I am seven or eight years old and I am standing on the edge of Bryce Canyon in Utah. It is mid-morning, and the colors of that ancient limestone wonder overwhelm my young senses with their blaze of pink and orange. The beauty and the majesty of this place is overwhelming. I feel both small and part of something larger than and older, so much older, than me.
In that moment, I feel awe.
I am a little older, maybe 9 or 10, and I am visiting the ruins of Mesa Verde, an ancient Native People’s pueblo. I climb the worn steps that a vanished people carved, and looked out over a valley where once they gazed. Where they lived and worked and raised families and died.
I feel in that moment a great sense of respect for the ones who came before me.
I am a little older, maybe 11, and my family is camping in a national forest in Washington State. We are fishing with my father in a small stream, and we are pulling out dozens of shimmering little fish, more fish than I had ever seen in one place before. I am excited, I am proud of myself. That is, until a ranger comes and tells my dad that we have broken the law. More than that, we have killed baby salmon who had just been spawned, who were protected.
In that moment, and even as my parents clean and cook the fish we now must eat, I feel shame, shame that I have destroyed life when it should have been left alone.
In Bryce Canyon, I felt awe.
In Mesa Verde, I felt respect.
In Washington State, by a small stream, I felt shame.
Awe, respect, shame. Even as a child, though I did not have a name for it, I had already experienced reverence. At least, by the definition of Paul Woodruff, a philosopher whose small book on Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, was the book selected by one of my fellow ministers to be shared with her North Georgia colleagues in our first attempt to choose a text and discuss it together. Who knew that one simple word could cause so much controversy. Reverence.
But it did, as we ministers struggled with it over a morning, and as Unitarian Universalists have been tussling over it this past year. Ever since our denominational president William Sinkford told a reporter in Texas that he wanted to bring back a language of reverence to Unitarian Universalism. He might as well, it seemed to many, damned us to hell.
It is not hard to understand why his word makes many of us nervous, worried, even suspicious, of what is happening in this free-thinking, no-creedal liberal religious tradition. It is one of those words, like sin and salvation, that trips us up, reminds some of us of our religious pasts — and not in a positive way.
Because for many among us, reverence, which means deep respect or devotion, has been programmed and or proscribed. It has meant being told when and what to feel, it has meant being hushed and scolded in “sacred” times and places.
Reverence is given to men with collars who we call “reverends,” or to old churches with massive sanctuaries, or only to a God who is exclusively white and male and keeping track of when we go astray. It’s empty rituals and enforced behavior.
Reverence is for prigs, one friendly critic told the author. It almost ruined his life when he was a child, with grown-ups trying to throw a blanket over his mind.
Not so, says Mr. Woodruff in his book on reverence. Reverence, in his understanding, is the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have. It is a virtue, he claims, like courage or humility. And essential to becoming a fully developed human being. To our spiritual wholeness.
Why write about reverence? the author asks. Because, he says simply, we have forgotten what it means. Because he believes it fosters leadership and education when we come to expect and ask for balanced and respectful leaders. Because he believes it kindles warmth in friendship and family life because we appreciate the sacredness of these bonds.
Because, he believes, without reverence, things fall apart.
For example, when trees become merely cash and sawdust.
He describes a town where the great trees in the hills behind it are awe-inspiring, like the trees that surround this town and cover — or at least once covered — these foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. To the people in the town, who have few ways of earning a living, and the timber company that owns much of the land, the trees are jobs and money, and economic growth, even survival.
The tiny group of environmentalists who want to preserve the trees, seeing the numerous and well-kept churches in the town, decide to appeal to the Bible. Citing a passage from Genesis, they point out that God put us here “to till the garden and keep it,” but that is not the biblical understanding of most of the people — to put it mildly.
To most of the townspeople, on the contrary, Christian scripture is unambiguous, citing another passage in Genesis, which they read as saying we are appointed to have dominion over, to make use of the things of, the earth, not to preserve them — especially not just for the sake of the trees themselves.
