Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless
—Philip Larkin, from “High Windows”
It seems to me that reverence, as something intrinsic to an individual’s sense of meaning, as a principle of human communities, has been on the decline, if not under downright assault, in the culture at large. I’m not arguing that there’s a scarcity of people leading reverential lives. From monks to poets, from special-education teachers to astronauts, we live amongst many still capable of being awestruck. Nor is the raw material which inspires reverence eroding, like polar ice caps and old-growth forests, under pressure for mankind’s increased footprint. Just a mile from my front door, a traffic jam occurs each night as hundreds of people crowd along the cliffs to watch the sun drop into the Pacific.
When I was young, I would wake early and head off to serve as an altar boy for the weekday, sunrise mass. The same rag-tag band of true believers filed into the pews at 6:30 every morning. Something about being tired, a whiff of candles, incantations, and carefully articulated rituals always mesmerized me. I’ve yet to encounter a more consistently sacred sight in my life than dawn breaking through the stained-glass windows at Christ the King Church. At twelve, I gave serious consideration to the seminary, and heretically repeated the priest’s gestures in my living room, with Ritz crackers for the body and grape soda for the blood. But I had no calling from God. In time, the rituals themselves lost meaning.
Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that I chose to go to college at the Naval Academy, an institution awash in rituals and codes. Anyone who’s ever witnessed a sunset dress parade along the Severn River—four-thousand midshipmen marching in lock step, bayonets and belt buckles polished, blue and gold spinnakers billowing on the river—and not felt something akin to awe, surely has lost the ability to be stirred by great pageantry. By the time I was 18, I’d traded in the vestments of the altar for the vestments of war but marveled no less at the lore and history of it all, the flag lowered at sunset, the distant bugle call of taps.
During my sophomore year at Annapolis, a plebe committed suicide by stepping out of his fifth-floor window. The young man had wanted to quit the Academy, but was encouraged to stay by well-meaning parents and company officers. I watched as paramedics attempted to resuscitate the broken and bloodied midshipman, his once-pristine, navy-blue uniform suddenly a torn and grisly mess. Later, as fireman sprayed his blood from the brick walkway, I felt a desperate emptiness about the institution I’d committed to. The shame of quitting was certainly not worth that young man’s life.
“Reverence is an ancient virtue,” Paul Woodruff writes in Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. Woodruff, a humanities professor, approaches the subject of reverence with a philosophical lens. Handed down from early cultures, across a variety of religious and secular systems, reverence has less to do with mystery and mysticism and more to do with shaping individuals and societies who can recognize the limitations of what humans can (or should) control. Reverence, according to Woodruff, begins in a capacity for awe and wonder for the world around us. This capacity for awe leads to a deepening respect for fellow human travelers. “This in turns fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moral flows exceeding the normal human allotment.” Shame arises, in part, when humans fail to remember that each person, whether prince or pauper, is dwarfed by the sheer grandness of existence.
Reverence, Woodruff also argues, is on the decline in contemporary culture.
My children have recently begun their summer vacation and the moments in my day which might let in a little reverence have been few and far between. It’s hard to experience awe amidst battles over television remotes, pop-radio stations and who gets to play on the iPad. At times, it seems that the experience of reverence demands things in short supply these days: silence, stillness, time to think. And in most of my daily life, the once sacred rituals have either lapsed into quaint memory or feel contrived. Perhaps I’ve convinced myself that I’ve outgrown them, like acolyte robes and military uniforms. Perhaps the only solution is to get away from it all for a while.
So at the end of June, I leave California for Massachusetts with my kids—Maggie, almost 12, and Tom, who’ll be 8 in a few weeks. These are transitional times as a parent. Maybe all time and ages are transitional, but these years in particular feel downright seismic. Less and less snuggling, more and more driving, from horse lessons to baseball practice to sleepovers on the other side of town. Because I’ve taken Maggie and Tom to see their grandparents in Massachusetts most summers since they were born, these trips retain something of a ritual in our family. The grandchildren, welcomed as mini-deities, are worshiped with burnt offerings of Cheetos, ice cream bars and endless hours of over-indulgence.
Children make for wonderful case studies of reverence. Anyone who’s ever spent ten minutes waiting for a child to stop staring in wide-eyed wonder at a green caterpillar on a leaf knows that a child’s capacity for awe is without peer. And anyone who’s ever chastened that same child for being distracted certainly knows how deeply a child feels shame. Respect, awe, shame—a child’s life is awash in reverential moments. What child does not, as Annie Dillard says, live in all they seek? If only they could articulate their experience. Because what a child lacks, it seems, is the eloquence to communicate that experience. This comes with maturity, with reading the great books, studying the big ideas, sharing in the human conversation.
