The current “Life in Christ” column by Fr John Breck is titled “Reverence.” It is, I think, a difficult thing to discuss the meaning of reverence. We must speak of specific times and places of reverence or else our discussion inevitably remains colorless. But then we realize that these specific times and places are always inextricably bound up with particular cultures, so that we can’t go on to speak of reverence in universal terms. Well, what can we say about reverence?
It happens that I posted on “What is Reverence?” in 2005. The post was mostly an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14, but I was wondering if our usual estimations of reverence could make sense of charismatic worship. Drawing on the Assemblies of God theologian Frank Macchia’s description of one of his congregants’ speaking in tongues, I wrote:
Dr Macchia, an Assemblies of God theologian, tells us that these cries show a response to the presence of the Holy Spirit “which is ultimately too deep for words” – they are, he says, powerful mysteries that are sacramental, announcing beyond the capacities of ordinary language that “God is here.”
Perhaps, then, we can suggest that “reverence” has to do with the distinct sense that “God is here” in such a way that a proper response is “beyond the capacities of ordinary language.” The proper response might involve certain actions or even glossolalia. But a common response, for most of us, might actually be silence, or, as Fr Breck writes, a “stillness before the God who, as St Ignatius declared, speaks His Word out of silence.”
During our liturgies, do we find ourselves drawn into this stillness?
Here is Fr Breck on reverence:
It’s a curious fact that the original biblical languages have no specific word for “reverence” (it appears nowhere in the indexes of the Philokalia or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers either). The closest scriptural usage is perhaps the Greek term evlabeia, “fear of God,” found only in Hebrews 5:7, where it refers to Jesus, and 12:28 where it qualifies the “acceptable worship” we offer to God. It is closely related to terms for “piety” or “Godly faith” (evsebeia) and “fear” in the divine presence (deos, phobos). None of these expressions, though, comes close to conveying the essence of “reverence”: an awe-filled wonder, mixed with both desire and devotion. “In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near!” This is the Liturgy’s strongest summons to assume, before the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, an attitude of genuine Reverence.
An attitude of reverence is the surest sign of authentic monastic life. In many monasteries there is a level of noise and confusion that undermines the life of everyone in the community. It can all be justified: guests arrive, a building needs to be repaired, the car won’t start, or the phone rings off the hook. Everybody is busy, and each one is occupied with something important. Yet no one has the time to acquire inner stillness, to weep over their sins, to rejoice in creation’s beauty, or – except when it’s scheduled as a community function – to pray.
When I visit monasteries like this, with my own distractions and lack of spiritual discipline, it helps to remember other times and places where monastics knew and respected their priorities. A small Catholic contemplative community in southern France, for example, or an Orthodox women’s monastery on the island of Crete. You enter the dimly lit chapel, whose ancient stone walls are permeated with centuries of prayer. The stillness is palpable, to the point that the only sound is of your own breathing. Then, as your eyes adjust to the low light coming through small, stained glass windows, you notice other people in there with you, kneeling, sitting or standing in quiet reverence, praying in silence. Unknown faces, yet like you, members of the one Body of Christ. And you are drawn into their prayer, into their stillness before the God who, as St Ignatius declared, speaks His Word out of silence.
Reverence is evoked, called up within us, also by heroic, self-giving acts of witness rendered in the face of persecution or charity offered to the neglected and forgotten souls in our own and other societies. Many of these actions are associated with groups within the Church we know mainly as acronyms: IOCC, for example, or OCMC. But many are performed, too, by simple yet saintly individuals who live out their faith through works of love. All of us have had experience with people like this, and they inevitably inspire a sense of reverence, for themselves and their selfless devotion, and for the God they so faithfully serve.
Within the Church and in our particular parishes there are multitudes of tasks that need to be accomplished, from building projects, to choir rehearsals, to feeding the hungry both spiritually and physically. Then again, in today’s climate it’s easy for us to become preoccupied with crises, scandals, abuses, unfulfilled missions and general neglect. These many concerns, both positive and negative, will not be adequately met, however, until and unless we recover a deep and genuine sense of reverence. That is, until we allow our spiritual longing, our desire for God, to fill and guide each of our thoughts and actions. Until we can come into His presence, in the parish community or in the solitude of our own room, with a child’s sense of awe and wonder, to stand before something that touches us so deeply and so powerfully that it calls forth fear, trembling, and tears of joy.