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Learning REVERENCE from the Psalms

August 2, 2010

reverenceHow great is your name, O Lord our God, through all the earth!

Psalm 8 is a prayer-poem with which most of us can readily identify.  It is a psalm of praise and a profound recognition of the Sovereignty of God, based on a mode of presence that the greatness of creation, including the Psalmist’s own being, evokes.  Its theme is grounded in the truth of who God is and who we.  The experience of that relationship gives rise to the primordial human disposition of awe and the reverence which accompanies it. According to Fr. Adrian van Kaam:

Reverence is the flower of spiritualization.  Its source is the sacred fascination people experience in the presence of what transcends them.  Everything worthy of a person’s dedication receives meaning from its relatedness to that mystery which overwhelms well-disposed people in moments of silent contemplation and pure receptivity.  Unrelated to this mystery, experiences lose their radiance and fail to evoke reverence.  (Fundamental Formation, pp. 159-60)

    One cannot experience the poetry of the Psalms, even in translation, without being struck by its vibrancy and immediateness.  This is due, at least in part, to the authors’ “sacred fascination”, that for them everything in nature and in the human world is related to and participates in Divine life.  Pondering, in wonder, the heavens, the moon and the stars, we also are moved to see them all as the work of the Creator’s hands.  It is the most natural thing in the world for children, who are filled with wonder, to see personal life everywhere and in everything.  Even for us as adults, the entire cosmos becomes personal for us when we awaken to the wonder that is evoked by the Mysterious source of all that is.

    Human beings tend see the world in light of gathered experience, bright and happy when we are happy, dark and sad when we are sad.  We identify our inner and outer worlds.  The world of the Psalms, however, reminds us that this sense of identification with and participation in the world outside of us may arise from a deeper truth.  Perhaps our pre-reflective projection of feelings and experiences onto the external world reflects the recognition that our life is a participation in a life that is shared by all creation.

     We must live our lives in openness to mystery or risk a reductive and banal existence.  Van Kaam observes that everything worthy of a person’s dedication receives its meaning from its relationship to that mystery which always tends to overwhelm us:  “Facing the unknown, a person may feel fear.  In spiritual presence, however, this fear is refined into awe by loving acceptance of a higher reality that embraces one as a mystery of love and generosity.” (p. 160)  The mystery of creation is too much for us at the pretranscendent levels of our vital and functional lives.  But at the level of spirit, “in spiritual presence” as van Kaam puts it, fear becomes awe.  As we read in Psalm 111, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  In this Psalm we see another central theme of the Book of Psalms, which is that all of history is the work of God’s hand and that God is trustworthy.  This is not to say that the trustworthiness of God will always be apparent to us, as the Book of Job makes evident.  Yet, because the mystery that threatens to overwhelm us is, indeed, personally related to us, our fear can eventually become refined into awe.

    Van Kaam continues: “Reverence is fear that has become awe under the mitigating and elevating influence of loving surrender to a mystery that attracts people by its goodness while keeping them at a humble distance by its majesty.”  This reflects Rudolph Otto’s understanding in The Idea of the Holy of mystery as tremendum et fascinans, that which at once attracts and frightens us.  It is the persistent practice of abandonment to the Mystery, a Mystery we slowly grow to trust despite its fearfulness, that gives rise to the disposition of reverence.  It is the role of faith and wisdom traditions to serve our ongoing formation in trust and openness to Mystery.  They do this, as in the Psalms, through words that express the experience of others through the millennia who have learned to live in full spiritual presence to creation and its mysterious source in increasing trust and love.

     Reverence then is fear become awe.  As suggested, one contributing factor to this transformation is participation in faith and form traditions that offer assurance of the goodness of the Mystery, an assurance that can sustain us when our experience and feeling suggest otherwise.  This is what we call “faith,” an ongoing growth in trust of the Mystery based on our trust in the others who communicate our faith tradition to us but also ratified by our own experience.

