Rediscovering Awe

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The other day I was flipping through books in a bookstore, and I came across an essay by an American author who had stumbled across a secluded Buddhist monastery while traveling through Asia. The writer, who was not religious, eloquently expressed the sense of reverence and awe that filled him upon witnessing one of the monks' blessing rituals. The scene he encountered struck him as being so beautiful, the words filled with such wisdom, that the man was filled with the awareness that he was beholding something special.

It reminded me of the way my friends and I used to view some foreign belief systems when I was younger. Even though I was an atheist, I had a kind of respect for certain Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. If I had ended up in a remote candlelit monastery with Buddhist monks back then, I'm sure I too would have been astonished by it all. In fact, once I thought about it, I realized that I probably would have been even more amazed in such a situation back then than I am with my own Christian faith on any given day right now.

This remained in my mind as Advent approached and I found myself surrounded by Christmas music and Christmas trees and colorful Christmas lights on all the neighborhood houses. I was surrounded by reminders of the birth of Christ, the coming of the Messiah who saved the world...and yet I approached it with only a fraction of the awe of the agnostic writer who visited a Buddhist temple. How could this be? I wondered as I went through my days, too often thinking of Christmas as the cause of a long to-do list that I needed to work through. Why is it that that author could conjure up more amazement for what he saw among the monks in Asia? Why on earth would I myself have felt more astonishment at something like that back when I was an atheist than I do when considering the birth of Christ now that I actually believe that he is God incarnate?

I think the problem is this: When you've only ever encountered a spiritual ritual as practiced by a devout few, it's easy to stand in awe; you're seeing it in its purest form. When you've never seen it as lived by the masses, been exposed to all the bad things that come with human frailty, it's easy to imagine that this faith contains a power strong enough to trump even human free will, that all who practice it automatically become devout and possessed by unearthly wisdom. When you yourself have only participated in the ritual once or twice, you haven't had a chance to get bored.

If that author had stayed near that temple for the rest of his life, and participated in the rituals once a week, my guess is that his awe would fade. He'd find that the monks are normal humans, that they have their good qualities, but can also be plenty annoying too. The rituals would become less exotic and more routine. He might catch himself looking at his watch half way through the hundredth incense-filled ceremony, wondering if this Sanskrit chant would go on forever.

What he sensed when he first arrived -- that there are real powers outside of the material world, and that these monks sought to get in touch with them -- would become buried under the blasé attitude that we all too easily adopt when we're surrounded by the familiar. He'd lose that gut reaction of reverence he'd felt the first time he encountered this faith, that untainted appreciation of the new you feel when you haven't had the opportunity to become cynical.

And so it is with us. I've written before about my first Christmas after my conversion, how I would pause in awe upon hearing lyrics to age-old Christmas tunes, how it felt like I was a child who had discovered Narnia. So how do you get that back?

It's probably impossible to replicate perfectly the experience of encountering something for the first time, but sometimes you're given an opportunity to see the Faith through fresh eyes, to look at truths you already know and have them penetrate your soul like they did when you first heard them. For me, that happened when I read Pope Benedict's new book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.

Like the Holy Father's other books in this series, each page, each paragraph is packed with insights about a specific time in the life of Christ. To give just one example, here is Pope Benedict unpacking what we can learn from comparing the way the birth of John the Baptist was announced to Zechariah to the way the birth of Christ was announced to Mary:

Zechariah, father of the Baptist, is a priest and he receives the message in the Temple, during its liturgy. Mary's lineage is not mentioned. The angel Gabriel is sent to her by God. He enters her house in Nazareth -- a town unknown to the sacred Scriptures, a house that we must surely picture to ourselves as very humble and very simple. The contrast between the two scenes could not be greater: priest -- Temple -- liturgy on the one hand, an unknown young woman -- an unknown small town -- an unknown private dwelling on the other. The sign of the new Covenant is humility, hiddenness -- the sign of the mustard-seed. The Son of God comes in lowliness. Both these elements belong together: the profound continuity in the history of God's action and the radical newness of the hidden mustard-seed.

All throughout the book are examples like this one: Insights about individual events we may have heard before, yet woven together to form profound truths that we might not have considered, that awaken the soul to see the story of the birth of Christ anew.

Immersing myself in this book has been a chance to let go of the defensiveness and cynicism and distractedness and ungratefulness that is ultimately at the root of my nonchalant feelings toward the Christmas story. Reading of the birth of the Savior on cold nights, the house dark except for the wan light of my bedside lamp, silent except for the swish of the turning of pages, the Holy Father's words rescue me from my bog of frantic thoughts about Christmas lists and unopened boxes of decorations (and the maddening fact that I still have no idea where our nice Advent wreath is). Like that writer stumbling upon the hidden temple in Asia, I am able to behold what is in front of me without my lens being smudged by the cares of everyday life. And for the first time in a few years, I'm finally rediscovering that sense of awe that we should have whenever we contemplate the greatest story ever told.