So, as it often turns out, there is scriptural authority on both sides, and they make their own choice. Which would mean choosing survival and profit over saving the forest.
And when the environmentalists give up on the biblical debate and point out preserving species of trees and animals and plants, the townspeople respond that there is nothing unique in their hills, and besides that, why worry about species. Scientists will find a way of preserving the DNA of the lost species, at some point in the future, but we do not have to keep things alive in order to preserve their DNA.
The environmentalists realize in the end that they have no good argument for preserving those particular trees in that particular community. Neither the biblical nor the ecological arguments could persuade the townspeople.
Because it was, in this case, a matter of reverence, whether differences on what reverence is, or a lack of reverence completely.
Not something you can read in any book, not even a book of scripture, or present in scientific argument. For the environmentalists — for many of us — when we see trees on a hillside we know, and more than just know, we appreciate, that the great ones have been alive for centuries perhaps. They have been homes to many creatures and have a life and dignity far beyond any scientific or economic understanding.
We feel a sense of awe at the majesty, respect for their role in our delicate ecology, and I know I would feel shame — wrenching shame — for the loss of the trees, should profit and short-term human self-preservation win out. Not the shame in the sense of being shamed, but shame in the sense of violating our own deeply-held values or virtues.
It is the whole of our reverence, our awe and respect and sense of shame, that make us care so deeply about the forests that are being chopped down every day of the week, red clay bleeding. That is what I think Bill Sinkford is saying when he invites us to reconsider the significance of reverence. That whether it is an earth ravaged in the name of holy dominion or war waged over and over in the name of a personal God or genocide committed out of tribal identity — it is reverence that is losing out, or missing completely.
And if we are to survive, it is both the language of, and practice of, reverence that must be restored and cultivated.
Taught to our children, spoken of, practiced, and re-learned over our lifetimes.
What does it mean to teach reverence? What are some of the simple ways to bring out the best in our children and ourselves?
Some of our Unitarian Universalist religious educators have been using a family virtues guide by Linda Kavelin Popov to do just that, to empower people to remember who they are — and to live by their highest values. Among the virtues are assertiveness, compassion, enthusiasm, and forgiveness.
When presenting reverence as a virtue, it is described in traditional language as behaving with an awareness that you are always in the presence of the Creator — what some of us would feel more comfortable calling all of humanity and the natural world — and that all life is precious.
Reverence, children are told, can be experienced in moments of prayer or reflection.
It is showing respect. It is being careful to honor the gifts of life, including other people. Whether in a place of worship or spending time in a place of beauty, reverence is being still and allowing the wonder we feel to shine through.
Why practice reverence?
Reverence is a quality of the spirit. It allows us to feel, what the author calls, the presence of the creator, what I call, the web of existence of which we are all a part. It turns the ordinary into the special, and if we had no reverence, we would treat living things carelessly. If we are too rushed or impatient, unable to become still or listen to our hearts, we miss one of the most special parts of our lives.
How do we teach children to practice reverence? How do we adults learn as well? We all need times of reflection. Reverence is choosing not to think of anything else. Concentrating on the sacredness of a place or a moment. Listening to our hearts.
Reverence is an attitude of deep respect for living things.
How do we know we are succeeding? This guide to family virtues suggests that we know we are practicing reverence when we have an attitude of deep respect for all living things. We know we need more work when we act as if nothing is special or sacred.
We know we are practicing reverence when we have regular times of reflection or prayer.
We know we need more work if we avoid reflection and stay too busy to practice inner stillness.
We know we are practicing reverence when we act as if life is sacred and we are all that matters. We need more practice if we act as if other people don’t matter. That all that matters is what we need or want.
We are practicing reverence when we spend time in the beauty of nature and do our part to care for the Earth.
And when we forget, when we fail to use the language of reverence to care responsibly for the Earth and its gifts, we are not practicing reverence.
Chief Seattle has told us what the voice of his grandmother told him —
Teach your children what you have been taught.
The Earth is our mother.
What befalls the Earth befalls all the sons and daughters of the Earth.
Speak in reverence,
teach in reverence,
act in reverence.