The Sixth Gift: Reverence
Reverence is rare in American society yet we love to see it. We are enthralled by dignity in great people. We appreciate graciousness and care, attention to detail, kindness to the helpless. We love to gaze on a photo by Ansel Adams of a ray of sunlight coming down on fern beneath redwood trees and ache to be in that very quiet, quiet place. Many of us love the scent of incense, the intonation of chant, and bowing before the Blessed Sacrament. All of us, even non-believers feel humbled by special churches or temples. If I spy a butterfly up close or gaze on a sleeping baby, I feel taken aback by these, I feel reverence.
Reverence is an attitude and feeling of being in the presence of something bigger and more important than we are. It is not a feeling of unimportance but rather of an encounter with something one admires and wants to honor and respect. In order to feel reverence for someone or something, I have to have realized that this reality is special and unique.
St. Ignatius of Loyola speaks of reverence a number of times in relation to God. He links reverence to honor or service. He is not referring to the idea that one should honor or serve God as a duty. Rather he is stating that one wants to honor and serve because God is so amazing and humble with respect to us that we cannot but want to reverence Him. Teresa of Avila refers to Jesus as the Divine Majesty who desires only one thing — that of humble closeness to us. Julian of Norwich speaks of Jesus who is so courteous with us that He will not force any aspect of himself on us.
Reverence requires that I am able to be grateful and humble. All of these are gifts. It is only by the grace of God that we are not blind and obtuse all the time with respect to what God has done and is doing for us. Reverence implies that I have deference for God, that I acknowledge the majesty and superiority of God and feel deeply thankful for God’s attention to me.
This kind of admiration and gratitude is not automatic. Our daily lives and problems are so all-encompassing and often overwhelming that we feel little relief. God does not seem involved. Where is He? We have a difficult time finding God in the discomfort. I often resent the fact that God could eliminate my problems in the wink of an eye if he wanted to. He could do that. So why doesn’t God construct a world in which there is no pain and suffering? He allows the struggle to go on because he envisions a far better outcome for us than we can imagine. He allows all the challenges to purify us because he is the best possible parent. He lets us make choices and learn from them. He lets us live in a world that presents growth possibilities — controversies, complications, tragedies, opportunities. He loves us enough to risk our hating him.
When I realized that God was calling me, dragging me, carrying me, and letting me be beaten by the most awful forces so that I could be stronger and surer, I began to admire him. When I watched Jesus in the Gospels be ridiculed, baited, criticized, and threatened, I really grew in respect for what an awesome and holy opponent he was. Jesus was smart, humble, strategic, direct, disarming, and kind. What a special person just on the human level! I feel the desire to bow before him any time.
Reverence also extends to how we feel about other human beings. This is much harder for us because we have encountered so many who are arrogant and ignorant, childish and irrational. But, God sees a spark of himself in each one. We also cannot imagine ourselves being anything less than perfect. It is so easy to perceive the insensitivities of everyone else. We do in fact feel the abrasiveness of being in relationships. People are very hard on each other — demanding. Real love though is not about enjoying only the pretty parts of people. Real love is reverent. It hopes in my potential and that of others. Real love is not arrogant or overbearing. God calls us to love each other as we want to be loved. This is a very hard thing to do. It means that I wish for the other the joys and respect that I want for myself. It also means that I am not superior.
In the past twenty years we have also begun to appreciate the importance of the natural world and our dependence on it. We no longer take for granted our environment. We see the beauty and complexity of every scientific process within our bodies and every element of the universe. While not wanting to cling to physicality in a literal way, we do want to reverence it. The entire process of living, developing and getting nurturance is an amazing interplay of resources, influences, choices, and challenges. Our bodies, the solar system, atomic particles, and plants and animals are all amazing. Learning about these realities should help us to appreciate them and to reverence them — from wanting clean water to finding a cure for malaria.
This humility before God, each other and the universe is reverence and it is a gift.
Two saints to read about in regard to this gift if you have not already done so are St. Peter Claver, S.J. and St. Solanus Casey, O.F.M. Cap.