The importance of hope and awe

In the Image #39

It’s been said that there is no one so wise as the person who agrees with you. In that case, I’ll posit that Richard Rohr, the person who sends me a daily meditation, is one of the wisest seers I know.

Consider this recent thought offered: “When awe and wonder are absent from our life, we build our religion on laws and rituals, trying to manufacture some moment of awe.”

A lifetime of observing and interpreting the human condition has led me to that exact truth, though I’ve never stated it so simply or eloquently. Another learning, closely coupled, is that the appearance of wonder and awe is always the most striking when it arrives from a shocking and unexpected direction. There’s something about surprise that adds colour and authenticity to awe.

Many years ago, we attended a family wedding in Alberta. A story emerged from the rehearsal for that occasion. Three boys, nephews of the groom, would serve as ring bearers. Ben was five, with his twin brothers Sam and Jonah a few tears younger, would walk together down the aisle. Three beautiful blond boys, how perfect was that!

It got even better as they made their way up the aisle of the chapel. Jonah soon found things much more interesting off to the side of the room, so away he went. Sam also found distractions on the other side of the worship space, and he followed those as well. Ben, a very earnest brother, was left standing in the aisle alone, holding the ring pillow, looking abjectly after his wandering brothers, when he suddenly dissolved into tears. “I hate them!”

This little episode is remembered with delight. But, on another level, it points to the truth of Rohr, as he reminds us of the intrinsic value of an openness to awe.

Our home receives a church periodical. It arrives twice a month. It is a periodical that also allows me space for a monthly column. Canadian Mennonite reminds me that our language and our conversation about faith, about religion, is usually very, very, earnest. Letters to the editor sometimes roundly criticize the opinions of others, while attempting to stay within the bounds of “speaking in love.” Columnists who deliberately tilt the status quo sometimes generate suspicion. Perhaps if we could shout, “I hate them!” in love, we would.

Meanwhile, Sam and Jonah explore and delight, despite being at odds with the expectations given them. They discover no end of delights to bring two year olds to wonder. Awe lies in every direction.

I recall being invited to spin a few yarns at a men’s breakfast gathering. We enjoyed food, stories, laughter. Then the topic swung to the many unchurched men in the community, and the question was pondered, “How can we get these guys into our church?”

It felt very, very earnest.

Sam and Jonah offer a good model. Risk a little adventure. Go in search of wonder and awe. If we really believe that Henry down the street was created in the holy image of God, let’s go spend time with him, and catch a glimpse of that holiness. Let’s risk a relationship where that awe can be named, celebrated. Let’s avoid creating that relationship around a need to get Henry into our pews. Simply spend time with Henry because he carries a piece of the God puzzle for us.

Much that is good, much that is faithful, happens within faith communities, all faith communities. Lives are changed, hope is discovered. I am allowed to glimpse that, many times over. But I suggest that the energy to do that holy work can best come from wandering out of the aisle to discover a little awe, to discover that God has preceded us into all of the adventures we might encounter. That is true even if, and especially if, we walk in directions which are at odds from where accepted norms might send us.

If we don’t challenge the expectations that surround us, that attempt to define religion, then holy work becomes simply work, with attendant weariness and burnout. Then our religion becomes, as Rohr points out, rituals trying to manufacture some moment of awe. Sam and Jonah brought brightness and colour to the festivities. Does that describe us?