I noticed a tiny little girl at the beach. Her delicate fingertips, tense at her side, seemed nearly translucent in the bright sunlight; a pink sunhat covered her blond hair. She stood on her own two little feet, and I guessed that was a fairly recent achievement. The little girl hung back anxiously as her cheerful mom spread a blanket on the sand. Despite her young age, the look on her face as she stared ahead at the ocean was unmistakable. The child was in awe.
Was that even possible, I wondered? Is a little child capable of awe?
Awe is an emotional state that results from an encounter with greatness. A star-filled sky, the crashing ocean, giant Redwood trees …our answer to the call of nature’s vastness is awe. A newborn baby strikes us with the awe of nature’s mystery packed into its few little breathing pounds. Awe is the awareness of our own smallness, and our connection to an unimaginably larger whole. But the experience of awe is not limited to nature alone; great works of art, or feats of engineering can provoke it as well. My first look at Picasso’s Guernica did it for me. For others it might be the Sphinx, or sunrise over a silent city. More problematically, powerful leaders can evoke awe, as well. Awe results from an encounter with greatness.
As a characteristic of religion and spirituality, the sense of awe is an awakening to a particular kind of awareness. One writer, Rabbi Abraham Herschel, called it radical amazement. He suggested that religious ritual serves to awaken the practitioner to radical amazement at the wonder of existence, and arouses in him a sense of awe.
Recently awe has been examined by psychologists and found to be a healthy and pro-social mood state: it slows down the experience of time, and is reported to make people feel more patient, less concerned with materialism, and more willing to volunteer to help others. This research would lead one to believe that when it comes to awe, as they used to say in California, it’s all good.
But for the little girl at the beach, it was not all good. Her face expressed awe in all its fullness, including the part that many writers neglect, and that is fear. Faced with the awesome power of the sea she was very afraid.
Fear, even dread, is an integral part of the experience of awe. Mystics, prophets and others who describe their spiritual experiences, speak of that dread. Mystical or spiritual experiences are transformative, we are told. They are awesome, defy description, and entail both love and terror.
While perched safely on a cliff or mountaintop or at our living room window watching a thunderstorm light up the sky, we can savor the emotion and insight of awe. But the little girl at the beach had no picture window, no frame of reference—no defenses—between her and the deep, wild sea. In the moment of encounter she was suffused with awe. And she was afraid.
“Sometimes it is rapturous awe; sometimes it is the numinous dread Jacob felt.”
— Madeline L’Engele, Glimpses of Grace