Awe, the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things, is a sacred experience which connects us to the Divine and to one another. It is an important piece of the spiritual puzzle, or at the very least it could be a tool or path to deeper awareness of the Divine.
Writer and theologian Michael Yaconelli has said that, “Tameness is not an option. Take surprise out of faith and all that is left is dry and dead religion.” I believe that awe, wonder and mystery are some of the surprises that bring vitality and aliveness to faith and spirituality.
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While Christians are apt to talk about an “awesome” God, I’ve found that usually correlates to the power, greatness and majesty attributed to God. And while many people have tried to equate fear and awe, that is a relatively new phenomenon. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for awesome is nora, and the Hebrew word for fear is yira. They were not the same thing. When the psalmist said, “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) or “serve God with fear and trembling” (Psalm 2:11) they really meant that one should be afraid of God, with an implicit “or else” tied in there. Certainly there are enough OT passages where destruction and doom awaited those who didn’t obey, that fearing God was more than appropriate.
Over the centuries there has been a shift in our understanding of God, and so many have reinterpreted these passages. Rabbi Heschel translates this as “the awe of God is the beginning of wisdom” and the Inclusive Bible says “the reverence of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
Psalm 65 is one of the few places where the Bible emphasizes experiencing awe in God’s creation. Job also has a wonderful passage that does the same thing (Job 37:24). But there is very little scripturally that leads us farther than that to what Wayne Dyer talks about in his book Your Sacred Self. He suggests that by walking an intentional spiritual journey and heightening our awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, we will develop a greater sense of appreciation and awe.
Dacher Keltner, professor and head of the University of California Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab, has been studying awe for the last few years. Their studies have shown that awe is very accessible in what we might call the ordinary miracles of our days – the generosity of a person, the veins in a leaf, the birth of a child, a sunrise, the beauty in art or music or architecture.
In addition, Keltner’s research shows that experiences of awe transform the mind. After an experience of awe, a person is less concerned with self-interest and more attuned to collective interest; one moves from an isolated sense of self to a more integrated sense of self. And moments of awe begin to break down the “us” vs. “them” mentality.
Keltner said that awe seems to be the antidote to the ills of the world today: self-focus, greed, materialism, purposelessness, stress, narrow-mindedness and under-performing health. Experiences of awe produce: expanded sense of self, generosity, purpose (brings focus to our purpose in the world), perspective, creativity, robust health (good for the nervous system).
Studies show that people experience awe on an average of average 2.5 times a week. But perhaps, as people on an intentional spiritual journey, we could strive to cultivate experiences of awe, to practice wonder, to recognize everyday miracles EVERY DAY. Because those experiences are the bridges to the experience and feeling of connectedness with the universe, with the Divine. The goosebumps, feeling humble, curious, positive, love, joy, peace and concern for others… those are the effects of momentary connections with Something More.
So, how do we cultivate experiences of awe? Take a walk with the deliberate intention of being amazed and awed by something in creation. Or if you can’t get outside, watch a nature show or a travel show. Pause during the day to wonder at your life, the synchronicities, the beautiful relationships, your pets, your children or grandchildren, the very breath you take that give you life. Listen to fabulous music and be in awe of the musicians who create it. Go out and look at the stars or the lake and feel the enormity of the universe or the power of water. Read a beautiful piece of poetry or be amazed at the skill of an artist. There are so many things we can be in awe of instead of passing right over them. Let yourself be moved and filled.
Love & Light!