Cultivating Fear and Awe
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
The men strained at their nets and could barely pull in the fish. Rocking violently, the boat nearly capsized, tugged down by this miraculous catch. Peter had seen everything. No mortal had this kind of authority over water and earth. It was a terrifying moment, discovering before him God almighty. He trembled and collapsed:
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Fear and awe are virtues nearly gone in modern life. So often, a boy or girl gets caught up in the thrill of grownup life and loses the wonder of childhood. In the same way, our culture has lost an awareness of grandeur and the sublime. For the past several weeks, we have talked about the emptiness of our culture, and our need to reclaim Christian culture. Moving forward, I want to look more earnestly at precisely what is Christian culture. You have to begin with awe. You cannot be an authentic Christian, without reviving in your soul the lost art of wonder.
What happened to Peter? He was a practical man: gruff, impetuous, and salt of the earth. He lived by the strength of his hands and had a head of sense. He was not the type to be taken in. Here, on the ship, something happened that rocked his world. It was like watching another world crash through into ours. This is the shared experience of all men and women who encounter God.
When Isaiah was taken up to heaven, he declared: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! My eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). When Job finally looked on God, he fell apart, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eyes see You; Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” The Apostle John, on beholding Jesus in his glory, “fell at [Christ’s] feet like a dead man” (Revelation 1:17).
C. S. Lewis explains a mystical encounter in this way: “Into the region of awe, in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with…the naked Other, imageless…unknown, undefined, desired.”
What does it mean to fear God? I have often heard it said that this ‘fear’ is better translated as ‘awe.’ However, I do not believe that does it justice. The verb “to awe” comes from the Old Norse word ‘agi,’ literally meaning, “to be filled with terror.” In his book, The Idea of the Holy, German theologian Rudolf Otto coined the term “mysterium tremendum” — a two-fold state. To awe is to become overwhelmed by the discovery of one’s smallness and the presence of danger, and, simultaneously, to be drawn by an irresistible desire, to long to encounter and worship this awe-full presence. Bewildered, astonished, thunderstruck, frightened and excited, these are all aspects of the fear of God.
George Macdonald, that famous Scottish mystic, described his awe for mountains:
“A mountain is a strange and awful thing. In old times, without knowing so much of their strangeness and awfulness as we do, people were yet more afraid of mountains. But then somehow they had not come to see how beautiful they are as well as awful, and they hated them--and what people hate they must fear. Now that we have learned to look at them with admiration, perhaps we do not feel quite awe enough of them. To me they are beautiful terrors.”
God is a beautiful terror. He is compassionate and loving. He is also fearful and staggering.
“Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).
What does this mean in our lives? We need to challenge ourselves. Why is awareness of grandeur and the sublime nearly gone from modern man? How can we live differently, so as to become a little bit more like children: with our hearts filled up with wonder?
It begins in worship. When we pray at Mass, we have to work on our prayer, aspiring for deeper reverence. This is time, of all time in the week, to cultivate the art of awe. This is why we spend so much time kneeling and standing. This is why stillness and quiet are so important in the sanctuary. What should be the attitude in our heart when we approach the Eucharist? A saint expressed it in his prayer:
“Trusting in your mercy, I eat your body and drink your blood. I tremble as I take this fire lest I be consumed as wax and grass. O fearful mystery! O divine love! How is it that I, an earthly creature, partake of the divine body and blood and am made incorruptible?”
Worship is the school of cultivating reverence.
Beyond the Mass, every part of our life should be arranged to cultivate awe. What parts of our life kill awe? In the past, most people ended their evening by sitting on a porch and listening to crickets. Now, we have replaced that time with television and video games. Historically, quiet, empty moments were scattered through the day. Now, we substitute those moments with meaningless screen time. Why do we struggle so much with reverence and faith? We are too distracted to notice God in the present. The Christian in the 21st century needs to get radical, and start reclaiming a life of wonder.
An old Buddhist proverb says: “Long walks drive out demons.” This is wisdom. Turn off the TV’s, spend time in silence, go on walks, sit in a hunting stand, listen to the rain on the roof. All our talk about religion and holiness is empty, until we learn again to look at trees, sunsets and the world around the way a child looks. We need to rediscover the art of wonder.
“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5:8).
The good news is Jesus Christ did not go away. Neither did St. Peter. The presence of God is frightening. It is also redeeming. St. Peter had a true encounter with God and despaired, but he did not give up. He stayed with Jesus, in a state of adoration. A Christian culture is a culture of wonder. A Christian lifestyle is a lifestyle of awe. When our hearts become truly reverent, then we will know the peace of God.