BYU linguistics professor invites students to add dose of wonder to spiritual practices

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BYU linguistics professor Janis Nuckolls invited students to add wonder to their spiritual practices at the school’s devotional on August 2 at the de Jong Concert Hall. “As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have unlimited access to wisdom, truth and blessings from our scriptures, our ordinances and our covenants,” Nuckolls said. “Perhaps we should add at least a daily dose of wonder to our spiritual practices.” (BYU Photo)

BYU linguistics professor Janis Nuckolls invited students to add a dose of wonder to their spiritual practices at the school’s devotional on August 2 at the de Jong Concert Hall.

“As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have unlimited access to wisdom, truth and blessings from our scriptures, our ordinances and our covenants,” Nuckolls said. “Perhaps we should add at least a daily dose of wonder to our spiritual practices.”

Nuckolls began by speaking about her experience in Amazonian Ecuador while working on her graduate degree in linguistics. Nuckolls said she spent time in a remote community where the native language was Kichwa.

Nuckolls said there are no roads leading to the community, no hotels, no grocery stores and no running water or bathrooms.

“Despite the inspiring natural surroundings, it was easy to feel discouraged about my struggles with the language as well as with just trying to exist in this unfamiliar world,” Nuckolls said.

Nuckolls said the members of the community were “among the most congenial people” she had ever met and often encouraged her to wonder at her surroundings. Nuckolls said she and one of her students met over Zoom with a Kichwa speaker who taught them about a species of fish which exhibited a strong motherly instinct.

“My friend then exclaimed, with wonderous admiration and surprise in Kichwa, ‘Look! Even fish are such possessors of awareness,'” Nuckolls said.

Nuckolls acknowledged she only recently connected a sense of wonder to spiritual matters. She also quoted anthropologist and linguist Mary Catherine Bateson saying, “The starting place for any kind of religious sentiment is a sense of wonder because wonder leads to praise.”

Sharing Jehovah’s words to Job in the Old Testament, Nuckolls read Jehova’s instruction to “stand still and consider the wondrous works of God.” Nuckolls said this passage emphasizes feelings of awe, reverence and wonder at hearing the words of God.

Nuckolls then talked about how she had the opportunity to volunteer teaching a linguistics class at the Utah State Prison with one of her students, stating that she was inspired by the individuals she met there.

“Being able to teach students at the Utah State Prison and having opportunities to learn from their perspectives was a privilege I will never forget,” Nuckolls said.

Nuckolls spoke of an incarcerated individual named Ronnel Draper who, although incarcerated, tried to care for all the animals he found on the prison grounds including tarantulas, beetles, snakes, gophers, rabbits and more.

“Mr. Draper’s ability to learn about and feel unconditional love is so moving to me because it attests to the beautiful possibilities for the human spirit,” Nuckolls said. “He has figured out how to experience what he never felt from his family, but which every child is entitled to feel.”

Nuckolls said there is also scientific support for the benefits of giving more space for awe and wonder in our lives.

“Such experiences can also lessen stress, reduce the kind of self-critical thinking which leads to depression and inspire greater humility, greater generosity and more tolerance for uncertainty,” Nuckolls said.

Above all, Nuckolls said she felt privileged for the opportunities she’s had to connect with people whose experiences seem different than her own.

“No matter how remote the circumstances, the values we share can be found, whether we call it ‘taking care of, looking out for, nurturing, or ministering to others,'” Nuckolls said.

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