The Awe in Nature

It had been one of those nights. Tragic events–shootings, ecological crises, demagoguery, and other suffering–had infiltrated my sleep. I rose earlier than usual. Too early. I curled up on the couch with a book. After a few hours, I noticed a pinkish glow peeking through my living room window blinds. I opened them. And to my astonishment, before me spread a rosy pastel glow. I couldn’t see the sun which was hidden behind houses and trees. But I didn’t need to. I could see the effect of the sun rising. 

My breath caught in my throat. I was stopped in my tracks. Captivated. As Jacob Trapp says, “worship . . . is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.” And I was worshipping. I was drawn into reverie. And wonder. I realized that awesome things are happening all around me all the time. Some of them are escaping my notice while I sleep or work or get distracted by any number of activities. 

What a gift to have such beauty brought to my awareness. What a gift to be awestruck by nature. To be awakened to the day. To awaken to life. To feel renewed by a simple, yet profound, “window of the moment.” That glorious moment “open to the sky of the eternal” transformed my spirit. 

Experiences of awe in nature do that. They lift us out of hopelessness, despair, and exhaustion. They reignite us when we fail to live up to our ethical values. They inspire us and give us the courage to move forward. They re-instill in us the courage to recommit ourselves to act in love. They open us to hope and to move beyond prejudice and fear. According to writer Dawna Markova, 

Wonder is how we open ‘the hand of thought.’ It can lift our minds out of the mud of rational resignation and open them into wild relational cartwheels of insight. Wonder is the place where prejudices fall away and our capacity to notice life increases.

Wonder opens our minds to wild relational cartwheels of insight and curiosity. Thoughts and questions arise in us. I’m not talking about the kinds of thoughts and questions governed by rationality and being left-brained. I’m talking about experiences of awe that increase the capacity to notice life. 

These experiences cause us to meditate on our place in the world and our connection to each other. These experiences lead us to be curious about how we got here, about how life began, about why we are here at all. And experiences of awe in nature infuse everyday life with that same intensity, leading us to wonder how best to live our lives, how to be kinder, how to care for one another, how to be faithful to what we believe.

Children have these experiences of awe in nature spontaneously and frequently. With enthusiasm, they notice the salamander or a constellation and cry out, “Look! Look!” And ask, “Why? Why? Why?” Each noticing and each expression of curiosity produces more mystery and awe and curiosity. And that’s the point! Awe is a replicating experience. It is also a sustaining one that moves us beyond one-time pleasure to the commitment to stay awake. Unitarian Universalist minister Victoria Safford writes that:

Our calling is … to transform wonder into something that endures even after the moment of wonderment passes. The calling is to transform awe into some kind of commitment, some kind of promise to stay awake and keep alive the change that took place in you, the emotion that took hold of you, the question that astounded you when you saw the star, or the flash of a cardinal’s wing, or whatever it was that amazed you.

Our calling is to keep that fire alive in ourselves and each other. Our calling is to keep alive the change that wonder creates in us. This is what it means to live a life struck full with awe. It means keeping that fire ablaze and living with and from that deep amazement. 

For Unitarian Universalists, the role of nature is articulated in our seventh principle and our first source. The seventh principle affirms and promotes our respect for the interdependence of all existence. The first source encourages us to experience wonder and awe firsthand. The first source teaches us to draw from “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Nature is one of the primary places where UUs have that direct experience of awe.

Too often society and religion devalue nature. Sometimes the earth is considered merely a place humans are passing through on the way to somewhere better. The physical world is seen as separate from the spiritual, and humans valued more highly than other beings. The devaluation of nature gets extended to humans. Humans who are perceived as closer to nature, those people who are labeled “primitive,” are also devalued. This includes immigrants and indigenous peoples and people of color, among others. Mastery and control of the earth and other people take precedence. Greed and personal gain prevail. The earth becomes yet another commodity for human consumption. And humans do too.

