Willful awe

December 21, 2010 | 32 comments

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.


  1. Leila

    This is fabulous!! I have never thought of it this way before, but I won’t soon forget it. Thanks, Jen!

  2. syd

    I love this post.

  3. ~Ana Paula~A Católica

    Hi, Jennifer!
    A Big HELLO from………. BRASIL!!

    I probably understand what you have meant in your Post. Santa, the presents and the rush are too loud and almost, almost suffocate the message of the Messiah.

    In my house, my husband and I do not have a Christmas Tree, BUT only the Christmas Crib. It is beautiful and we put it in the center of our living room, so the image of Mary, Joseph, Magi, the animals and the pastor with a white lamb (my favorite) make me think a lot about the vertex of this time of the year.

    God will become one of us.
    In flesh and bones.
    It is so strong and fantastic. All of this phenomenon make us look to the sky or even inside ourselves and love Jesus even more.

    Our God become a man between men.
    He was a baby, a child, a young guy and a man who slept, ate, laughed, cried, walked, ran, told jokes and also said hard words.

    That is the reason of our joy and celebration in these days.


    … Happy Christmas, Jen: the Mom of 5 (five)!!

    Stay in the Peace of God!!
    You, Your Family and All Your Readers!!


  4. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    Interesting points.

    I’m not sure we even need many awe-inspiring mountaintop experiences; even Mary only got that one visit from Gabriel. We just need to live the truth of what we glimpsed.

  5. Kate

    Wow. Thank you for this post!

  6. Erin

    Hello Jen, Beautiful post! Advent is always a confusing time for me. I try to focus on Advent and not Christmas, but then become filled with stress and anxiety because I am not focusing on Christmas and EVERYTHING around me is. I then find myself becoming resentful.

    It’s usually around this time that I realize well, first of all that the commercialism of Christmas can’t ruin my Advent unless I allow it to do so, but most importantly I realize that this is a time for longing and anticipation. We are a people in darkness, so to speak, waiting for Emmanuel to come. That darkness can manifest itself in so many ways during Advent.

    I think if your heart desires to prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, regardless of “how” you have prepared, you will receive whatever gifts the little baby Jesus has for you this Christmas. I’m sure you have no reason to regret anything this advent and that you are exactly where Jesus has put you, but at the same time can learn from this Advent and hope for next year.

    One other note. Speaking of climbing a mountain, have you ever heard of Direction for our Times at directionforourtimes.com? Wow, if you have never heard of it, check it out. It is a beautiful new movement in the church whose mission is to bring souls into a deeper union with Jesus. To be exact, “we seek to be united to Jesus in our daily work and through our vocations, in order to obtain graces for the conversion of sinners. Through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we will allow Jesus to flow through us to the world, brining His light. WE do this in union with Mary, our Blessed Mother, with the Communion of Saints, with all of God’s holy angels, and with our fellow lay apostles in the world.”

    Actually, Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe this movement and fruits obtained through “the volumes” and the books, including, “Climbing the Mountain.”

    Merry Christmas and God Bless you and your family!!!

  7. Erin

    OH! In my very long comment, I forgot something. I know you are pregnant with 4 small children and it is Christmas, but here’s another book for you to read.

    Seriously, if you haven’t read Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper, he very beautifully describes HOW Jesus IS the new covenant and the fulfillment of the old testament. It’s a pretty easy read and will leave you with your mouth gaping going WOW! I believe that he spoke about the same subject on a television show on EWTN and the audio can be downloaded if that’s easier. It can be googled, of course.

    God Bless!!!

    • Mary

      I too love the Lamb’s Supper. I highly recommend it as well. Great post Jen!

  8. Charles

    Alan Watts a popularizer of Buddhist thought during the 1950s and 1960s, who was/is popular with the beatnik/hippy crowd used to say something very similar. He was a trained Anglican and then Zen Buddhist, and would often say to the groups of white middle class Americans that the only reason they found his talks on Buddhist mysticism interesting was that they were seeing the esoteric part of it. Basically that they had all been raised in the boring day-to-day Christian world, and were now getting the esoteric mystical parts of the eastern faiths as an export and eating it up, he would repeatedly remind his audiences that they could just investigate the mystical esoteric aspects of western faiths, and undoubtedly would be just as shocked and enlightened by them. Whether or not this is true, it is interesting to note.