This point is driven home most clearly by one of my son’s friends in Massachusetts. John, 6, suffers from significant autism. What might well be a deep, if scattered, concentration and intelligence (John knows all the world’s countries and their capitals, knows all the elements of the periodic table and hears and repeats verbatim anything you say) crashes around him when he encounters other people. While John twirls around on the beach, gathering shells with a naturalist’s curiosity, he also seizes up, clenching his hands into tight fists and his face into a grimace, when given basic commands by an adult. He remains isolated in a room of children, able to make only the slightest contact. The simple, if cruel, reality is that John doesn’t fit into the world as typically constructed. It’s like he hears the music playing in the background but can’t find the rhythm.
And yet it’s hard not to wonder and marvel at his freedom, the absolute and unadulterated pleasure he finds in a vibrating restaurant pager or the garden hose at my mother’s house. For John, it’s as if all the moments in his world were reverent ones, but they remain utterly trapped inside, un-spoken, only thinly connected with those around him, and thus those moments verge on being lost to meaning.
“We live in all we seek,” Annie Dillard writes. “The hidden shows up in too-plain sight. It lives captive on the face of the obvious – the people, events, and things of the day – to which we as sophisticated children have long since become oblivious. What a hideout: Holiness lies spread and borne over the surface of time and stuff like color.”
Dillard reminds us that the sacred surrounds everything, waiting only to be noticed. And intellectually, this makes perfect sense, though it’s another thing entirely to live this way, to actively overcome the obliviousness of daily pursuits, all those small tasks that take up so much time and energy. Reverence, for the most part, always feels set apart, reserved for mountaintops, cathedrals and forest trails. The trick of recognizing the numinous in the mundane, seeing the sacred patterns—the color, as Dillard calls it—in the landscape we walk everyday, seems elusive, frustrating at times, the stuff of dreams.
What Dillard seems to be arguing, and Woodruff no less, is that reverence involves a choice. “We have not lost our capacity for reverence,” Woodruff writes. “The capacity for virtue belongs to all of us as human beings. What we are losing is a language of behavior—a self-conscious sort of ceremony—that best expresses reverence in daily life.” But how to learn that language? Harder still, how to remain fluent in it? In my youth, the rituals of the church or the military helped shape those choices for me, or perhaps they co-opted them, no matter. The priest used the mass to dramatize the crucifixion. What stood behind the dress parade were not just shiny shoes and individuals submitting to the larger unit, but also history, the great battles of the past, the fallen, the horror of war, camaraderie, sacrifice, virtues, regardless of how tenuously political these things may have been. Those rituals always pointed the way for me, like an illuminated highway sign on a dark and lonely road. The destination, the actual feelings of profound mystery and awe, must remain just out of reach, ineffable and abstract. But the road signs reassure, keep us moving on what appears to be a path, however dimly lit and confusing. The stylized and polished constructs become containers for the missing virtue (courage, honor, integrity, deity), for those things that can be felt but not grasped. And in this, the rituals themselves become imbued with meaning and importance.
But most of the rituals are gone now, at least for a large portion of people I know, myself included. Routine has taken over, and routine and ritual are very different creatures. Routine shares none of the symbolism, none of the communal aspects of ritual. Taken to an extreme, routines can become neurotic prisons of obsessive rigidity, closed off from the world at large. Whereas rituals, even the most esoteric and sealed, exist within part of the larger human society.
In the town center of Holden, Massachusetts, just a short walk from my mother’s front door, there is pre-Civil War cemetery. Holden is the quintessential New England town, with flags fluttering, white church spires and sun-dappled maple trees. The granite, moss-mottled headstones, tilting in all directions like teeth in need of braces, want to tell a story, if only I could listen. Many of the markers contain poems chiseled into the face, and many of the graves are for young children. In the cemetery, I think about Robert Bly’s introduction to William Stafford’s poems, in which Bly talks about the golden thread. “I asked Stafford one day, ‘Do you believe that every golden thread will lead us to Jerusalem’s wall, or do you love particular threads?’ He replied, ‘No, every thread.’ He said, ‘Any little impulse is accepted, and enhanced.”
The golden thread is, of course, a form of reverence. The transformation of the objective experience into a poem, into the holiness of Jerusalem’s wall, is precisely what my son’s friend, John, lacks. For children like John, and for many others too, the golden thread is only a piece of string.
Dillard and Bly arrive at similar conclusions. Any little impulse can lead to the sublime. Every detail can become a golden thread, garden hoses, church spires, and headstones. The sacred is all around us. Why travel across the country to look for it? We hear this message again and again, but how to trust it? How to experience it as a real part of the day-to-day?
