I don’t read much of the print newspaper these days. I get most of my news from websites, many of them posted by newspapers.When our print newspaper arrives, I scan the headlines, usually having read the articles online. I read the obituaries and the comics and occasionally something else catches my eye that I had missed while reading the online articles. I can remember when the Sunday newspaper was a big deal in our house. We’d read a bit of it before worship in the morning and then save it for reading later in the day. Some weeks, we’d have bits of the paper around for a couple of days while we finished reading and passed articles back and forth. There just isn’t that much in the Sunday paper any more. I usually have seen all I need before breakfast and it is in the recycling bin early in the day. The magazine in our Sunday paper is called “Parade” and it used to have a few articles worth reading. I also would have a couple of cartoons and I got into the habit of paging through the magazine each week. These days the magazine is very short and mostly advertisements. Most weeks it is not even sorted out from the other ads that make their way to the recycling bin unread.
However, someone commented to me about an article in Parade this week, so I fished it out and read the article. While not great journalism, it did provide a starting point for a bit of reflection. The article was about the health benefits of feeling awe or being awestruck. Based on a project of the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Interaction Lab in which researchers have discovered that shared awe strengthens relationships, the experience of awe soothes frayed emotions, people gain fresh perspectives, and happiness and joy increase.
Researchers documented a decrease in cytokines, a marker of inflation, in those who frequently experience awe.
I don’t mean to be condescending, but . . . duh. I don’t think it takes a Templeton grant an three years of study to state the obvious. I’ve known instinctively the positive effects of the experience of awe for most of my life.
Read Psalm 8. The power of awe has been noted in literature for thousands of years.
Sometimes, however, we have to re-discover things that the ancients understood better than our present generation. Because it is difficult to quantify and explain in mathematical terms, religious experience has been discounted by some scientific investigators. I don’t really mind the fact that the researchers in Berkeley are reluctant to describe their research in religious terms because I know what they are talking about whether or not they are comfortable with theological language.
We are made for relationship with God - with that which is beyond.
I had a few moments for recreation yesterday and, as is my custom, I was sitting in my kayak at the lake. I was listening the the geese who are noisily forming their flocks for migration, and looking at the colors of the shoreline. I grabbed my camera and took a few pictures. The source of my awe at the moment was the visual tricks being played by the reflection in the water. It was calm and the glassy surface of the water was producing a visual image of the trees and hills. Except the trees and hills are three dimensional. They have distance and height and depth. The image on the surface of the water was flat. In my kayak, I sit almost exactly at water level, with the boat only a couple of inches below the surface. From where I sat to the shore was completely flat, then the shoreline rose toward the hill beyond. What I saw, however, seemed different from the reality I knew existed. My eyes wanted to report that the boat was pointed uphill, not level and that the inverted images of trees in the water were somehow upside-down.
As I write this morning, I know that I am not able to describe the feeling. That is the thing about being awestruck. You have encountered that which is beyond words and though words are the tools of description that we have we know that there is more than we will be able to say.
As I went through the rest of the day, enjoying yet another gloriously warm and bright fall day in the hills and appreciating the brilliant colors and fresh smells, I kept remembering the feeling of sitting on the lake in the morning.
I have friends who are accomplished with mathematics and theoretical physics and other scientific pursuits and though they do not use religious language in describing their professional studies, there is a tone of voice I have heard when they describe some of their discoveries. Mathematicians are, from time to time, awed by the beauty and precision of complex formulas. Physicists are awed by the intricacies of the inner workings of the universe. I can hear it in their words as they speak. And I know that they, like me, are unable to find words to describe the experience of beauty they experience. They have encountered that which is beyond and experienced that which cannot be described.
There are many different ways to experience the in flowing of sensations that overwhelm and cause awe. Hikers achieve a particular vista and see a fresh perspective. Astronauts look back at the earth and see its wholeness. Whale watchers experience a sudden breach of the magnificent mammals and are impressed by their size, power and agility. Firefighters experience the raw power and life-like behavior of flames. Pilots watch a rainbow form above the clouds. Doctors marvel at the inner workings of the human body. Parents and grandparents are overwhelmed at the sight of a newborn baby.
The gift of awe is readily available for those who take time to ponder this world. Not every gift of awe, however, demands words. While we may try, with prose and poetry to say something significant, there is yet another response to awe that is very appropriate: silence.