  9. Lauren

    Chesterton said something very similar in The Everlasting Man. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. Karey


    I love your blog and this post was very meaningful and thought provoking to me.

    On a lighter note, the beginning of Erin’s second comment sounds as if you are expecting quadruplets!

    • Rebekka

      I read it like that too!

      • Erin

        How funny! Trying to compose your thoughts with 2 small boys defeating “bad guys” all around you is the perfect environment for grammatical errors. I’m surprised the rest of the comment was as coherent as it was.

  11. 'Becca

    Great point! One of the things I love about the book Folktales from the Japanese Countryside by Hiroko Fujita is the way it shows Buddhism as the ordinary religion, with all the silliness and laziness and corruption that entails. It’s still intriguing but in a different way.

  12. Craig

    It is the human condition – that the thing that once awed us soon loses that effect. A willful awe – that is the thing. I have to willfully place myself where I once was. What once awed me is still awesome. I just need to see with better eyes. The remainder of this week I’ll be working on recapturing some of that old innocent awe. Thank you and God Bless.

    • Sue Clarke

      Oh wow, now I’m almost coming out of cynicism and wondering if God led me to this blog today…..because today I went to the Catholic cathedral in my city with my youngest son, we happened to go there because the cafe attached to it serves gluten free food and my son is dairy/wheat intolerant ( he has autism, there seems to be a link)
      Anyway, while we were there we wandered into the cathedral that was big and grey and vaulted and dimly lit ( funnily enough it made me think of some great subterranean hall from Lord of the Rings), and saw a rack of little lit candles. I think they were for people’s prayers? I asked my son if he wanted to light one, well he is worried that with the terrible snow here in the UK we won’t be able to get to my sisters for Christmas, so he immediately said yes…I helped him with the lighting and then he really surprised me, put his candle on the rack, looked at some of the pictures of Saints on the walls, and out loud prayed a simple and appropriate prayer to St. Anthony ( who knows if that’s the right saint, I certainly don’t) There was something enormously moving about my son praying outloud in this vast totally empty cathedral, it was literally awesome.

      • ~Ana Paula~A Católica

        Dear Sue Clarke,
        a Big HELLLO from BRASIL!!

        What a moving testimony about you and your son in the cathedral!

        I imagined all the scene in my mind. And guess what: I wished being in that place empty of people, but full of images of saints with you both.

        Stay in the Peace of God!!
        You, Your Son and All Your Family!!


  13. Ben

    I love it when I see my faith from a new angle, and it opens up a mystery that I had never considered before.

    Great post.

  14. Gina

    Wise words, Jen. Thank you so much.

    One of my favorite Dorothy L. Sayers quotes (and that’s saying something, as I love pretty much everything she ever wrote): ““It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear that story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all.”

  15. Madga

    Merry Christmas to come, Jen!
    Peter Seawall, a fallen away Catholic turned agnostic interviewed then Cardinal Ratzinger in the book “Salt of the Earth”. It is an amazing book.
    In it, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) admits that certain devotional activities can get boring, but that God is never boring. He also talks about the differences in religions in a simple lucid way. I wish you would read the book and discuss it sometime in your blog. It is the first of three books.
    Peter Seawall returned to the Church after this first book, which is why I picked it up to read.
    PS I know you know that Pope Benedict and Cardinal Ratzinger are the same person, but someone else might not.

  16. Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin

    I was gasping for breath watching and listening to Veni Veni Emmanuel.

    Truth be told, many of the really good Christmas carols will get to me that way. The theological Christmas carols have tremendous power over me that merely sentimental Christmas music always lacks.

