(subject: theology) UU Congregation at Montclair
Montclair, New Jersey
6 December 2015
Ancient Reading: Psalm 19:1-4
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
Modern Reading: Oliver Burkeman, Awe: the powerful emotion with strange and beautiful effects (The Guardian, 18 August 2015)
The other day, I got fairly decisively lost while hiking in the French Pyrenees. Not seriously lost, since I had a functioning iPhone, and was never much more than an hour’s walk from a road where, in a crisis, I could doubtless have flagged down a grudging French motorist. But just lost enough to feel the first frisson of something like fear: enough to be reminded that mountain ranges are very large and solid things, whereas I am a tiny and fragile thing, and that it takes a vanishingly small amount of effort on the part of a mountain range to kill a human.
I say “something like fear”, incidentally, because the experience wasn’t wholly unpleasant: the frisson had a distinctly pleasurable component. Actually, there’s a word for this combination of terror, euphoria and smallness in the face of vastness, which constitutes the oddest and least understood of emotions: awe.
I was surprised to receive a phone call earlier this week from a police detective informing me that a piece of property that I had lost two months ago had been recovered and would be returned to me. Quite spontaneously, I blurted out, “You’re awesome!” Needless to say, he appreciated my enthusiasm for his work. Then on Friday, one of my friends posted on Facebook – with appropriate exclamation marks – that she had: “Spent this week in Germany on a German Christmas Markets Tour! It was awesome!”
“You’re awesome!” “It was awesome!” “That’s awesome!”
“Awesome” has become a pretty common expression of enthusiasm in 21st century America. It’s a fine word. But, if you look up “awesome” in the on-line Urban Dictionary, you’ll find this definition: “Something Americans use to describe everything.”
But what is awe . . . really? Our Covenant Groups will be talking about awe this month, so I wanted to offer my own reflection in this sermon.
Let’s start with the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of the word awe, which is: “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” That sounds right to me. I remember inching out to the very lip of the Grand Canyon on a beautiful May morning and sitting down to take in the view. With my view unobstructed by a guardrail of any sort, I marveled that millions of years and trillions of gallons of water had carved that canyon through solid rock. I reflected on the span of my own brief life against that of the canyon, feeling tiny and insignificant. I remember thinking, “This is breathtakingly beautiful, magnificent beyond words, and kind of scary sitting out here with the wind blowing.” Very carefully, I got up and backed away from the edge. That was an awesome experience.
Awe is an emotion, not an idea. Awe is experienced, not observed. I don’t believe that we can walk around looking for “awe” anymore than we can go in search of love, joy, anger, or fear. Come to think of it, people go looking for love and joy all the time. Strange how anger and fear just seem to find us without much trouble. The truth is that all these emotions just sweep over us, sometimes when we least expect them . . . and the same is true of awe.
I have come to believe that all our actions are motivated by one of two basic emotions: love or fear. Awe is what overcomes us when we experience both these powerful emotions at the same time. To be in awe of something is to be both mesmerized by it and a little terrified at the same time, just as Oliver Burkeman pointed out in the reading earlier. He felt “something like fear: enough to be reminded that mountain ranges are very large and solid things, whereas I am a tiny and fragile thing, and that it takes a vanishingly small amount of effort on the part of a mountain range to kill a human . . . [yet] the experience . . . had a distinctly pleasurable component.”
Our English word “awe” probably comes to us from Old Norse, the Scandinavian language of the Vikings who terrified much of northern Europe for some 300 years. Starting 1,300 years ago, the Viking raiders used their dreaded longboats to silently and suddenly fall upon unsuspecting coastal towns and cities in Europe, plundering and killing their way around the coast of the continent. They were actually the first military force to employ a shock and awe campaign, so it is no wonder that their word “aue,” which meant “fear, terror, or great reverence,” found its way into our modern vocabulary.
Contrary to our contemporary casual use of the word “awe,” an experience of genuine awe is no small thing . . . and those experiences change us. You see, our experiences in life can be awesome or awful.
When something really fabulous, really wonderful happens to us we may well feel excited, exhilarated, and consciously grateful to be alive. That would be awesome. When something is awe-some, it means we feel some awe when we experience it. When something truly dreadful, truly terrifying happens to us – and we, or our loved ones, survive – we may well feel excited, exhilarated, and consciously grateful to be alive. That would be awful. When something is aw-ful, it means we are filled with awe when we experience it.
When a parent holds their newborn child for the first time, I have to believe that the love they feel defies accurate description . . . and with that love comes a tremendous sense of responsibility born of the awareness that a precious, helpless life is literally in their hands. That’s awesome: mostly wonderful and a little bit scary. And . . . if anything threatened the life of that child, then that would be truly aw-ful.
The last book that neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall wrote before his death in 2007 was titled Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion. In it he argued that ‘most of us lead “awe-deficient” lives.’ (Oliver Burkeman, “This Column Will Change Your Life,” The Guardian, 6 June 2008) Pearsall wrote, “The best description I’ve been able to give [awe] so far is that – no matter how good or bad our brain considers whatever is happening to be – it is feeling more completely alive than we thought possible before we were in awe. If you want to be happy all the time,” he continued, “awe is not for you. It’s too upsetting and causes too much uncertainty.”