This viewpoint is a crisis of the spirit. It is a spiritual failure. To heal the earth, we must heal the human spirit. What better way to heal than a return to earthly roots–to experiences of awe in nature. What better way to be restored to a place of reverence, as the creative force and lifeblood of our existence. Consider for a moment the origins of the word “nature.” Derived from the Latin word natura, it means “essential qualities, innate disposition.” “Nature” also comes from “natus,” the past participle of “nasci,” to be born. Nature means to be born. And we are born of nature, of the cosmos. Morty Breier, in Tikkun Magazine, describes that birth this way:

Made of the stuff of probability waves, starlight, planetary cycling, mighty mountains, continents, and oceans of our silver blue sphere, genetic journeys, language, learning, and loving, we each were birthed by this glorious universe that continues to show us its awesome majesty with each year cycling, each day dawning, each breath repeated, and each moment unfolding. We can only be joyous with the realization that so much of this awesome majesty is reflected in human consciousness. It is precisely this fact that enables us to call ourselves Sparks of God. 

Tikkun, “Meditations on Our Deep Roots,” Morty Breier, Sept/Oct 1998

This way of seeing the universe giving birth to all existed for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years. It existed before religious texts, before large political units, and before civilization. And it’s arguably more powerful than either creeds or books. (Our Chosen Faith). In the words of a Chinese proverb, “Return to the source, and you find the meaning.” 

Religion holds the potential to foster a spiritual return to these deepest roots. Religion can do this by “[consecrating] our participation in the natural world.” This means associating the natural world with the sacred by seeing earth as connected to–not separate from–God, Buddha, Gaia. What we know as God must be recognized as inseparable from Nature. (from Earth Prayers)

This recognition would represent a dramatic theological shift in our society. It seems obvious that it would lead to a higher value being placed on not merely admiring the earth, but protecting it. It would also bring us into a holistic perspective. It would celebrate experiences of awe in nature and emphasize the oneness and interdependence of all existence. 

Honoring this interdependence would invite us into deeper relationships with each other, across state lines and national borders, across cultures and races, into deeper relationships across differences of gender, gender identity, and sexuality. It would also call us to deeper kinship with microorganisms and creatures of the sea and land.

In this worldview, the material, physical world would be integral to spirituality, not separate from it. Nature would itself become a primary source of our ongoing revelation of the divine. As Henry David Thoreau once proclaimed, “My profession is always to be alert, to find God in nature, to know God’s lurking places, to attend to all the oratorios and the operas in nature.” Transcendent wonder and awe would be accessed through personal experiences of the natural world. Nature would be widely recognized as a primary religious source. Nature would be revered not defiled. Just imagine what this would mean to human life and life on this planet. It would be an amazing gift, according to Nan Merrill. She says:

To spend time in Nature’s tapestry of Life is like opening an amazing gift: an instruction book of Love and Life…. Here we can see how we participate in the seasons of our lives, the interplay and interconnectedness of all things that sustain our lives, the beauty and wisdom of unity in diversity, and the intricate patterns of every variety of flora and fauna. 

Celebrating, honoring, and learning from this Divine Gift is in a very real sense to reverence our own lives and the life of the planet, which depend on Nature’s abundant bounty.

“Nature,” Nan Merrill, April 2008

May our experiences of awe in nature be abundant and healing. May they renew our spirits. May they delight us. And may they embolden us and call us to advocate for justice for all the earth and all her creatures.

This month, as we consider what it means to be a people of awe, may we “look under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or a grain of sand” and be amazed. May that experience be worshipful, for to worship is to give worth, to be in awe. To worship is to experience ”the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond. . . . It is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.” (Jacob Trapp, #441, “To Worship,” Singing the Living Tradition hymnal). 

May we come upon the window of the moment with humility and gratitude. May we experience awe in nature and be struck by the glory of the Spirit of Life. May these experiences inspire us to preach a gospel of relationship and interconnection. May awe in nature transform us and be transformed into a robust kinship of all. 

May it be so. Amen.

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