Message 108, Touching the Spirit: Wonder and Awe, 10-7-12
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Twenty-two years ago, at the far edge of our solar system, the Voyager Two spacecraft took a picture of the earth. At about 4 billion miles away, it was the most distant vantage point ever for an image of our planet. Since that date, cameras on the craft are not sensitive enough to take more pictures of the earth. Today, the Voyager is over 11 billion miles into its endless journey begun in 1977. It currently sails through the heliosphere which is the transition zone between our solar system and interstellar space.
What is remarkable about that one picture is that the earth is just a barely visible smudge of light in a field of total darkness. And yet, we experience earth as much more. This place, this womb of our existence, our history and our future, is all that we have and yet it is so frightfully small.
Our source of light, sustenance and life, the sun, is itself merely a cipher among the other billions of stars. In the totality of the universe, our earth, our sun and our solar system are totally inconspicuous, miniscule and insignificant. They are nothing. The earth itself is but a speck, a dust mote, a grain of sand floating in an infinite vacuum.
While earth is relatively close to our sister planets, our distance from other worlds and other stars is so very, very great. The light we perceive from stars we see at night – most of it originated before the dinosaurs existed and, in some instances, before life itself began. The speed of light is nearly 700 million miles per hour and yet it has taken eons of time for the light from most stars to reach us. To travel to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, it will take the Voyager another 70,000 years, or 4.5 light years, to reach. To travel to the nearest galaxy of stars, Andromeda, it will take the Voyager 38 trillion calendar years or 2.5 million light years to reach. In the face of such immense distances, the Voyager has merely begun its journey as it travels at a relative snail’s pace – only 200,000 miles per hour.
As much as it is easy to get lost in the facts about the size of the universe, when we comprehend its vastness, we can only be humbled. We can only gape in awe at the wonder of something so huge and so diverse in its various parts. For our mortal minds, the size and dimensions of our universe might as well be infinite. It is so big, so vast, so limitless and so complex that it approaches the realm of the divine. Indeed, the universe itself might well be the god force many of us worship and hold in awe. We are so small within its vast size and yet we too are a part of its great wholeness.
And that, precisely, is the beginning of spirituality – to sense something bigger and greater than ourselves. To come face to face with a power, force or object immeasurably large and confront the reality of that, is to experience a sense of helplessness, smallness but most importantly wonder and awe. The human response is to observe such powers with mute reverence, sometimes accompanied by fear. Our inner spirits have been touched in a profound way. No longer are we fully rational beings when so confronted. We are in the presence of something beyond what we normally experience. In our minds and in our souls, we have touched the face of god and of eternity.
Sadly, world religions and their many followers have lost a sense of wonder and awe. As religions focus more on rules of behavior and doctrines of belief, humans have moved away from awestruck reverence for nature and the universe itself. Even further, many religions have reduced explanations for the universe and everything within it to one irreducible cause – god. In the face of great complexity and infinite possibility, many people have arrived at that one explanation, one truth, one ultimate force to explain everything.
But the reality of the universe, its size and its power ought to lead us to a different conclusion and thus to transcendent moments – times when we are removed from rational or fact based thinking. Our spirits ought to be touched and deeply moved. We are shaken by the mystery and unimaginable size and power of such a force. The universe and nature cannot be simply attributed to a theistic being. That is a profound realization and ought to bring us to our knees in awe at what we behold and what we do not understand.
Over the next few Sundays, I want to explore ways in which our spirits are touched, ways in which our we are moved not by our minds but by our hearts and by our souls. And first and foremost in recapturing a spiritual sensitivity that is removed from mere thought, is to find again a sense of wonder and awe – our subject for today.
Imagine how the ancients must of have looked out into the cosmos. In a world without electricity, nights would have been inky black. The ancients would have perceived a realm of frightening wonder – millions of stars in the sky, the dust cloud of the Milky Way clearly discernable and a sky so black and so three dimensional, one would have felt a sense of vertigo – lost in an abyss of starry darkness.
Their response was to stare in wonder, to revere and worship the forces that guided the sun, stars, planets and seasons of earth. Nature and the universe were fantastic realms that were worthy of their awe. Lacking the tools and knowledge to scientifically understand the cosmos, they relied on their spiritual selves – the part of the human soul that is touched by beauty, fear and amazement. Nature became sacred to the ancients. The pyramids, stonehenge and mythological gods and goddesses were ways for humanity to express their wonder and thus worship the great forces swirling all around. Religion and creation myths are direct outcomes of such wonder and awe. Sadly, religion has evolved to burden people with doctrine and rules, replacing the sense of amazement with ritual and blind faith. Indeed, such thinking is arrogant and eliminates any possibility to be in awe of god, the universe or nature.
For us, science might explain how these great forces operate and how the universe was created. But the delicate beauty of nature, the size of the cosmos, and the supernatural realms of human emotion, love and courage are all wonders to behold. In order to be spiritual people, we must refuse to allow our minds to take control of our spirits. We must remain in touch with and, in awe of, the great wonders of nature and the universe.
