I know it’s retreat time when I skitter from one activity to the next, squeezing one more thing in the five minutes between my last activity and the next. My life moves at the pace of a rushing river rather than meandering stream. Yup, time to go offline for a while.
I am reading the book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner. Here is a topic to ponder in the open space of retreat time.
Awe is our response when we catch a glimpse of the spirit in the ordinary of life. Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” We know this feeling. It comes when a rain shower gives way to a multi-hued rainbow that traverses the sky. Or when the zoo’s brand new baby giraffe stands on his wobbly legs to nuzzle his mother. Or stars brighten a moonless night far from city lights. Or we hold a newborn infant, amazed at this creature so perfectly formed. Awe takes our breath away.
Those of us who grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition probably heard the phrase “fear of the Lord.” That fear is much closer to awe than to our fear when startled or scared or filled with dread. The “fear” here is akin to reverence or awe—to be present to something so big and mighty that it makes us aware of our own insignificance.
Keltner and his research team studied stories of awe from people around the world with various cultural and religious backgrounds. He clustered the stories into eight groupings.
Awe adds zest to our lives. It draws us together. It reminds us that the world is alive, connected, and we are part of something much bigger than us.The most often described category was other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming. Such experiences bring tears to our eyes. I think of the movie CODA where a young woman leaves her deaf family for a life that recognizes her musical gifts while her family moves toward finding a way to thrive without her as a bridge to the hearing world. Or the story of a teenager who jumps into a swimming pool to save a drowning child. Or the 9/11 story of the people on flight 93 headed toward D.C. who attempted to take over the plane controls, crashing to the ground in Stonybrook Township, PA, to save hundreds of lives while ending their own.
I am touched by the bravery of ordinary people. A group of fellow church members are sponsoring several Ukrainian families as they seek a new life far from their war-torn country. I am inspired as I see these intrepid immigrants come to a new land where they know no one, struggle with the language, and face bureaucratic obstacles at every turn. This is heroic, courageous, and awe-inspiring.
The second most frequent description of awe is collective effervescence. We experience this at weddings, graduations, family reunions, political rallies, or sporting events. We gather to share the sense of joy that comes with a celebration as a loved one moves into a new life stage or when our team wins the world series, or a dear friend celebrates 25 years of sobriety. We are all in this together.
Third is nature. This one is dear to me. Nature provides so many opportunities to stand in wonder. Mary Oliver, in her poem “The Messenger”, says, “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” Each new season brings its own astonishments—139 inches of snow in Duluth, wildflowers poking through ashes on land devastated by wild fires, trees growing out of mountain rock. The natural world provides perspective when life seems overwhelming and out of balance.
Fourth is music. Music brings awe whether in the fulsomeness of a Beethoven symphony, the choral performance of a High School choir, the familiar spirituals we sing as we gather round a campfire, the song that brings a shivery memory, or a single bugle playing Taps on Memorial Day. Music speaks across language, ethnicity, and tradition.
Fifth is visual design. Visual design is awe generating in both its complexity and simplicity. I recently attended an event at the St Paul Cathedral, enwrapped in the beauty of the stained glass, the oversized statuary, the gold filigree outlining domes and arches. While that elaborate beauty resonates, so does simplicity as exemplified in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. Its straight lines draw me to the simple litany of names and the stark loss of so many lives.
Next are stories of spiritual and religious awe. Many of us have had mystical encounters though we may not name them as such. Perhaps it was at a religious ceremony or in the quiet of a retreat or alone in prayer. We know that we have been led, have encountered the holy, and are touched by love. This happens for me in synchronicity—something that appears to be a coincidence leads me to where I need to be. I know that I am being guided.
Seventh is life and death. Being present for new life is breath-taking, the amazement of it all. As an adoptive parent, I know that this wonder of new life is also sparked when an eight-month-old comes into your open arms for the first time. Similarly, being present as someone takes their last breath is a privilege and a blessing. Time stands still. We are immersed in both the present and the eternal.
The final category of wonder or awe is epiphanies. Keltner describes epiphanies as when “we suddenly understand essential truths about life.” They may come by way of insights, scientific discoveries, mathematical equations or sudden disclosures. I was thrilled to learn that scientists had found a vaccine for COVID-19 so quickly because they had been working on mRNA vaccines for decades, ready to respond to this new virus, as though according to a plan.
Awe adds zest to our lives. It draws us together. It reminds us that the world is alive, connected, and we are part of something much bigger than us. Awe leads to gratitude, joy, and belonging. May your life be blessed with awe and wonder!
Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.