Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 12 October 2014
“What is the most astounding fact you can share about the universe?” The response from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is so beautiful it gives me chills. “The atoms that comprise life on earth, that make up the human body” are traceable to the exploding stars that created the universe. “So when I look up at the night sky,” he says, “and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I look up … I feel big, because my atoms come from those stars.”
“When I look up, I feel big.” This is what I’m wondering: Does awe make us feel small or does it make us feel big? How many times have I stood at the ocean’s shore, or along the banks of a mighty river, or beneath a vast night sky and felt so very small as I contemplated the universe? I’m wondering if I need to rethink my size.
There’s a definition that says that awe is “an experience of such perceptual vastness you literally have to reconfigure your mental models of the world to assimilate it.” There’s another definition of awe that says that it is a mysterious encounter with the numinous, a divine encounter with God. From this perspective, awe becomes something greater than wonder or amazement. It has an aspect of feeling small in the face of something that is vastly greater than us.
In French, there is no word that directly translates as awe. “Émerveillement” is the closest word you can find, but it has no tinge of humility, transformative power or fear that is often found in English definitions of “awe”.
They say that opening ourselves to awe can decrease stress in our lives and improve our creativity. I have no doubt of this. On good days, really on most days, I allow time for awe. I find it everywhere. Just the morning light shining through the yellow and the red of autumn leaves transports me into holy time. And by holy, I simply mean an appreciation for something that I have had no part in creating, that fills me with gratitude that I am here and I am alive. On dark and rainy days, I can still find awe everywhere I look. It’s there in the faces I encounter, in the marvel of colour and light, in poetry, and in the many amazing things that humans create.
Does fear have a place in our understanding of awe? Or are we really talking about wonder? I think of biblical descriptions of awe. There’s Moses stumbling upon the burning bush, the bush that burns with flames but is not consumed.
“Come no closer!” God says to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet for you are standing on holy ground.”
I love those words “standing on holy ground.” When I open myself to awe, then everywhere I walk is holy ground. I have a minister friend who always removes his shoes when he preaches because he wants to have that feeling of being on holy ground. I’d probably do the same, but then I’d lose a few inches and be truly lost behind this pulpit.
The passage goes on to say that “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Afraid … fearful, awestruck by something terrifyingly powerful. I think of the power of the sea with its beautiful, calming tides that can suddenly become tsunamis. I think of how much I love chasing storm clouds, or standing in the wind, and how dangerous they can become. Maybe awe requires some aspect of humility or awareness that what you perceive is not something you can control. It is not yours to own.
There’s another description of God coming down from the mountain elsewhere in Exodus:
“…[T]here was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.” God appears as fire and smoke, and the whole mountain shakes violently. The blast of the trumpet grows louder and louder, and as Moses speaks to God, God answers in thunder. (I assure you, this is not my image of the love and mystery that some people call God.)
Imagine living in ancient times trying to understand the world around you. Volcanoes, earthquakes, thunder, lightning, the power of the seas: there can be something beautiful and terrifying in these things. How could you not tremble in awe? There are those that say that ancient people created gods to give themselves a sense of control over a hostile universe. I think that’s one part of the story. But maybe humans have always needed to find a way to live with what we most fear, because we know we ultimately have no control over life and death.
In the ancient Greek poem, The Iliad, the great warrior Achilles says: "I'll tell you a secret. Something they don't teach you in your temple. The gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again."
I think about Hélène’s reflection. Is awe something that changes with knowledge? We speak so often of awe as something visual, but a piece of music can also overwhelm us and transport us into an entirely different place of consciousness. I know that there is music that can transform us and reconfigure our mental models of the world. Maybe that doesn’t happen to everyone, but I know it happens to some of us. If you are a master musician and can hear the logic and planning in each musical phrase, do you lose that capacity to be transported? Does awe require innocence, a lack of knowledge or the mind of a child?
I was a child who found other children and many adults challenging. But, oh, how my world was filled with awe! There was magic and mystery in everything I observed. I saw pictures in clouds and talked to trees. The house I grew up in had these plaster ceilings. Unlike plaster ceilings that are swirled in careful rows, ours were done in random patterns. So when I couldn’t go outside, I still had beautiful cloud formations to observe. One of my favourite pastimes as a four- or five-year-old was to walk around observing the ceiling from a mirror held flat in my hands. By watching the world from this upside-down perspective, I could imagine myself living in the clouds. When sadness struck, I could always retreat into that world. Those moments of awe in my early life assured me that, no matter what happened, I could always find joy and beauty in the most mundane places.
Maybe you’ve watched those YouTube videos called “Shots of Awe” created by Jason Silva, that have apparently gone viral. He points out that “one of the ways that we elicit wonder is by scrambling the self temporarily so that the world can seep in.”
“Scrambling the self temporarily so that the world can seep in.” To me, that sounds like letting go of our over-thinking, analyzing brain, to be present to the vastness that surrounds us. It doesn’t mean we stop being wise, or stop using our intellect. It just means that we need to temporarily let go in order to engage awe in our lives.
There’s one more biblical passage I’m thinking of, and then I promise I’m done. In the Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is sent to wait inside a mountain cave for God. There’s a great wind so strong that it splits the mountain around him and breaks the rocks into pieces, but God is not in the wind. Then an earthquake comes, but God is not in the earthquake. After that, there’s a fire, but God is not in the fire. Finally, Elijah hears a small, still voice, and that, the writers of the passage tell us, is God.
Elijah’s encounter with awe is something small and quiet and I wonder, does it make him feel small or large? Does it make him feel that life is more beautiful because he knows that even though he has just escaped several brushes with death, he is still ultimately doomed?
The fragility of life requires us to live in reverent awe of each and every moment.
So here’s the question: Does our ego convince us that we are at the centre of the universe? Are we large or small? You could say that many religious traditions have certainly placed humanity at the centre of all existence. But there’s nothing that says that we have to go on living that way, or that we have to go on expressing religion that way.
As Alfred North Whitehead wrote so long ago:
“Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts, something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.”
We are the stuff of stars. The universe is in us. In the moments when we let go of our sense of self, we truly connect with the universe. Everything, absolutely everything we encounter deserves our reverence. Awe is in the vastness of the universe, in the photographs that come to us from the Hubble telescope. Awe is in the small things, the baby’s laugh and the tiny chip of sea glass. Because it’s all star-stuff.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson says of the most astounding fact about the universe, “There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, want to feel relevant, want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on of the activities around you. That’s precisely what we are. Just by being alive.”
Saturday morning, I got up early, just before sunrise, and went outside to catch the first early morning light. It was my moment of awe, the first of the day, the moment when I could hear the small, still voice within. I stood by the edge of the Lachine Canal and wrote these words:
A band of light across the horizon.
Clouds wait to be illuminated
then glow light orange
against deep grey.
A duck glides across the canal,
the apex of two diverging lines
that disintegrate into ever expanding ripples
across the calm water.
The entire canal comes alive with woven texture
before it returns to smooth glass.
The day begins
with the loud humming of bulldozers
on a nearby construction site.
I walk home across the field,
through overgrown grass,
traced in cold condensation
not yet turned to frost.
This is my place of peace,
my holy moment of worship.
So may it be. Amen. Blessed be. Namasté.