Awe and terror

I was reading recently a history of how people in different times and places have interacted and reacted to space, which may sound rather abstract but is actually quite fascinating. Throughout history, people have generally seemed to find a similar awe and amazement in different spaces. The magnificence of Chartres Cathedral has been experienced by people for 800 years without much reservation, but there are some notable exceptions. One of the most interesting examples of people responding very differently in a time and place was the response of people during the 18th century to the Alps. There was, apparently, no awe or astonishment at the beauty of the Matterhorn; instead people found the Alps rather terrifying, and the practice if one was forced to undergo the trial of crossing the Alps was to travel in a closed carriage so that one would not have to experience the terror of the Alps.

Which I would find incomprehensible except that I think those two emotions, awe and terror are not too far removed from each other, and perhaps go very much hand in hand.

Awe is one of the glories of human emotion – to feel astonished and overwhelmed by wonder at a glorious sunset over the ocean, or the space of a cathedral, or the silence of an old growth forest.

Beyond the awe that we feel at the natural world is the awe that we feel when we encounter the transcendent, indeed sometimes it is the glory of nature that leads us to that encounter with God. Encountering the mystery of the Divine is always awe inspiring, often unexpected, and it is not unusual to have a feeling of unworthiness, of smallness, even of terror in the face of the God who is wholly powerful and other. Like the Alps, we may encounter the majesty of God with terror, with a wish to withdraw and block out the vastness and majesty of that sight.

We have that sense of awe and of unworthiness expressed both in the reading from Isaiah and in the Gospel this morning. The prophet has a vision of the Lord glorious and enthroned and it is the kind of experience that leaves him blind and groping, deeply aware of his own unworthiness in the face of the heavenly court crying “Holy,” shaking the hinges of the Temple with their voices. “Woe is me!” he says, “for I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Simon Peter has a similar experience in the Gospel. After a night of fruitless fishing, as he is washing his nets, Jesus gets into his boat to teach, and once he's finished teaching, he tells Peter to let down his nets on the other side of the boat. Despite how ridiculous the request is, Peter tries it, and ends up swamping both the boats with a massive catch of fish. And like the prophet, Peter is brought up short by an awareness of his own limitation and sinfulness. Falling to his knees he says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

However we encounter the Divine, it can be a sobering experience that brings home to us our finitude and our own very real lack of perfection, before a God whose worship shakes the doors of the Temple.

And that is not an inappropriate emotion – however much we encounter God in the small things of life, in quiet moments and kind words, or however much we encounter God in the person of Jesus, speaking to us through the Scriptures, God is both encountered in small things, and in the moments of glorious holiness and terror: worth of the adoration of seraphs, glorious and majestic.

It is, I suppose, out of fashion to speak about the overwhelming side of God. Generally we are told that this God is experienced by people as unapproachable, as too reminiscent of the sometimes difficult and judgmental images of God that some of us learned in childhood. Moreover, we are told that God enthroned as King is a difficult image, for most of us have no experience of kings and how can we possibly related to God as an extra-large monarch, with all the trappings of royalty?

Which I suppose is all true in a way, but is also somewhat sad, because if the God of glory and terror is downplayed, or fails to make it into our teaching, preaching and thinking about God, the awe tends to go away as well.

As, of course, does the framework for interacting with God's majesty and power. If you look at both passages that we hear read today, the goal of the vision of God's majesty or the power expressed by the God who is enfleshed is not to make us feel guilty or unworthy, although that might be an unintended effect, but because God simply IS. Powerful and infinite. I am that I am. Glorious, magnificent. Worthy of eye covering worship. Worthy of having the Temple filled with smoke, whether the choir likes it or not. Worthy of that perpetual chant of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

And rather than our finitude and unworthiness being the occasion for God's wrath or judgment, in both these passages they are instead the beginning of our healing and calling.

The prophet finds himself cleansed and purified, and then when the God of terrible majesty asks for volunteers, the prophet finds himself offering to go “Here I am; send me!”

And rather than Jesus agreeing with Simon Peter that he is unworthy, Jesus simply tells him not to be afraid. We may encounter God's holiness with terror, but we do encounter it, and it changes us forever.

The majesty and wonder of the God of glory is not the terror of judgment. It is the awe that the God whose worship shakes the doors of the Temple, the hem of whose majestic robe fills the Temple, that same God also is available to us in quiet, is present with us in bread and wine, can compact the vastness of that robe down into the frame of a tiny child, and comes to us despite our sinfulness and foolishness, asking “Who shall I send?”

To encounter the God of majesty and power is to come to terms with our smallness before his glory, and our vocation to speak to the peoples, to fish for people, to work as God wills, despite our smallness and sinfulness. Not because we are cowed by his majesty or frightened at his glory, but because the vision of the God of glory brings up in us the deepest awe and wonder, and the will to worship God ceaselessly. “Holy, holy, holy.”

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

7 February 2010

Posted on February 8, 2010 .