Questioning Faith: Gift of awe can unleash powerful change

  • October 9, 2018

One late-summer evening, I snatched a moment to walk down to the lake. The day’s rain was starting to clear, golden sunshine emerging. The beach was criss-crossed with noise and activity: volleyball players, loudspeakers, food sales, toys, umbrellas. 

Glancing up where the dark rain clouds loomed over the water, I beheld a rainbow coming forth. And in a moment there it was, strong and immense, shimmering all across the horizon, a vivid arc of colour with its two feet anchored far apart in the water. Above it was a moody charcoal-grey, below a proscenium of glowing sun-blue. Soon a second, subtler arc showed itself above the first, as though embracing and framing it, also end-to-end over the lake.

It was an awe-inspiring moment, an unexpected and unpossessible gift — in my view and, apparently, mine alone. The crowds, massively un-awed, didn’t pause their restless activity or even look up. Was I imagining this stunning spectacle, ordinary yet breathtaking?

Moments of awe await us everywhere. We are given our place in an awesome and awe-filled universe. Watching a child hold a baby chick can stir us to awe. Getting a glimpse of the way things work — mapping the human genome, discovering at the edge of the observable universe an unpredictable black hole — can inspire wonder and awe. So can a fine and finely-played piece of music, or the gleam of an old wooden floor polished to new beauty. The divine gift of awe is part of being human. 

Awe and its cousins, wonder and reverence, are inherently relational, for they’re responses to something.  Awe has power to move and bring us out of ourselves. There’s a challenge in perceiving the awesomeness of reality. It has the power to change everything, if we let it; and that’s not comfortable. 

Thomas Merton describes a transcendent moment in an ordinary place, showing the power of awe to open us up to each other and God. He experienced “the immense joy of being (hu)man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate,” which “cannot be explained … only believed and understood by a peculiar gift.” He also recognized the danger in receiving this “peculiar gift,” for it might lead to changes that would shatter our way of being: “I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other” — and maybe cruelty and hatred would have to end.

The crowds on the beach that summer night were, innocently enough, more interested in their doings than in the wonders of the evening sky. We can easily miss the great through our absorption in the minute. But what happens when we cease to feel awe, becoming numb to the power of wonder? Who are we when we walk the Earth without seeing its magnificence — or each other’s? We end up, as Augustine observed, running after less and less, mistaking it for more and more. We become miserable without even knowing.

What happens in society when we lose our awe at the creation of new life, seeing the unborn as commodities to be traded or problems to be solved? What happens when in the Church we lose our awe at the dignity of one another, seeing parishioners as objects to control rather than unique, unrepeatable images of God?  

When we lose our awe, power becomes a way to control rather than a way for love to become creative, the greatest power in the universe. We then seize and abuse power, rather than letting ourselves be seized by the power and majesty of God. This is exemplified in the present struggle within the Catholic Church.

Walking down to the lakeshore that evening, I passed a red lifeguard stand. Sitting atop it, facing the water with his back to me, was a lone figure. Hearing my footsteps, the young man turned and looked down at me over his shoulder. 

His smile was shy but his face was lit up with delight. “Is that usual?” he asked without preamble, nor need of explanation. “It isn’t common, is it?” 

The unchanged crowds weren’t witnessing it, but the lonely soul did, and asked a strange, fellow human to share his awe in what he beheld. I needed him, too. If ever we meet again, on Earth or in Heaven, I think we will recognize each other.

The book of Genesis describes the rainbow as the sign of God’s faithful promise to care for us. The combination of bright sunshine and raindrops brings out the rainbow; it can appear anywhere and everywhere at the tension point between these two things. It requires a third element, though: being in the right place to see it.  

Here is power of a different kind, not the power to abuse and control, but the power to receive the glory of what is and stand in our right place in the universe — right with ourselves, with the created order, and with God. What could be more powerful?

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca)