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Experience of Reverance

I have been slowly reading a recent book by Barbara Brown Taylor called, An Altar in the World.  She writes well and I am enjoying it.  In many ways it is a book about spirituality rather than religion---assuming we can differentiate those words.  When I say it is not so much about religion, I mean it has much less to do with the church as an institution and the typical religious practices we associate with church membership.  It is more focused on being spiritual in the normal running of our days.  The particular chapter I was reading had to do with paying attention.

I have been teaching spirituality long enough to know that paying attention is very important if we want to “be spiritual.”  That was nothing new for me.  But what did pique my interest in her chapter was a focus on reverence.  In some ways reverence is an old religious concept.  It is so classical that not many people I know think about reverence or talk about it.

In a sense the idea of reverence seems a bit stuffy to me.  It sounds a little pietistic---the kind of thing older religious people might be “into.”  But Taylor began to resurrect the meaning of the term.  I appreciated this and wanted to plunge into thinking about it so I could write this inspirational piece.

As I pondered my own meaning for reverence, I realized it was a synonym for the holy or the sacred.  In fact, I know I prefer these two terms to the word, reverence.  I admit that it is a word game.  But we all know words have meanings to us and these meanings are often associated with experiences that shape how we feel about a word.  Simply because I associate it with older religious people casts a particular light on how I understand the word.  So reading Taylor helped me see afresh the word.

She quotes a philosopher, Paul Woodruff, to bring some clarity.  “By definition, he says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self---something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.”  That makes much sense to me.  Most of us know we are not god, even though we might act like it sometimes!  I do recognize something greater than me.  I am ok with calling that God.

This is what Taylor says.  Using the criteria Woodruff offers, Taylor says, “God certainly meets those criteria.  God is beyond human creation or control.  God transcends full human understanding.  So God is an object of reverence.  But that is not all---and this is where I like what Taylor is doing.  She acknowledges that other things meet the criteria, too.  Specifically, she notes “birth, death, sex, nature, truth, justice, and wisdom.”

If I read her correctly, she is suggesting that each of these things also can be objects of reverence.  As I think about my own experiences of some of them, I am led to agree with her.  For example, I think about the birth of my two daughters.  In both cases I was in the delivery room when they emerged into this word.  It was a moment of reverence.  Something mighty had just happened.  Even though I knew it was coming and I actually was ready for it, I was not really ready for “it.”

Two daughters were born, but more happened than that.  Even though I had helped create two human beings, it was bigger than me.  The whole event was brimming with mystery and majesty.  Life had been created and the world had been altered.  I knew so much and, yet, there was so much about it that I would never know.  Reverence leads us to appreciate rather than understand.  Instead of analyzing, I said Amen.

We could take the rest of the list Taylor offers: death, sex, nature, truth, justice and wisdom.  They all precipitate experiences of reverence.  We can describe them and to a degree, explain them.  But we have to admit the experience of any of them transcends our ability fully to understand them.  And I am happy this is the case.

I think any experience of reverence is an experience of mystery.  They become burning bushes in our experience.  While we may not take off our shoes, as Moses did, we are face to face with the sacred.  And we may be in a desert or in a bedroom rather than the cathedral.  Reverence helps us see the sacred potentiality in all places and at any time.

Reverence cannot be routinized.  While we may routinely feel reverence---in nature, for example---it cannot become routine or else it will cease to be reverence.  Instead of a burning bush, it will simply become a little tree.  Reverence always takes us out of ourselves or it drives us so deep in ourselves that we know we don’t know.  We are in the presence of “it.”

I have had countless experiences of reverence.  I am grateful for them and delighted that I can recall them.  What I would like to do is grow more into learning to live reverently.  It is nice to have an experience of reverence.  It is deeply spiritual to be able to live a life of reverence.

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