There's an important element of the gospel narratives that we all too easily overlook. It is the reaction on the part of people who hear Jesus' teachings and witness the extraordinary signs or miracles He performs. In a word, that reaction is one of awe. It is a response of wonder, tinged with fear, in the face of what has been called the mysterium tremendum, the unfathomable mystery of divine presence and power.
In Christian experience, the wonder remains, but the fear is transformed into a profound reverence. When Christ heals people, the gospels tell us, bystanders react with "amazement." They are "astonished," sometimes even "overwhelmed," by what they see and hear. When the experience is powerful enough to plunge them into silence, it provokes feelings of awe. Like Moses, they take off the shoes of their soul, for they find themselves on hallowed ground.
This, in any case, is how it should be. In today's reality, awe has been reduced to "awesome!," a reaction that's just a notch above "cool!" We have so domesticated God that we no longer feel awe in His presence, we are no longer shaken to the bones by His overwhelming power and glory. Yet any God who is devoid of the capacity to evoke awe is no God at all. It is an idol of our own making, a pitiful caricature of all that is genuinely holy.
Awe is the missing ingredient in American religion, including Christianity. It is the absence of awe that has transformed traditional faith and worship into "American popular religion," with its feel-good therapy services offered up to a Big Buddy in the sky. For those who are looking for something else, something more, the question is: How do we recover an authentic experience of awe in the presence of the true God of infinite might and majesty?
Often, it seems, we look for such an experience in the wrong place. We look in earthquake, wind, and fire, rather than in "the still small voice." To feel the deepest sense of awe, in fact, requires silence.
I entered through a heavy wooden door toward the rear and came into an atmosphere of nearly total silence. Several people were sitting here and there, praying or just being. A few tourists walked quietly outside the huge pillars on either side of the nave. Those massive columns, topped by intricately carved capitals, rose to meet the vaulted ceiling: earth rising to heaven, heaven descending to earth.
In that stillness, I could hear my heart beat. The great stone walls, permeated with centuries of prayer, shut out the noise and confusion of the world outside. For a long while, I sat on one of the hundreds of straight-backed wicker chairs facing the main altar. Candles of every size and shape burned before statues and shrines throughout the church, their flames barely able to hold back the shadows.
Then suddenly, the setting sun poured its rays through the stained-glass windows to my right. The columns, then the entire edifice, became suffused with brilliant, golden light: the Joyful Light of the Holy Glory we celebrate each evening at Vespers. The scene was one of transfiguration. All of us there, like Motovilov with St. Seraphim in the Russian wilderness, were bathed in that light, transfigured by it, yet unaware that we ourselves reflected the beauty and splendor of that moment.
In that radiant stillness, God was present. He is present everywhere, of course, no matter what the circumstances or receptivity on our part. But for a brief while, I was aware of His presence to the point of awe.
Thinking back on that experience, I feel a certain sadness, a tightness in my throat and chest. Awe is a gift. And more often than not, it's missing in my life.
But, for a few moments, it had returned. It was fleeting, but it was real. It appeared in the silence and beauty of that church to restore something precious I had lost. It confirmed once again what I have so often wanted confirmed: God is the Lord, and He appears to us, in our humility and fragileness, as the source of infinite power and grace to fill us with His own love and glory.
Through the gift of awe, God reveals Himself as He truly is. He reveals Himself as God.