Albert Einstein, a man certainly not known for his religion, was nevertheless a deeply spiritual man. He once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. They to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, are as good as dead: their eyes are closed.”
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word awe derives from an ancient norse word meaning fear and dread toward a divine force or being. As english evolved, “awe” also came to mean having reverential respect for a thing or power. Indeed, most philosophers on the subject of wonder and awe believe such feelings derive from a primordial core within us – that emotional center which perceives amazement and fear. Something instinctual within us is provoked by powers of greatness which theoretically threaten our very existence. We are in awe of the power, complexity and size of the universe compared with our smallness and insignificance. We are in awe of natural forces like tidal waves, earthquakes, lightning and storms
because they are beyond our control and can overwhelm us in their destructive potential. We stand in awe at the forces of creation which bring life into the world – natural phenomenon like conception, birth and evolution. Without them, we would not exist. And, we are in awe of forces like human love, compassion and courage – forces which overwhelm even our own rational thinking and exert nearly supernatural strength, for good and bad, in us and through us.
Abraham Maslow, the great psychologist, wrote that human awe involves two distinct responses. The first is to sense something as vast and greater than the self. The second is to sense disorientation and an inability to mentally assimilate things or forces of immense size and power. These feelings of greatness and disorientation are triggered by several things, Maslow wrote. Forces of power, beauty, threat or ability often overwhelm our minds and sense of self. Our response is wonder, awe and often fear. Such sensations are not thought based but, as I noted earlier, core or spirit based.
And such responses are importantly different from sensing something is merely noteworthy or beautiful. Indeed, admiration of something is not to be confused with being in awe. To stand in wonder of something is to note its innate power to control us and ultimately destroy us. Such is a transformative emotion which can also include feelings of great emotion like courage, love or compassion. As we all know, such innate powers can indeed bring us to our knees in submission to their force.
In the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, the hero Arjuna must fight a cosmic battle of good against evil. He loses courage before the fight but the god Krishna gives him the desired third eye so that he can see as the divine sees – the totality of all truth, all existence and the great realms of the universe. Arjuna then experiences what can only be called a psychotic episode of seeing things beyond human comprehension – sights similar to what science sometimes offers us – views of worlds and stars eons away, microscopic visions of creation, life and conception, visions of natural forces and their cause. Arjuna declares, “Things never before seen, I have seen. Ecstatic is my joy and yet fear and trembling perturb my mind.” Such is an apt description of experiencing wonder and awe. It is spiritually transformative. It is an escape from this world and our experiential reality. Like the ancients, we gaze into the eye of eternity – into the depths of immense power – and we are lost in sheer terror and amazement.
The Jewish and Christian scriptures also describe awe and wonder experiences. The disciples are in awe and in fear of Jesus’ ability to command a great storm to be still. The women who discover Jesus’ empty tomb are described as being filled with fear and trembling. Those who worshipped the deceased Jesus were amazed as they were seemingly supernaturally filled with the Holy Spirit – a force enabling them to live according the ethics of their hero. One of the characters from Genesis, Jacob, was in awe of his vision of creatures ascending and descending a ladder reaching into the heavens. He was seeing the powers of birth and death all at once and he determined to consecrate the place as holy ground. When Jesus taught that “unless you people see signs and wonders…you will not believe”, he was echoing a spiritual truth. To find our meaning and our place in the great realm of creation, we must humble ourselves, our minds and our beliefs. While we might literally see signs and wonders, we must understand them with the third eye. We must perceive the mysterious greatness of things and forces. We must lose our own sense of superiority, arrogance and confidence in science, religion and knowledge. We must believe in the fantastic wonder of the universe in which we live and its many powers that can overwhelm us.
In our nothingness, we find that we are, instead, something. We too are a part of the fabric of existence – beautiful creatures that are awesomely made, creatures capable of great deeds and great perceptions. To ponder how our brains work, ones comprised of millions of separate neurons capable of thought, emotion, memory and intuition, we are in awe. When we consider the wonder of how we came to be, products of eons of ancestry, of the miraculous union of egg and sperm, of awesome complexity and function, how can we not be inspired? As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I stand in awe of my body.”
We need not fall into the trap of seeking easy answers or explanations for our existence. We exist simply because the universe also exists and we are a part of its vast, complex and diverse realm – at one with the stars, galaxies, atoms, cells and billions of other life forms. Nothing exists apart from the other and each has its place, its function and its meaning within the vast totality of all that is. From space dust we have come and to space dust we will return – one day, perhaps billions of years from now, to drift like the Voyager spacecraft past wonders and beautiful creations we can only dream.
Let us yearn to find the wonder and awe to which we were created to have. Let us seek the kind of naked spirituality that is free from knowledge, arrogance, and dogmatic religious belief. May we stand in some great field, alone and at night, peering into the mysteries of life at our feet – as earth, insects and the grass all exist in a world unto themselves. May we then consider the wonder of us – our hands, our minds, our amazing physical selves and then, might we stare into the inky dark and swim with misty stars swirling above and around us? To touch our spirits, to sense with fear and humble respect the glory of all existence, may we find the wonder and awe in our souls and, only then, touch the face of the divine.