Reverence is a hard notion to define. Yet whether it appears in a church service, a monastic community, or on the street, we know it when we see it, and we miss it when we don’t.
Attitudes of submission, respect, awe, wonder. These are basic qualities of the emotion we know as “reverence.” Humble deference and veneration also have a part in reverence, as do tenderness and love. Reverence is such a complex emotion that it’s almost impossible to describe. It has no synonyms. It can be neither taught nor imposed. Yet it can be experienced by virtually all those who take the time and make the space in their lives to open themselves to it.
It’s a curious fact that the original biblical languages have no specific word for “reverence” (it appears nowhere in the indexes of the Philokalia or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers either). The closest scriptural usage is perhaps the Greek term evlabeia, “fear of God,” found only in Hebrews 5:7, where it refers to Jesus, and 12:28 where it qualifies the “acceptable worship” we offer to God. It is closely related to terms for “piety” or “Godly faith” (evsebeia) and “fear” in the divine presence (deos, phobos). None of these expressions, though, comes close to conveying the essence of “reverence”: an awe-filled wonder, mixed with both desire and devotion. “In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near!” This is the Liturgy’s strongest summons to assume, before the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, an attitude of genuine Reverence.
If “church” seems empty and pointless to so many people, it is due in large part to the absence in our worship of this emotion, this attitude of reverence in the presence of the living God. To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the beauty and spiritual richness of icons and liturgical music are enough to inspire this attitude, this openness in awe and love before the divine majesty and glory. To the rest of us – burdened as we are by “all earthly cares” and numbed by hyper-stimulation from TV, iPods and chat rooms – it is difficult and often impossible to allow ourselves to be touched or moved by truth and beauty.
We arrive at a Sunday morning service tired, distracted and itching to move on to something else, something more enjoyable, such as the afternoon’s football game or an outing with the family. We may make time for attending the service because we feel we should, because it’s a family tradition or “good for the kids.” But we make precious little time to step back, go into silence, and stand with fear, faith and love before the One who brings us into being, sustains our existence, and loves us beyond all imagination.
Memory helps a great deal in the process of recovering a sense of reverence. We look back on the vesperal service of Holy Friday and see in our mind’s eye the community of faithful, gathered about the shroud of the crucified Lord. We hear the heart-breaking, lovely words and melody of “The Noble Joseph,” and share in the Virgin’s lamentations. Then the awe, mingled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, returns. We feel it in the pit of our stomach and in the tightness of our throat. If we allow ourselves, we feel it too in the joyful sadness that comes forth as tears. Reverence in this moment is a gift.
An attitude of reverence is the surest sign of authentic monastic life. In many monasteries there is a level of noise and confusion that undermines the life of everyone in the community. It can all be justified: guests arrive, a building needs to be repaired, the car won’t start, or the phone rings off the hook. Everybody is busy, and each one is occupied with something important. Yet no one has the time to acquire inner stillness, to weep over their sins, to rejoice in creation’s beauty, or – except when it’s scheduled as a community function – to pray.
When I visit monasteries like this, with my own distractions and lack of spiritual discipline, it helps to remember other times and places where monastics knew and respected their priorities. A small Catholic contemplative community in southern France, for example, or an Orthodox women’s monastery on the island of Crete. You enter the dimly lit chapel, whose ancient stone walls are permeated with centuries of prayer. The stillness is palpable, to the point that the only sound is of your own breathing. Then, as your eyes adjust to the low light coming through small, stained glass windows, you notice other people in there with you, kneeling, sitting or standing in quiet reverence, praying in silence.
Unknown faces, yet like you, members of the one Body of Christ. And you are drawn into their prayer, into their stillness before the God who, as St Ignatius declared, speaks His Word out of silence.
Reverence is evoked, called up within us, also by heroic, self-giving acts of witness rendered in the face of persecution, or charity offered to the neglected and forgotten souls in our own and other societies. Many of these actions are associated with groups within the Church we know mainly as acronyms: IOCC, for example, or OCMC. But many are performed, too, by simple yet saintly individuals who live out their faith through works of love. All of us have had experience with people like this, and they inevitably inspire a sense of reverence, for themselves and their selfless devotion, and for the God they so faithfully serve.
Within the Church and in our particular parishes there are multitudes of tasks that need to be accomplished, from building projects, to choir rehearsals, to feeding the hungry both spiritually and physically. Then again, in today’s climate it’s easy for us to become preoccupied with crises, scandals, abuses, unfulfilled missions and general neglect. These many concerns, both positive and negative, will not be adequately met, however, until and unless we recover a deep and genuine sense of reverence. That is, until we allow our spiritual longing, our desire for God, to fill and guide each of our thoughts and actions. Until we can come into His presence, in the parish community or in the solitude of our own room, with a child’s sense of awe and wonder, to stand before something that touches us so deeply and so powerfully that it calls forth fear, trembling, and tears of joy.