When All Else Fails, Begin With Wonder

I often admire my young daughter’s capacity for awe. She is able to marvel at just about anything. A few days ago, she was closely examining two bugs she had found. “Look,” she told me excitedly. “This bug has long legs, and this bug has short legs!”

The world of a three-year-old is filled with amazement. They don’t need anything breathtaking, or out of the ordinary to inspire wonder; they live in a state of constant awe. While it might seem simplistic, children are onto something; after all, the same God that created breathtaking beauty also created bugs with short legs; both have the capacity of drawing us closer to the Divine, if our eyes are open wide enough to see it.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that is largely awe-deprived. Somewhere along the line, as we get closer to the overrated stage of life called adulthood, we lose our childlike capacity of wonder and awe, and get stuck in the confines of our own expectations, and those society places on us. We grow accustomed to a worried, frenetic pace of life we have grown accustomed to, which keeps us from slowing down enough to reconnect with the child within. The constant sense of urgency, and the many troubles we face, prevent us from being fully present at any given moment, and obscure the basic truth that being is more important than doing. And yet, if we slow down a bit, and take the time to actually look at one another, and at the world around us, and stand in awe of who God is, as he reveals himself through his creation. We might be surprised at just how strong our sense of wonder still is, and where it can lead us.

Awful, and Awesome, and All Things Awe Inspiring

Awe is a profound emotion that goes beyond momentary excitement or admiration. It’s about encountering the transcendent, connecting with a reality infinitely greater than ourselves. A sense of awe encompasses a spectrum, including both wonder and rightful trepidation. Awesome and awful both come from the same word and represent different dimensions of experiencing awe. Being overcome with awe and wonder at something greater than ourselves can lead both to a sense of admiration and reverence, and a certain sense of fear. A beautiful sunset can lead to a benign sense of awe; seeing a majestic tiger crouched and ready to pounce can also arouse awe, this time a complex combination of overwhelming beauty and terror.

To understand the dimension of fear in awe and wonder, we need to differentiate kinds of fear. Ancient Hebrew had many different words connoting a sense of fear. Two in particular—pachad, and yirah—shed light on how fear can lower us, and how it can call us higher. Pachad refers to fear in the sense of something we dread: it brings panic or a feeling of being threatened. Pachad is often linked to our imagination—we have the capacity of working ourselves up constantly over pain, rejection, and failures we believe are coming our way, but, as of yet, are only a figment of our imagination. The vast majority of things we dread never come to pass. According to a recent study, 85% of the things we worry about don’t actually occur, and of the things that do occur, a lot end up being not as frightening and harmful as we expect, and some end up being surprisingly positive.1 This means that only a very small percentage of what we fear ends up truly being awful, in the way we understand that term today (originally, awful was synonymous to awesome). Yirah refers to a different type of fear. In Biblical Hebrew, yirah refers to an experience in which fear and wonder are blurred together and coexist as one emotion. It can give rise to exhilaration or trepidation, in the sense that we are beholding something sacred. This is the type of fear or awe that Moses would have felt when beholding the burning bush (cf. Exodus 3).

C.S. Lewis’ definition of the word, numinous, also pertains to awe, and its connection with both fear and transcendence. In The Problem of Pain, he associates numinous with an uncanny feeling of dread, such as what one might feel if they were told, and actually believed, that there was a ghost in the next room.2 It isn’t simply fear of something that might, or might not, happen, but a combination of dread and awe evoked by the presence of a type of being whose nature cannot be fully fathomed or grasped by humans. This experience of the numen can’t be logically deduced from the physical realm, and yet it comes instinctively. It is a leap beyond the physical reality to the wholly other—the transcendent reality that man somehow experiences, yet cannot totally wrap his head around, or control. C.S. Lewis then proceeds to explain the connection between man’s experience of what is numinous and religion.

While an experience of what is numinous is itself morally neutral, in the context of religion, man associated his experience of the numinous with his sense of morality; while this is natural, it takes a leap of reason to reach this conclusion. It illustrates, however, how our sense of awe can lead us to God or, better put, to an understanding of the divine, as the sense of the numinous, and its connection with moral obligation, can be found in multiple systems of religious beliefs.

Awe As a Universal Human Experience

While awe might not be a proof of the existence of God, it is definitely something written into the hearts of man that can help us find our Creator and give impetus to developing a natural connection with God. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton speaks of man’s unique relationship with the universe:

Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called “laughter”; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals, he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame.3

Chesterton links the mystery of shame with “the presence of some higher possibility.” This is reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s first post-sin experience of God; they become aware of his presence and, in response, try to hide themselves (cf. Gen 3:8). Even in their wounded reality, they cannot but be aware of the transcendence of God, and somehow manifest their awe, their recognition of his otherness. In this sense, the concepts of worship or praise, and shame, are somehow linked. They are positive and negative responses to an awareness of our littleness and God’s bigness. When experienced toward other people, they are a reaction to elements of God’s goodness that we find mirrored in the creatures he made in his own image and likeness.

