The Power of Awe


When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
-Tao Te Ching


This is the state of wonder and gratitude in which we are meant to live. To wake each day still unable to believe that we are alive. To wake each moment—if only we were willing!—and see the glory in a stone or a cup of tea, to say nothing of a morning glory or a baby’s cheeks (let me tell you about my grandson’s).

But it is hard to sustain awe. Overtaken by awe, we sense how small and helpless and contingent we are. In extreme awe we sense that our self actually disappears! That is a feeling at once amazing and frightening. Who am I if I lose my Me?

It isn’t very popular to invite people to lose themselves, to let Me disappear. Even when we know that the great God-Self can only overtake us in that ebbing of ego…we still prefer to stay in charge of our life, in control of our experiences. We may not be eligible for moments of awe, but we can still do pretty well. We can go to church. We can sing reliable hymns. We can read holy books. We can “receive communion” (what a controlled and brokered term for a total ingestion of the divine!).

Of course everything on offer in church can be received with awe. But it can also be a way to avoid the actual experience of the holy—by having a ritualized version of the same.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not dismissing rituals, or church. When religion is good and life-giving, its rituals and sacraments teach us how to see the Presence everywhere. The “holy” water in the font is meant to tell you that the rain is holy, the shower is holy, every puddle is holy and teeming with Life. The “sacred” bread and wine is supposed to teach you that Wonder Bread is holy and pizza is holy and cheeseburgers are holy and teeming with Life.

But it’s easier, when we tire of awe, to fall back on bad religion, where the sacred comes tidily packaged and the holy is hardly frightening. You never have to lose your precious Me or wait for the fire to fall from heaven. The liturgy starts at 10:00 and concludes promptly at 11:00.

A few years ago I saw a poster in the parish hall of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Against a Van Gogh painting of a star-scattered sky was this quote by the earless artist: “When I have a terrible need of religion I go out and paint the stars.” (I was impressed that such a poster hung in a church.)

When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.

Be in awe today of something, someone. The smaller and plainer, the simpler and more inconsequential the better.


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