly he is simply terribly old and weak and tired. He has companioned me through some terrible years, constantly licking my head as if to kiss it better.
The pain of losing one’s best friend is astonishing. Even though there has been no conspiracy to hide his inevitable death from me, I remain astonished. How could he die? Kai-the-dog should live forever. I know people who I believe I would be quite peaceful to let go into death. A couple I might even offer a final shove, Augustine’s aphorism notwithstanding. But a beautiful black lab? My best friend? My daily companion? Astonishing! Like thunder. Like a clap of thunder from lightning hitting the ground at my feet.
I am astonished at how much we can love and be loved. And I am astonished by how much we can love and be loved by a dog. Unconditional love is astonishing.
As with most of the ways Kai-the-dog lived, I aspire to be like him. Daily I fail. But God!, I try.
No-one is getting out of this alive. I am astonished by how cruel we are to each other. I am astonished by how kind we can be to each other. Both. Always.