We launched a new series called Awe. We want to look at the obvious things about God—authority, creativity, complexity, mystery, etcetera—and how they provoke a sense of reverential fear and worship. I also mentioned how children’s books are great reading for adults, especially the older classics that weren’t dumbed down, preachy, or coolly relevant for the consumer-conscious Frankenstein-kids we’ve created. Don’t get me started.
In his beautiful The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame gives one of the most striking spiritual expressions of awe. It is the feeling of “otherness”, of the intersection of fear and beauty. It is so overwhelmingly attractive and yet otherworldly that they can’t do anything…but worship. They are awestruck and, like Daniel in the Old Testament, all strength leaves their bodies and turns their “muscles to water.”
Grahame tells the story of Mole and Rat launching off in a boat in the middle of night to look for Otter’s lost child, Portly. Rat hears the faint pipe music of Pan, who is the god and good shepherd of the animals. For a while, Mole cannot hear the music…only the sound of the wind through the reeds. They find Portly sleeping blissfully in Pan’s care. Grahame writes:
“Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror -- indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy -- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper. . .”
“. . . All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
‘Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?'
‘Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet -- and yet -- O, Mole, I am afraid!'
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.”
That’s a great picture of awe. In this world, ever so often, the wind of the Spirit carries the faint music from another Place and we briefly encounter the Numinous. It leaves us unsatisfied with this world; there must be more. It draws us and yet frightens us. It is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. We sense The Holy.
I wonder how many of us sophisticated, theology-screwed-on-straight believers have really experienced the awe of God?