The book begins with an account of the near-death Pearsall’s infant son. It is discomforting even to imagine a parent waiting to learn whether their child will live or die. In a terrible, ironic twist, after Pearsall’s book had been submitted to the publisher that same precious son, at age 35, committed suicide. Pearsall and his wife found the body. In his epilogue, Pearsall wrote, “I am now writing in one of the most intense, deep, painful aspects of awe . . . I know there won’t be ‘closure’ or ‘getting past’ what’s happened,” he wrote. “If I can stay in awe of what’s happening, I won’t expect answers. I don’t want there to be [any] . . . I want to yearn, grieve, and cry for our son for the rest of my life.”
An experience of genuine awe changes us. The first ten days of the Jewish new year, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, are spoken of as the Days of Awe. The reason being, that each individual and the whole Jewish society are supposed to be engaged in a deep period of reflection and repentance in order to renew their relationship with God. If you’re not changed by such an experience, then you missed the experience.
In a general sense, any experience of awe points us to a power beyond our understanding and far beyond our control that we may understand as God. To be awestruck is to be hit with a sudden feeling of our own vulnerability and fragility in the presence of something so beautiful and powerful that we can scarcely stand to be in its presence. I would say that a real experience of awe is to suddenly catch a glimpse of the Holy in all its splendor, wonder, and horror. The Hindus have captured quite brilliantly the real nature of the Divine by personifying its three distinct attributes as the creator, the sustainer, and the destroyer of all life.
All this stands in stark contrast to our modern American usage of the word “awe.” I challenge you to take a field trip to Short Hills Mall, or wherever you choose to worship at the altar of free market capitalism during this holiday season, and listen for just how much is “awesome” and “perfect” in our world. Awe has become almost meaningless. I see that in my own enthusiastic response to the police detective on the phone. “Awesome” becomes our unconscious, all-encompassing, enthusiastic response to whatever good life brings us.
Thanks to last year’s Leggo movie, we now have an appropriately catchy – albeit it satirical – little theme song for “awe” that is suitable for singing pretty much all day long. How many of you know the song? Sing it with me:
“Everything is awesome!
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.
Everything is awesome
When we’re living our dream!”
Yes, indeed, everything is awesome. And it should be when you’re seven years old, safely belted into the back seat of the family minivan, or frolicking through the woods with the family dog, chasing butterflies and loving spring flowers. Everything is awesome even when we are adults witnessing the wonder of this magnificent world in the splendor of a sunset or a breathtaking dawn breaking over the ocean. Everything is awesome when we marvel at the complexity of life through an electron microscope or marvel at the vastness of unexplored space through a stargazer’s telescope. Everything is awesome when the nurse gently places into your hands your minutes old child, still warm from its mother’s womb. That’s awesome.
But sadly, everything is not awesome; some things are aw-ful.
When your loved one goes to a nightclub in Paris, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, a Connecticut elementary school, a Charleston, South Carolina church, or a San Bernadino, California social services center and gunfire erupts all around them, that’s not awesome . . . that’s simply awful.
When a misdirected Hellfire missile whistles off the wing of a remotely piloted Predator drone and slams into a humble mud-brick home in Waziristan, Pakistan, and kills a mother, a grandmother, and a family full of children, dismembering their bodies and spraying their entrails across the landscape . . . that’s not awesome, that’s awful. At least it’s awful to the wailing, trembling survivors who have to pick up the scraps of their neighbors and pile the pieces into baskets for burial.
Some things make us feel terribly, frighteningly small and profoundly vulnerable and powerless . . . yet simultaneously thrilled to be alive, with a vivid, heightened awareness of just how precious each moment, each brilliant breath of air is as it enters our chests and filters into the river of blood still safely pounding its way through our shivering bodies.
There is much in this life that leaves me awestruck, speechless before the splendor and wonder of this world. But I remember that real awe is both mesmerizing and a little terrifying; fascinating and frightening. When we are truly awestruck, part of us wants to run away, but another part just won’t seem to let us look away.
As we look ahead to the Christmas holiday, it’s worth noting how “awe” features in the biblical stories about Jesus’ birth. Keeping in mind that these are mythic stories, rather than historical accounts, the Gospel of Luke tells us that when the angels appeared to Mary and the shepherds their first reaction was fear. In the first chapter we are told, ‘The angel Gabriel . . . came to [Mary] and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled . . . And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”’ (Luke 1:26-30) Then the second chapter relates that ‘there were shepherds out in the field . . . And an angel . . . appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid.”’ (Luke 2:8-10) These ancient storytellers understood a great truth; to encounter the Holy is an experience that produces “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” As Oliver Burkeman observed in our reading earlier, “there’s a word for this combination of terror, euphoria and smallness in the face of vastness, which constitutes the oddest and least understood of emotions: awe.”
Awe is no small thing. Real awe humbles us in the presence of a power far beyond our ability to comprehend, let alone control. Real awe makes us gasp with gratitude before the beautiful and the bewildering.
The experience of awe humbles us before a power greater than ourselves and instills in us a sense of gratitude for the wonder of life. The more we cultivate humility and conscious gratitude in our lives, the more open we become to experiences of awe. The great English poet John Milton wrote, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
There is great wonder and splendor in this world, and we too often overlook the everyday miracles of this magnificent world and our own lives. We need to train ourselves to be in the moment and notice the marvelous all around us. However, real experiences of awe are both fascinating and just a little bit frightening. We would do well not to sterilize, sanitize, or minimize the idea of awe, because awe is no small thing. I’m going to be more thoughtful when I use the word “awesome” in the future, because I want to have the right vocabulary at hand to describe my experience when the Holy break into my life in the thrilling, mesmerizing, frightening way that it does.
So may it ever be.