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Awe PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, November 30 2006 19:00
If you are the parent of a college student the way I am, you have become familiar with a special vocabulary used by your daughters or sons and their friends. Even when you overhear only one end of their telephone chats with one another, you become familiar with expressions such as “cool,” what’s up?”,  and “sketchy.”

Another word that comes up frequently is “awesome.”  Our juniors use it in tribute to all sorts of happenings that they consider exciting. Its currency has lost some value, of course, because the word is now used routinely rather than rarely. A young woman’s new hairdo or a fellow going to a lively nightspot can provoke the response “awesome;” it does not need the eruption of a mighty volcano.

Probably not one in a thousand collegians realizes that the word “awesome” classically expresses the beginning of a spiritual way of looking at the world. It contains two basic ideas - - fear and fascination. That is how Rudolf Otto, a German scholar of the early twentieth century, described it; he saw it as the human response to the encounter with what is holy.

The experience of awe finds graphic expression in the lives of mystics of every spiritual tradition. The prophet Isaiah is a good case in point. As described in the Hebrew Bible, he had a vision of the Lord “sitting on a throne, high and lofty” and heard angels calling out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isaiah’s response was to recognize himself as “a man of unclean lips,” but an angel came down and touched a hot coal to his lips, purifying him for his mission.  

Centuries later, Jesus at the time of his baptism saw the heavens open and heard a voice saying “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  This was an experience that filled him with awe and carried him into his public ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

Such powerful experiences are not restricted to figures in the Bible. They have been handed down in traditions other than the Judeo-Christian.

In a new book, “Why Religion Matters,” the scholar Huston Smith cites Hindu lore, referring to a vision that one of his students has of the god  Krishna “in his terrifying cosmic form.” Professor Smith alludes to the Buddhist tradition as well and cites “the Buddha finding the universe turning into a bouquet of flowers at the hour of his enlightenment.”

Using the image of a carapace or hard shell that stretches over the world, Huston Smith also gives readers this definition:  “Mystics are people who have a talent for sensing places where life’s carapace is cracked, and through its chinks they catch glimpses of a world beyond.”

Of course, such experiences are not limited to religious people. Those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” the way many do nowadays, can find this kind of genuinely awesome experience in the world of nature or in the life of the arts.

There is a story about the great 18th century composer George Frederick Handel telling what it was like to compose the “Hallelujah Chorus.” “I thought I saw the heavens open, and the great Lord Himself,” he was reported to exclaim.

You may have had something like these precious experiences. Many people, very few of whom are monks or consider themselves mystics, have. According to one poll, an astonishing 32% of Americans report having mystical prayer experiences.

Spiritual writer Elizabeth Lesser urges everyone to place great value on these inner events: “We should cherish those moments when we have an awareness of our life being something more than it appears to be.”

Are we allowing ourselves to cultivate moments that are truly awesome? When they come into our life, do we let them change our daily feelings about ourselves and our world?

A walk in a cemetery led to such an experience for me long ago. It was a beautiful place with abundant foliage and sculptured mountains off in the distance. There, suddenly, a realization sunk into me that I cannot express fully. At the risk of my insight sounding banal, let me here provide an inadequate summary of what I then received: “God is real and you will always remember this truth.”

Richard Griffin