Awe and Forgiveness
“(They) who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,
Is as good as dead; (their) eyes are closed.”
At sundown one special day each year, millions of people together pause “to wonder and stand rapt in awe.” On Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, Jews are called to dedicate the next ten days to contemplative prayer and deep reflection in order to ensure that they are not “as good as dead.”
At this moment, the Gates of Heaven are flung wide open, both the Book of Life and the Book of the Dead are unsealed, and the Days of Awe begin. During these most holy of days, the spaces between life and death, between heaven and hell, are incredibly thin. And we are presented with the remarkable opportunity to open our eyes -- to our own mistakes; to the powers of sincere apology, making amends, and forgiveness; and to the redemption offered by atonement.
On Yom Kippur, the gates will slam shut, and the books will be sealed. We will either be as dead, without redemption, or be granted more time to stand in awe and wonder.
It is sometimes difficult for modern-day seekers to connect with such ancient rituals. They may seem to relate to a god that has little to do with us. Their symbolism may appear archaic, their lessons harsh and punitive. In fact, many of us have turned away from religion altogether, because the administration of it in our world was sometimes severe, perhaps even punitive and cruel. Perhaps we have made conscious decisions to replace the deities of our childhood with more gentle, loving aspects of the divine or to disperse with them altogether. We likely confused the austerity of God with the malice of humans.
And, understandably, we rejected that from our lives.
But in so doing, we threw away the AWE.
Awe is “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.” In modern English usage, the true meaning of the word has been diluted substantially. So many things are called “awesome” -- new shoes, an idea, a movie; and lots of things are “awful” -- new shoes, an idea, a movie.
The roots of the word “awe,” however are not insubstantial at all. For millennia, related words (in old English, Norse, and Greek alike) all related to fear, wonder, even to pain.
It was awe that propelled pilgrims to travel thousands of miles in the harshest of conditions to worship at holy sites; it was awe that fueled the building of majestic synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals; it was awe that inspired breathtaking works of literary and visual arts in honor of the divine.
We would miss the mark if we were to imagine that these events and creations were merely executed out of fear of retribution from a reproachful god. Instead, they are the manifestation of pure reverence for something infinitely vast, powerful, and sublimely beautiful. Standing in front of an enormous waterfall, holding the fingers of a newborn baby, and watching a pod of dolphins frolic in the ocean can all inspire the same experience of awe, a veneration so strong it is almost painful.
What, then, of these Days of Awe?
And how to connect with their profoundly powerful energy as a modern-day seeker, someone who views God not as separate from but as within and all around me?
These ten days, we have the amazing opportunity to witness something infinitely vast, powerful, and sublimely beautiful: our own capacity to apologize, to make amends, to atone, and to forgive.
Standing before someone and offering a sincere apology from our hearts is as frightening and as beautiful as standing before an enormous waterfall.
Reaching into our depths, we discover the ability to forgive someone who has betrayed us; and we feel awe at that divine ability, for it comes from a source at once greater than anything we can imagine and as near as our own heart.
Taking this opportunity to atone for the places where our thoughts, words, and actions were not in alignment with our true nature, which is rooted in goodness and love, we are washed with overwhelming grace.
We pause. We stand rapt in awe, so that we may once again open our eyes to the wonders that surround and saturate us.