    • Erin

      Yes!!!! Christmas Carols always make me cry. I love how the Magnificat has a section with all the Christmas Carols. I usually have at least one day during Advent or Christmas when I sit and sing the Christmas Carols. They are a beautiful form of prayer. Also, I have been praying the O Antiphons (I don’t pay the extra money for the Magnificat Advent Companion, but they were free at my church this year) this year for the first time and they are filled with longing for God to come and save humanity. Beautiful.

      A very holy priest I knew in New Orleans used to always say, “Jesus always has more and more and more for us.” I find new books, meditations, reflections, prayers, etc. that give me a new “light” and help move deeper in understanding of my faith and grow into closer union with Jesus are always crossing my path. I think I am always seeking them as well. It’s a two way street, just like any relationship.

      God Bless!!!

  17. Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith

    Wow, this is why I read your blog, real, honest uplifting and thought provoking. You have a gift. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  18. Danya Marvin

    This post reminds me of the reason behind the popularity of the book “eat, pray, love.” My book club picked it and I couldn’t even finish it. I remember thinking how sad that everyone (women esp.) are so fascinated with the foreign, automatically assuming that it’s better and truer than the familiar. Of course this included not only prayer, but food and men as well, ehem. Why are we such malcontents? It’s a good question to ask.

  19. priest's wife

    another great post- you are teaching me a lot

  20. priest's wife

    JEN- if you need instant relaxation while wrapping presents or driving in the car- Christmas Gregorian chant! I taught my girls a sewing project while listening to that- no bad words and no tears!!! Try it

  21. Nancy

    This post is a little heartbreaking to me. My sister is exactly like the people you’re describing. She’s climbed Kilimanjaro, and climbed to the base camp of Mt. Everest, and is fascinated with Buddhism. I just watched the movie “Blindsight” with her, which is about a group of blind teens who attempt Everest — and one of the realities of these kids’ lives is being publicly mocked and verbally abused in Tibet/Nepal because of their blindness. Their fellow Buddhists believed that they did something to deserve blindness in a former life.

    My sister was quick to defend Buddhism (she thinks Christianity is a religion of narrow-minded right-wing nuts), saying that Buddhism is about compassion, so that aspect of the film couldn’t be accurate. I just replied that there are plenty of Christians who don’t live their faith the way Jesus did, so there are probably Buddhists who don’t adhere to the idea of compassion.

    I pray that something opens her mind to Christianity someday . . .

  22. Heather King

    Jenifer, I wanted to wish you and your family, especially on the FEAST of the Holy Family, all the blessings of the season. And I love this post as it’s a theme dear to my heart…in a way Catholicism gets bashed so much because it sets us a goal so high, and then we all far so fall short that we are easily, and often rightfully, accused of tepidness and hypocrisy. But that is just why we so desperately need Christ…I am DEEPLY grateful for your support this year–may the new one bring you and your work every blessing.

  23. Christine

    Jennifer, we recently were visited by a young Chinese woman who’d been in the U.S for a few short months. She knew nothing of any religion whatsoever. She didn’t know who Jesus Christ was, had not a drop of any Christian notions. A totally blank board! My husband & I teach TOB at our church and after making sure she was interested, we told her in a few hours, the story of Christianity. You wrote;

    “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?”

    As we explained Christianity to her, it came alive again for us! I believe it was as enriching to us as it was to her. It was just an awesome experience that words cannot express.

    She recently wrote to me and said, “I thought Americans were “backwards” because of their religious beliefs & customs but I think differently now & will look into this practice when I return to college in MA in January.

    We’ve given her information on a Chinese Catholic community at her college along with the name of a Chinese speaking priest. It is now in God’s hands.

    Enough ramblings.. I love your posts, please keep them coming!

    God Bless & Merry Christmas!

Connect With Me On Social Media or Explore My Site



The "THIS IS JEN" podcast is on Facebook & all podcast apps


- Subscribe on iTunes or Google Play (audio)

- Get weekly bonus episodes on Patreon

- Sign up for my email list to be the first
to know about new tour dates