Laughter, too, points to man’s universal ability to delight in the unexpected, in what Chesterton calls “some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself.” In other words, being in awe of the secret of the universe is unique to man: we are capable of it because of attributes proper to us alone—reason, freedom, and the greatest, most enduring ethic of human existence: love (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). The Lord wrote into the fabric of our beings the ability to discover and appreciate his presence in the universe in a unique way, and to stand in awe of it. It gives us an unmediated ability to experience him, and his goodness, through creation, whether or not we understand and reflect on that experience. God so willed for us to experience him that even people who do not believe in God, and are unaware that he is the one they are coming in contact with, do indeed experience him when they marvel at things that, to varying degrees, reflect his goodness.

Even Albert Einstein, a self-proclaimed agnostic, recognized the universality and significance of awe when he said:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.4

As Christians who know the personal nature of God, we take this a step further than Einstein. We know that the “mystery” he perceives as the “source of all true art and science” is, in reality, a Divine Person.

Einstein’s experience, and that of so many other unbelievers who nevertheless appreciate the effects of God’s presence in the world, shows us that awe does not intrinsically transport us to the ultimate conclusions of our faith. It does, however, point us in the right direction, toward the transcendent. We stand in awe of the good, the true, and the beautiful, all of which find their fullest realization in God.

Taking Awe a Step Further: Virtue

Awe probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think of virtue. And rightfully so, because it isn’t a virtue properly speaking. At risk of over simplifying Thomas Aquinas’ rich analysis of the nature of virtue, we can identify two core properties that make something a virtue: 1) it is a habit or disposition that 2) directs us to the good. Awe is an emotion, not a habit, and does not, of necessity, direct us to the good, as C.S. Lewis points out so clearly in his explanation of the numinous. Therefore, awe is not, strictly speaking, a virtue.

It is, however, closely linked to virtue. It very often serves as an effective catalyst for virtue when we point it toward the good. When the Lord gives us a sense of awe that seems naturally directed toward Himself as the object, and fills us with both a sense of wonder and rightful trepidation at his Being, we consider it to be a gift from the Holy Spirit called “fear of the Lord.” When our sense of awe takes on a natural object, however, we need to choose to direct it toward the good.

Reverence, called “the mother of all virtues” by Dietrich Von Hildebrand, can flow directly from awe. It develops when the emotion of awe leads us to adapt a habit of respect toward the object of our awe. Liturgical reverence as a way of respecting God comes to mind. Reverence also applies to the way we treat others, and the way we care for ourselves. As children of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, God dwells in each of us (cf. 1 Cor 3:16). By respecting the dignity of the human person, we are, therefore, also practicing reverence toward the Divine.

The Lord reminded his disciples of how profoundly he associates the way we treat each other with our disposition toward Him when He spoke of the works of mercy, and told them, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). While we most often, and rightfully so, think of the dignity of the human person in reference to others, it also applies to ourselves. Taking the time to eat and sleep sufficiently, to get the counsel and advice we need in order to approach our life in a healthy way, to care for ourselves holistically, is all part of revering the God who created us and loves us. In this sense, self-care is not directed at ourselves in a solipsistic manner in which we make ourselves bigger than life, and deserving of all love, but rather is directed at ourselves due to a proper awareness of who we are in relation to God.

Awe serves as the gateway to a number of other virtues, as well. When it brings an increasing understanding of who we are, and who God is, it prompts humility. Humility is sometimes thought of as submissiveness or taking on a demeaning attitude toward self. This doesn’t do justice to this virtue. Humility means living in the truth about ourselves, others, and God, and, as Aquinas says, keeping ourselves within our own bounds.5 In the end, humility doesn’t revolve around us at all. It isn’t so much about our littleness as it is about God’s bigness. The many things that give rise to awe and wonder in our world become endless possibilities for further exploring God’s vastness, and thus discovering, more and more, the truth of who he is and who we are before him. This awareness, if appreciated, can also enhance the virtues of gratitude, as we realize that we receive much without merit, and generosity, as we feel prompted to respond, and share with others, the countless graces we receive.

Final Thoughts

Take a little time today to be in awe, to discover the Lord’s presence through the secrets of the universe in which he has placed us. For at least a few moments, put all other worries and thoughts aside, and allow yourself to be truly present to your experience. Become a child again. The Lord himself tells us that we must be as little children to enter the Kingdom of God. Perhaps, this is partially because little children are much better at experiencing ways the Kingdom of God already exists among us. Give yourself time to notice details you normally overlook. Marvel at the bugs with short legs, the feeling of the wind against your fingertips, or the sensation of taste when something crosses your lips. It isn’t about doing something new; it’s about being more aware of how you connect with the world around you, and your experience of it. It’s about discovering what our experience of creation reveals to us about our Creator. It’s about the truths hidden in plain sight.

When personal discouragements set in, when we fail to experience how God is working in our lives, or when we are interacting with others who don’t know God, or are struggling to understand him, awe can serve as a natural, universal starting point for connecting with the Divine. When all else fails, begin with wonder.

  1. See Robert Leahy, The Worry Cure (Three Rivers Press, 2005).
  2. See C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Samizdat University Press, 2016), pp 3-9.
  3. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (Apollo Edition, 1953), p 19.
  4. See Living Philosophies (Simon and Schuster, 1931), p 6.
  5. See Aquinas, Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, ch. Lv
Ellen Mady About Ellen Mady

Ellen Mady lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she spends her time working for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and raising her three children. She has degrees in education and religious sciences, and has worked for over ten years in a variety of capacities related to international education and pastoral ministry, with an emphasis on social outreach and evangelization. She writes on topics pertaining to faith, family, theology and ministry.