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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Open to Awe
distributed 10/16/09 - ©2009

A rather mundane picture in National Geographic Magazine brings to my mind two powerful scenes with a much deeper meaning. Those recollections, in turn, lead me to ponder the importance of awe and wonder.

There are moments -- often brief and unplanned -- that call us out of ourselves. An encounter with creation opens our souls and our consciousness to the breathtaking scope and complexity of this amazing world.

I have a hunch that those awe-some experiences form and sustain many of the people who work diligently to preserve and heal the Earth. When we begin to comprehend, deep down in our hearts, the almost unimaginable vastness of God's creation, our perspectives and our values are transformed. When we realize the intricacy and mystery of the world around us, our arrogance and pride are constrained.

Awe cannot be brought forth on command, but we can make ourselves open to it. We can place ourselves -- physically and spiritually -- in settings where wonder and amazement are likely to emerge. Not only will we will be richer and stronger when we do so. We will nurture new advocates for creation care when we help others have experiences of awe.

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That picture in National Geographic (the October, 2009, issue) was of a woman standing beside a redwood tree. She is an activist for redwood preservation, with both hands on the trunk of the tree, looking up with delight at a 2,000 year old giant that has been saved from cutting.

The magazine image triggered a vivid memory of my spouse standing beside a redwood tree. In my mental picture, Allyson has her eyes closed, the palms of her hands gently resting on the bark, adding touch to sight, smell and sound in the presence of such ancient wonder. She stood in meditation, taking long moments that deepened her awe.

Coastal redwoods, found only in northern California, are among the world's largest and longest living plants. Allyson's reaction of awe within a redwood grove, and her embodied engagement with the source of her wonder, are a model for how we can open ourselves to those transformative opportunities.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park was a fertile place for a spiritual experience. We had set aside an abundance of time in the park, allowing the fullness of the setting to soak in, and the distractions of daily life to drift away. And then, Allyson's act of touching and lingering with a specific tree, soaking up the size and age of this individual living thing, opened the door so that awe could enter.

The second mental image evoked by the magazine picture echoes the redwoods scene. Allyson and I were visiting Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah, in a desert setting dominated by huge outcroppings of sandstone. One of our walks went through Capitol Gorge, a narrow crack with rock walls rising almost a thousand feet above us.

There is no visual similarity between the lush redwood groves of California and the stark desert of Utah, but as we walked deeper and deeper into the gorge, surrounded by layers of ancient sand, Allyson was again filled with a sense of age that goes far beyond the human lifetime. Once again, she stood at the base of an ancient and enormous part of creation, placed her hands on the walls in silent meditation, and absorbed the reality of geologic time.

When one has soaked up the presence of a living tree that may have been old in the "dark ages" of Europe, when one has been open to rock formations tens of millions of years in the making, it is impossible to see the brief flaring of technological humanity in the same way. Our civilization's explosive growth in numbers and consumption can only be seen as a dangerous aberration.

An experience of awe can be the basis for creation care when it fills us with humility and respect. Awe in the face of what is so much greater than our ordinary experience puts in horrifying context the abrupt distortions of nature that we wrestle with today. It may be that the profound horror of climate change and the devastating extinction of species -- crises brought about by human impacts within the last century -- can only be fully appreciated by those who have experienced the awe of deeper time.

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Allyson's reverent touch of living wood and ancient stone show one way to be open to awe. An exotic and unfamiliar place can make us more receptive to creation's truth. I encourage you to think back and to "re-member" similar experiences in a special place that may have opened you to the wonders of this world. Let a past event that touched you deeply come alive again, and renew your awe.

The good news is that we don't have to make a pilgrimage to some exceptional place to experience awe, though. We can discover and nurture that experience close to home, and in more ordinary ways.

As one example, I am struck with awe every time I see a Monarch butterfly -- or even any time I see a gold and rust colored butterfly that makes me think of a Monarch. The migration pattern of that remarkable species covers thousands of miles and up to five generations. I am reminded that I do not fully understand the mysteries of creation when I ponder a tiny insect flying home to the ancestral gathering site that was last visited by its great-great-grandparents. In the presence of a bug, I am caught up in awe at the wonders of life.

The experience of awe transforms us. It gives us a different vantage point for viewing our lives and our world. It provides a context for faith in which we are engaged with the deep roots and the untold mysteries of creation.

For the sake of our own faith and spirituality, and for the sake of the whole Earth community, I pray that we will open ourselves to awe. May we be intentional in creating -- for ourselves and our communities -- the space for wonder and wisdom to touch us, and to fill us with awe.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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