St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Finding a Place For Awe in our Daily Lives

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. That’s what separates us from the animals, right? Well, guess again. With the slightest provocation, we abandon our reasonable heads and jump into acts driven by emotion or, more precisely, passion. Extraordinary emotional responses can overwhelm our sensibility and common sense in any moment and drag us to a place where we normally don’t want to be.

What’s this got to do with finding awe again in our lives? Lots. The mystics of the church, and in other religions as well, speak to us of the need to become ethical persons. Then, and only then, are we prepared to walk farther on the spiritual path. This propensity we have to stumble and fall into easy trespassing is the reason it is crucial to achieve grounding beyond the passions. Only when this occurs are we fit for the spiritual path. That’s the testimony of the elders and we do well to hear and observe it.

We get to awe through ethics, in other words. Our morality and our mysticism are not separate aspects of our lives; they begin and belong together. Nature and the human are not split apart either. We are a part of, not apart from, the natural world. We humans have to honor nature in an ethical way in order to achieve awe in the presence of the natural world. It will not do to exploit, abuse, manipulate, exhaust, or otherwise misuse the natural world, not if we want to stand before nature in awe. Wonder emerges from respect and appreciation, from observing ecosystems and how they work marvelously well if we let them alone.

The same thing is true of human beings. We stand in awe before others when we view them as wholes, not as parts or even as the sum of parts. Lust makes us concentrate on parts; love lets us appreciate the whole person. So let there be no abuse, no exploitation here just as with the natural realm.

When we embrace our world properly we stop clinging to it for whatever reason: lust, pride, envy, greed, you name it. Any one of the seven deadly sins will be the basis for the sort of clinging I have in mind.  But when we move past the clinging, cloying side of the passions and discover the “there-ness” of what or who’s there, we emerge into new light. In our circles we could say that we have learned to cleave our souls to God, which cleaving frees us from clinging to things that are not ultimate. This is a tough concept: so often we want to grasp and grab things that are not ultimate, which are decaying and dying all around us, or which offer us momentary satisfaction. St Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  The restlessness is there because we cling to that which is not ultimate, eternal, and infinite. In short, “we fall short of the glory of God.”

Once we find our rest in the ultimate, however, we are free to embrace and to appreciate and savor what is not ultimate, but without being hooked by or on what is less than ultimate. We are freed for awe and we enter the palace of wonder once again. Wonder is the first step in discovering how to live in an awesome place, but you can only get to it through treading the ethical pathway. Sounds very flat-footed and somewhat hard, and indeed it is; but it’s the right way to proceed. Awe arises out of respect, and respect is displayed by acting ethically.

published 20 August 2010