    Our most immediate experience of creation and of mystery is, of course, our own person, our very self.  What van Kaam calls the “exquisite mode of spiritual presence” that is reverence and the mode presence to self, world, and others that reverence gives rise to (what we call respect) are only possible when fear becomes refined into awe in our own regard.  It is quite one thing for us to experience awe as we take in the night sky or sit at the seashore.  It is quite another to recognize the awesomeness of our own life.  This is the experience expressed in Psalm 139: 14.  “I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation.” Reverence and respect as dispositions of spiritual presence are based on the lived experienced that one’s own life is a participation, with all of creation and each human person, in the life of the Divine Mystery.  Robert Alter’s translation of verse 14 illuminates this:  “I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart, wondrous are Your acts, and my being deeply knows it.”  In this translation we hear the Psalmist’s recognition of his or her originality and uniqueness.  It is in one’s very difference that he or she is awesome.  Yet this uniqueness shares the wonder of all God’s acts of creation.  It is in our very differences that we are most united.  Finally, the Psalmist declares that his/her “being deeply knows it.”  Does our being deeply know the wonder that we uniquely are?  Until our fear of our own unique life becomes refined into awe “by loving acceptance” of our life and the Mystery who creates it, we cannot in the deepest sense experience awe and reverence for creation as a whole.

    Rav Abraham Isaac Kook in a commentary on Psalm 5:8 speaks of how the deepest awe comes about in us out of love.  Rav Kook says that when we come to recognize the chesed, the loving kindness of God in the world, we then become aware of the sublime majesty of God, which evokes in us not an awe of God’s ultimate control and domination but an awe and reverence “refined by inner wisdom and insight,” an “elevated awe that is permeated with an inner kernel of love.”   Any attempt at reverence and respect that is not permeated with this “kernel of love” will inevitably become strained or violent.

    Van Kaam further writes:  “Reverence, along with the respect it generates or deepens, is the root of culture and humanization.  Fear not deepened to awe, and the violence to which such fear gives rise, is the root of dehumanization.” (p. 161) He continues:

Sometimes, the fear in a religious experience is not transformed into awe.  Sometimes the spirit and its horizons are refused.  This refusal cannot prevent the experience of the whole and the holy from happening, but in such cases it evokes only fear.  The holy is perceived as a threatening power.  Such indeterminate fear about the great unknown may give rise to reactions that are unfree, fixated, and often violent. (pp. 161-2)

What Van Kaam describes here is not only a possibility but a frequent occurrence in the realm of the spirit.  The fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom is fear grounded in relationship and in awareness of the loving kindness of the Mystery. Most of all it is a truly experienced awareness of the loving kindness of God in one’s own being.  The cultivation of fear not grounded in love, an occurrence in much religious practice, and the moralism and anxiety such fear gives rise to, will inevitably prove not a source of consonance and love but rather of violence.  This is precisely the reason that there is so much violence associated with religious experience and why our strained attempts to be and do good without true spiritual presence are doomed to frustration and failure.

    The distortions that cloud our presence come from our inability to be present to ourselves in our own originality.  The honesty and directness of the language of the Psalms serve to remind us that we can only grow toward a life of greater praise of God from a place of true honesty in ourselves, what Fr. van Kaam would call our originality.  The obstacle many of us experience from living in this kind of honesty is belief, based on our early formation, that there are particular experiences and situations in which God is present and those in which God is not.  We even tend to live with the kind of compartmentalized existence that refuses and excludes many aspects of our own personal being and of the world around us.  When the in-breaking of the spirit comes in ways that are strange and fearful to us, we refuse it.  We are often the poorest possible judges of where God is present in our lives and where the spirit is most appealing to us.  It is often in what is most other that the whole and holy is summoning to us.  This is the reason why hospitality toward the stranger is so central in our tradition.  The stranger, both within and without, is what tends to be most fearful for us.  This is why “the holy is perceived as a threatening power.”  It comes in the guise of the unfamiliar and the strange.  When fear, rather than reverence and respect, dominates our presence toward the stranger, we tend to react in “unfree, fixated, and violent” ways.  In fear we can only react; it is in reverent and respectful dwelling that our capacity for free and creative response is released.

    The more we live in reverence of our own originality, the more we experience that our originality is a participation “in the original ground in which we all share.”  It is by dwelling in wonder that we become increasingly aware of the fundamental originality of life.  Reaction is a life of repetition; response is a creative encounter with the original, the always new.  We often hear in the Psalms the call of the first verse of Psalm 96:  “Sing a new song to the Lord.”  For that place in us where we share in the life of the Origin of all, each moment is new.  For that place where we react out of fear and prejudice, there is nothing but repetition.  Fear can be a powerful motivator in the moment, but it cannot sustain distinctively human living.  Only the wonder that gives rise to appreciation, gratitude, and reverence can lead us, in van Kaam’s words, to the deepening awareness of the whole of life and its meaning.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.