A Call to Reverence

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature
is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar – I would
never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.

– Meister Eckhart
We are brothers of the boulders, cousins of the clouds.
– Harlow Shapley
Reverence automatically brings forth patience…and permits
non-judgmental justice…The reverent person cannot consider himself or herself
superior to another person or to any other form of life, because
the reverent person sees Divinity in all forms of life.

– Gary Zukav

Awakening to a new understanding of our spiritual identity as human beings means knowing we live in communion with the Divine and all that exists in our Universe.  It means going back, in a sense, to something our ancient ancestors seemed to know instinctively or intuitively to be true about ourselves: that “relatedness” is a condition of our existence. An awareness of the presence of all of creation lives deep within us, whether we are conscious of it or not.

The Benedictine author, Joan Chittister, has defined spirituality as “theology walking.”  Thanks to insights gained through science in recent decades, we now know more than ever before that we always walk with others. Therefore, our spirituality cannot be solely a personal issue.  I believe it is a family issue, it is an organizational issue, it is a national issue, it is an international issue, and it is a planetary issue.

Spirituality, then, is not a “path” that I can choose to take to get from independent me to an independent God.  God and I, and all other aspects of God’s creation, already are related.  The challenge is to live in the awareness of that interdependent relationship – and in so doing intentionally respond to the spiritual nature of our being – each moment of every day.  I think trying to ignore or cut ourselves off from our inherent relatedness is our sin.

Unfortunately, the realization of our interrelatedness is coming to us modern Westerners not only because we have seen our beautiful planet for the first time from space, but also from the knowledge that we are killing the community of life around us at an alarming rate.  I think of Jesus’ final prayer: “That they all may be one.” Perhaps Jesus prayed for this so earnestly because he knew it would be only through consciously honoring our oneness that we would survive as a human and Earth community.

Knowing intellectually that we are one, however, can be quite different from getting along with those we rub elbows with every day. I am reminded of one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons. In it one of the characters declares: “I love humankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”

IMG_0383Most of us do not have the luxury of going off to a solitary hermitage for life, nor would we want to choose to live that way.  Yet, the struggle of interacting with people each day can often feel overwhelming. Is there a positive way to think about people and relationships?  Do these relationships have any connection to our spiritual well-being?

Part of the answer to these questions came for me in a powerful way during an experience I had in my late twenties when I was an observer on a retreat for high school students in Denver.  The group of teens and adults had spent the weekend together in a very loving and supportive way. During the final liturgy, I listened to the reading aloud of the Scripture passage of the parable of the sower and the seed.  As the story goes, the sower scatters the seed without heeding where it lands. Some seeds land on the hardpacked path, and birds immediately come along and eat it all up.  Some of it lands in rocky ground, where there is little soil for the roots to take hold, so the plants grow up quickly and then die in the hot sun.  Other seeds fall among thorny bushes, where the larger plants choke off the new growth.  Finally, some seeds do fall on good soil, where the plants thrive and produce a great harvest.

Up to that day, my prior understanding of the meaning of this parable had been that the seed was the word of God planted in me, and that I might respond to that seed as barren ground or rich soil, with predictable results.  But, in that retreat moment, having spent a weekend within a community committed to growing in love, I now saw myself as the seed.  I realized that if I was going to grow well and bear fruit, I needed to take steps to keep myself in good soil.  That meant I needed to surround myself with people who would help to nourish and affirm me in my own growth process.  I saw that I needed people and places and relationships whose positive energy would feed me; where loving challenges would help to shape me. I saw that I also needed to do that for myself – to continually do the things that would help me grow into the human being that  ultimately would bear the fruit of my potential.

I knew then that I faced a challenge: How to make positive relationships something real in my life? In that moment I committed myself to walk among people who would help me grow.

But, that was not the end of the story. Another insight came to me one day as I sat on a bus making its way down State Street in downtown Chicago.  As I looked out the window at the passing traffic and tall buildings,CB034676 I thought to myself: “How did our world get into the mess it’s in? What have we lost that we need so desperately to get back if we are going to provide a future for coming generations?”

I did not really expect to get an answer to my silent question.  I just sat with it for a moment. Then, suddenly, from deep within the stillness of my mind there came an unexpected reply to my questions in the form of a single word: “Reverence.”

The word came as a total surprise to me.  Pondering it, I realized I wasn’t really even sure what it meant, or more precisely, what was being called for within the sense of the word.  Shortly thereafter, however, as these things sometimes go, I was in the library one afternoon using an encyclopedia to look up information I needed for a writing project.  As I paged through the book looking for the entry on my research topic, I stumbled on a photograph of Albert Schweitzer, of whom I knew very little, except that he had been a doctor and founded a hospital in Africa.  Something drew my eye, though, to the caption beneath his photograph, where I read that in the early part of the 20th Century, Schweitzer formulated his own philosophy, which he called “Reverence for Life.”  Seeing the word, “reverence,” I immediately recalled my own experience on the bus that day, and turned to read the full article.

As I read, I learned that Schweitzer had formulated his philosophy after an experience that took place late one afternoon on a small steamer moving slowly up a river in Africa. In his later telling of the story, Schweitzer described himself as standing at the rail of the steamer, looking out over the river as the boat passed a herd of hippopotamuses.  Drawn in by the beauty and tranquility of the scene, Schweitzer pondered a question that had puzzled him for years: “What is the most valid basis for ethics?”  As he stood there, a reply to his question emerged as “there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, “reverence for life.”  I closed the book, marveling at the coincidence of our experiences.  I thought, “Is this just Albert and me, or is there something more going on here?”

In the months that followed, as I moved into reading more articles and books on the relationship between spirituality and the ecological crisis, I discovered that many more people are coming to the same conclusion about the reclaiming of reverence in our human actions.

Who we are as human beings is a story of relationships.  How we are to be here with one another, it now seems to me, begins with recognizing and accepting this interdependent relationship.  It also means cultivating within ourselves an attitude of “reverence”; that is, a respect for the limitations and gifts that each living being, each plant, each rock – yes, even each mosquito – has to offer through its own unique miracle of existence.  Each and every one of us, no matter how humble or grand, is somehow held within the Divine Presence. Cultivating that reverence is an inner journey of growth, of which I will say much more in future posts.  For now, perhaps, you might move into your own moment of silence, and wait for what emerges.

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