I‘ve been reading books about mountain climbing lately. (As a lazy homebody, I’m fascinated by people who like to leave the house and be cold and climb things.) In a memoir about a Himalayan climb, one author wrote a stirring description of his trip into a Buddhist monastery at the base of a mountain. This author had a mild anti-religious streak, so I took notice when he expressed awe and reverence upon witnessing their blessing ritual.
It reminded me of the way my friends and I used to view some foreign belief systems when I was younger. Even though I was an atheist, I had a kind of respect for certain Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. If I had ended up in a remote candlelit monastery with Buddhist monks, I’m sure I too would have been astonished by it all. In fact, when I think about it, I probably would have been even more astonished in such a situation than I am with my own Christian faith on any given day.
And it’s interesting to think about why.
When you’ve only ever seen a spiritual ritual as practiced by a devout few, it’s easy to stand in awe — you’re seeing it in its purest form. When you’ve never seen it as lived by the masses, exposed to all the bad things that come with human frailty, it’s easy to imagine that this faith contains a power strong enough to trump even human free will, that all who practice it automatically become devout and saintly.
When you yourself have only participated in the ritual once or twice, you haven’t had a chance to get bored.
If those climbers had stayed in that village for the rest of their lives, and participated in the rituals once a week, my guess is that their awe would fade. They’d find that the monks aren’t perfect, and aren’t even perfectly holy. The rituals would become less exotic and more routine. They might catch themselves looking at their watches half way through the ceremony, wondering if this Sanskrit chant would go on forever.
What they sensed when they first arrived — that there are real powers outside of the material world, and that these monks sought to get in touch with them — would become buried under the blase attitude that we all too easily adopt when we’re surrounded by the familiar. They’d lose that gut reaction of reverence they’d felt the first time they encountered this faith, back before they’d had an opportunity to become cynical.
I thought of this phenomenon this weekend when I picked up my Magnificat for evening prayer. The first words on the page said:
Jesus Christ is covenant and law; come, let us adore him!
Jesus is the covenant. He is the law. He is the word. Really, this is some crazy mystical stuff! What a tragedy that I’ve let my familiarity with this truth dull my reaction to it. What a loss that I never take the time to see this through fresh eyes, and experience the jaw-dropping wonder more appropriate to such a breathtaking concept.
I went on to read the words to the hymn, an excerpt from O Come, O Come, Emmanuel:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Borrowing from the Everest hikers’ experience, I imagined that I’d come upon this story in a secluded mountain monastery, far away from home. I pretended for a moment that I experienced my first Mass in this candle-lit, ethereal place. Translated from exotic, foreign tongues, the monks told me of an ancient tribe who foretold that a great King would come to save humanity. They waited for generations. And then, finally, he came. The Emmanuel, the God-with-us. The One who created all, who gave the Law to Moses atop Mt. Sinai, dwelt among us, deigned to take on human form. (And here is where I’d be really shocked): But he didn’t come in wealth and worldly splendor. He didn’t materialize out of thin air as a rich, all-powerful king. He came as a baby. A baby born to a poor family! Who were temporarily homeless!
If I could just hear this for the first time, without any cultural baggage attached to the message, I would be so shocked and astounded and fascinated and grateful. I would have a reaction much more fitting to such a reality.
But is that possible to re-create that reaction? That’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.
Maybe we can’t will ourselves to internalize familiar information as if it were completely unfamiliar. But I do think it’s possible to choose to adopt a mentality of awe. When I think back on how impressed my friends and I were with certain exotic religious practices, I realize that part of it was a conscious effort.
Not knowing any Buddhist jerks or hypocrites (because we didn’t know many Buddhists at all), we approached the subject without bitterness. Never having seen someone misuse these beliefs as a tool for personal gain, we checked our cynicism at the door. Never having tried out these practices for ourselves, they were free from associations with boredom or failure or discomfort, and we could view them in their purest form.
I think it comes down to willful innocence. We didn’t put up our defenses. Unafraid of being hurt or let down or even just bored, we allowed ourselves to be innocent, and therefore we allowed ourselves to experience awe.
As Christmas draws near, so does the usual stress that comes with the season. I fear that I didn’t get a nice enough present for So-and-So, that we didn’t get a gift for Thus-and-Such at all (what if she gets one for us?!) — and — ack! — I still haven’t mailed those packages to Uncle A and Aunt B. I worry that we don’t have enough gifts, I worry we have too many. Based on the mommy blogs I read, I am pretty certain that I have done an F- job of making Jesus the Reason for the Season.
And so, all sorts of ego-preserving armor flies up at any discussion of Christmas. The bitterness. The cynicism. The loss of focus. The ho-hum attitude. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not consumed by this negativity. It’s only there occasionally, and in small amounts. But even a few drops are poisonous enough to make me gloss over the words “Jesus Christ is covenant and law” with no reaction. It doesn’t take much bitterness or cynicism or fatigue of routine to let the words to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel be just words.
What I’m trying to do this week as adopt that willful innocence — and therefore the willful awe — that I used to embrace when looking at spiritual practices that were foreign and new. Maybe if I can carve out some quiet time, let go of everything else, and focus only on the simple truths of the Christmas story, I’ll capture some of the innocent awe I should have when hearing the beginning of the greatest story every told.