A Friendship Full of Wonder

Friends in Houston, TX host a cultural event discussing the role of wonder in the dynamics of knowing.

Last semester, I met with Rob Phillips – a biophysics professor from Caltech – and he told me: “When I bring my students on our field trip the Galapagos Islands, I ask them to sit for twenty minutes twice a day, every day, in silence, to look at the ocean and splendor around them.” I had never heard anyone talk about silence outside of the Movement, so it intrigued me. As I got to know Rob, I began to notice various themes that I had previously only experienced within Communion and Liberation. One day, when he told me that he felt his life’s mission was to inculcate wonder in his students, I thought, “He has to meet my friends!”

That opportunity arose when I invited him to give a research seminar at Rice University where I am an assistant professor. Together with my friends, we decided to put together a cultural event that would be open to the public with the theme: “The role of wonder in the dynamics of knowledge.” We invited Rob to participate on a panel with another friend, Andrea Banzatti – an astrophysicist from Texas State University. In the weeks preparing for the event with Andrea, Rob, Francesca, Marcia, Natalie and other friends, I found myself speaking about wonder in writing and learning with my students and postdoctoral fellow. All of us working on this event discovered how we were already changed just by having this theme in front of our eyes again.

During the evening’s discussion, Rob, Andrea and myself shared our journeys and what wonder means to us. Andrea shared how he desires to communicate himself in his teaching, because he sees that the dedication of his own self, as the subject, is the most important element of research and learning – even more important than the subject matter. Andrea and Rob both shared pictures and stories of what has been meaningful and wondrous to them despite challenges and winding paths. It turned out that all three of us had unconventional paths that led to becoming a professor! All three of us also love literature while being professional scientists, and Andrea read a quotation by Marie Curie from a book he loves called From Galileo to Gell-Mann: The Wonder that Inspired the Greatest Scientists of All Time.

The audience had several questions. The last audience member remarked, “It seems you all are doing something that you used to hate!” Andrea responded, “Let life surprise you!” – an unusual suggestion among the typical career tips we receive. Afterward, several students remarked that they had been very struck by the conversation. Marcia’s student Joseph said he felt refreshed and encouraged in his interest to continue research. Giulia and Antonio, a young researcher and PhD student respectively, wanted to hear more about how to nurture wonder, and to continue the conversation in the future. An undergraduate emailed me asking if I knew others who wanted to take twenty minutes of silence daily together as Rob had suggested, as she saw the value of companionship.

There were roughly one hundred attendees from many different places — friends from CL, my students and colleagues from Rice, some who saw the flyer including researchers and students from the Texas Medical Center and around Houston. I was very moved to discover my professional and Catholic communities united in these common questions at the core of all human endeavors, even in the different things we do. One of us marveled at "all these people who otherwise would never cross paths, but we were brought together by a common ground: wonder. This is something that truly comes from the charism of CL: meeting the other on the common ground of our humanity.”

During dinner afterwards, Rob said that the most important thing to him is openness to what life brings. We touched on many important topics during dinner, topics that we hope will be the start of a new conversation and friendship. In the following days, some of us were asked by those who attended how we knew each other or who we are. Those questions have led to deeper conversations, and at least a couple of people have expressed a desire to go back to the Catholic Church or come to School of Community. By being a moment for each of us to rediscover the deep reasons for which we move and live, it is helping me be more myself in my workplace and with my colleagues, forming the seed of a conversation that is continuing to grow and sprout.

Evelyn, Houston, TX