Instead, we seem perpetually distracted. We cash in on our humanity, and turn our backs to the sacred moments with such a blithe indifference that at times it feels as if life were one giant video game. I indict myself in all of this. As often as not, I am oblivious to awe, wandering around in an over-saturated haze of consumerist fervor, kinetic schedules and endless detachment. How to plug-in to reverence?
It seems easy to do here, in this old cemetery, where the light and the silence are vibrating with possibilities, with a type of sacred energy, with history and stories and the march of time. But reverence depends less on circumstance and more on how we transform what’s offered.
I arrive, at last, not at a conclusion, but perhaps at a bit of understanding. For the more I consider it, the more reverence begins to seem like a type of triangulation. There is, on the first level, the phenomenon itself. The sunset. The caterpillar. The ritual of the mass. The dress parade. The suicide. These things exist independently, whether observed or not, whether intended or attended. If a tree falls in a forest, as Bruce Cockburn and a thousand Zen monks sing, does anyone hear? The event is indifferent to our attention. Barry Lopez can describe the thousand-mile migrations of polar bears with such detailed elegance that I can imagine the journey happening before my eyes, but the bear remains utterly ambivalent about who’s watching.
Enter the observer. The poet, the prophet, the biologist sailing on a brig sloop between the Galapagos, the astronaut hurtling through the heavens. Humankind bears witness as much as anything else we do. As Dillard points out, we uncover what lives captive on the face of the obvious. The witness shuttles forth into the unknown and comes home with a tale to tell, whether that tale is On the Origin of Species, Arctic Dreams, the Upanishads or worn letters carved into the face of granite headstone.
It’s not that Neil Armstrong’s experience of stepping onto the lunar surface was any less personally reverent for him, with or without the world watching on television. But, as Armstrong’s own words remind us, in order for that one small step to live beyond itself, for the unity of experience to become that giant leap for mankind, it needed to be shared. Thus the third side of the triangle, the reception, the acknowledged and expressed substance of what it all might mean.
I am certain that John experiences reverence in his life; I’m certain that in every tactile roll in the grass, in every confusing (to us) choice he makes, John ingests the sensory world with a ravenous hunger and perfect pitch. But the circuit is shorted somehow, and no signal passes from his interior experience to others. This seems the great tragedy of autism. Also the great tragedy of tyranny, suicide, repression, violence and the apathy of tuning out. When we lose the ability to form the connection, the world suffers.
The poem needs the poet, but the poet needs the reader. In this triangular symmetry, the three sides form the whole.
Reverence lives somewhere inside this sacred geometry, somewhere between my ability to be stirred by something greater than myself, my ability to articulate that experience, and my willingness to hear that message when its shared with me. For in the end, aren’t we working out the mystery on our own? Aren’t we all lonely fishermen, perpetually taking in the world through a small hole each of us carves in the ice? And when we get a nibble, or when we get too cold to continue, or when we just get too damn lonely to go it alone any longer, don’t we all yearn to share that experience with others?
And where better to find the sacred than in the sky above and the earth below. “Reverence at home is so familiar to us,” Woodruff writes, “that we are hardly aware that this is what it is, and we may have to visit homes of a different culture before we recognize the places where family pictures hang, or where a grandmother’s unused teacups gather dust, are shrines.”
Somewhere between California and Massachusetts are those shrines. Somewhere between Annie Dillard, William Stafford and an autistic boy trying to make sense of a confusing world, lies reverence. In the epigraph to Dillard’s For the Time Being, she quotes Evan S. Connell, who asks, “Should I mark more than shining hours?” The ambition, if not the answer, as best as I can figure it, is, yes. Mark all the hours as sacred. Many more of them are actually shining than I’ll ever recognize.
“Reverence is all around us,” Woodruff writes, “so there are plenty of starting points.”
And so Maggie, Tom and I come home to California, to the long and restless routines of summer. They hug their mother and rub their dog’s belly and quickly re-acclimate to home. It so happens that we return on the 4th of July. Fireworks fresco the cloudy sky, booming explosions echoing around us like cannon fire. The dog cowers. The kids ooh and ah. These days, perhaps, will not always feel as sacred as I might wish. Many of the hours that follow will glide past without meaning or context. I’ll wake up, play with my kids, read a little. I’ll clean the house and get dinner ready for my wife. There will be quiet hours, busy days, whole weeks that will blend from one into the next, with little to mark them as shining, except, of course, by their very accumulation, by their unfolding. The only meaning they acquire is that which I attach to them. I’ll only find reverence by seeking it out, by listening to it, by sharing it. This conclusion may lack the certainty of the altar or the parade field, but it is girded with a realization, both terrifying and awesome, that time is fleeting, and that soon, all this will have passed.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.