"Cultivating Reverence"

September 21, 2003
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

In the summer of 1990, I spent some time in Paris with my friend Genie, who lived near the beautiful cathedral of the Sacre Couer (Sacred Heart). Often I would climb the hundreds of steep, stone stairs from Genie's flat up to Montmartre and slip into Sacre Couer -- and stand in the back of the great cathedral, tuning out the tourists and just receiving the peaceful spirit of the place. I was a new schoolteacher on summer break who appreciated the healing silence.

If you have ever been to Sacre Couer, you know the image of Jesus that resides there as the primary devotional image in the cathedral. It is a gorgeous thing --a seemingly miles-high, living, teaching Jesus hovering over the nave. He is there in a billowing white robe, arms outstretched, Lover of us all, happy to see you. Happy to see you rather than suffering on the Cross. I had never seen that in church before. The place ministered to me.

One afternoon Genie and I decided to go back to the Sacre Couer (she is a lapsed Catholic so it took some persuading). And so it was that we walked in out of the bright sun of Paris and stood quietly in the back of the church together, savoring the spirit, feeling connected in the peacefulness, regarding the friendly Jesus from our private perspectives. And then we looked at each other in the unspoken, smiling agreement that friends often have, and we moved together to walk slowly and softly up the aisle -- pulling scarves over our bare shoulders as we walked. No longer just tourists, we were worshipers.

And we slid into a front pew to sit and pray -- safe within the embrace of the stillness. We had only been there a short while, though, before a security guard approached Genie and tapped her on the arm. He whispered to her in French, and his tone didn't sound friendly to me. She whispered back in heated tones, also in French. I tried to ignore them both and keep hold of the peace and the presence -- but unsuccessfully. The guard's gestures and tones became increasingly aggressive and Genie finally grabbed me by my arm and pulled me out of the pew. "Come on." We had been commanded to leave the sanctuary immediately.

Confused and afraid, I hurried down the aisle behind Genie -- but as Orpheus could not resist a backward glance at Eurydice when ascending out of Hades, so I could not keep myself from catching one last glimpse of that loving Jesus before departing the cathedral. I paused and turned. And there he stood, laughing.
"Honey, that's Church. I'm Jesus. Now you know the difference. See you soon."

Well, I couldn't help it -- I laughed, waved farewell to Jesus and took my time walking out to join Genie in the courtyard.

When I caught up to her I asked, "What happened? Why'd we get kicked out? What did we do?" And Genie, one of the truly sweetest gals you' d ever want to meet, was so mad she positively spit it out: "Vicki, we didn't genuflect. He kicked us out because we didn't genuflect ."

And that is how I was ejected from one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe for the crime of irreverence. It' s one of my favorite stories, although at the time I carried the anger around with me for days. I am still angry about accusations of irreverence that are based on outward forms of piety and not at all on inward integrity and respect for the sacred. I' m deeply sorry that so much of the world still works this way.

I decided to begin my exploration of the ethical virtue of reverence with a story about perceived irreverence because reverence is a slippery fish to get a grasp on. Is it a feeling? Is it a set of behaviors? Is reverence contingent on faith and belief, or is it natural to the human animal beyond the bounds of religion?

I feel it is important to make an attempt to better understand reverence, as it is a word (and a value) that this congregation embraced as being central to our covenanted life as a church. "In the bonds of fellowship and love," we say, "we unite to cultivate reverence." I think I am the one who came up with that phrase as I worked with Deanna Riley, Jim Pickel and Dexter Robinson to put words to the many opinions we gathered from among you during our Covenant Conversations last year. What I was trying to express with those words was what I believe is a primary spiritual goal for all of us: through our commitment to church life, and especially through the practice of regular worship, we want to become more attuned to what is sacred in our everyday existence. We want to see God! . . . or at least feel the possibility of a Holy Presence. We are willing to be brought to our knees in awe of the ultimate reality that daily brings the world into being: the breath of our breath, the life of our life.

Paul Woodruff, the author of a little book called Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, might surprise you by arguing that reverence does not belong to religion so much as it belongs to community. ("Reverence lies behind civility, and all of the graces that make life in society bearable and pleasant." -- Woodruff) He examines his subject from the perspective of two classical models: the ancient Greek and the ancient Chinese – two cultures that he believes flourished by embracing many admirable virtues.

I appreciate that Woodruff' s scope of study -- and of admiration --goes beyond the Judeo-Christian perspective. It' s too easy, in talking or arguing about reverence in our own western nation, to get mired in judgments about "who is a good Christian" or "what is a good Jew." If, as Woodruff suggests, "virtue is the source of the feelings that prompt us to behave well," then the question of religious identity vis-à-vis reverence is a moot one.

We are reverent, says Woodruff, when we have a capacity to hold awe for "what we believe lies outside our control – God, truth, justice, nature, even death." I take this to mean that we cultivate reverence when we maintain respect for such things as are worthy of respect, humbly accepting our own inability to comprehend all things or to achieve mastery over all things. As the ancient Greeks understood, and wrote about so brilliantly in their tragedies, humility is a central component of reverence. We are not gods. There is another reality greater, deeper and more powerful than anything within human imagining. Hubris and reverence cannot co-exist in one heart.

Woodruff makes some interesting points about ceremonies and rituals being a good way for a community to express reverence. But not in the way you might expect. Voting, he says, can be one such ritual. Meetings, too, can be an opportunity for reverence when they are undertaken in a spirit of communal respect for a shared ideal, even when there are differences among the people.

Woodruff makes it clear that not all worshipful rituals are necessarily reverent. When I watched the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" not long ago, I was very frightened by a powerful scene where the Ku Klux Klan meets in the woods to act out a well-choreographed pageant of supremacy – it is like the Rockettes gone totally mad -- an intentional appropriation of religious ritual. The scene, in what is otherwise a very funny movie, gave me the chills and stayed in my mind for days. It helped me to better understand why pseudo-religions like Nazism can be so powerful, and helped me see that rituals and ceremonies that create awe in the bosom of the viewer or participant are not always reverent. Awe and reverence feel similar, but they are not the same. True reverence must contain other components. . .

Come back with me for a moment to Sacre Couer, and to that moment of confrontation and ejection. You have heard my perspective and you know me to be a person who was present in that cathedral with all due respect and even with a truly devotional heart. Let' s put ourselves for a moment, then, in the place of the security guard. It has taken me a long time to have compassion for what Monsieur Security might really have been feeling in that moment.

He had been charged to protect this sacred space, and to keep it from becoming a purely tourist attraction marred in its majestic silence by the clicking of cameras and the desecration of improperly clad men and women. It' s fine, he' s been told, for folks to mill around in the back and look. But those who approach the altar must be worshipers. They must display the proper reverence. And since we cannot see into the minds of those who approach the Lord in this space, the guard thinks, we must look for outward forms of inward piety. We look for the bended knee, the sign of the cross, the genuflection. A broad grin just won' t do. Eyes filled with tears of appreciation and wonder aren' t evidence enough. With hundreds of tourists filing in every day, how can the guard be expected to note these tiny bits of evidence of reverence? He cannot. He goes by what he knows –outward forms of inward reverence (even though I have been told by faithful Catholics that this one man was probably just having a bad day, as it is in fact not necessary to genuflect in order to approach the altar).

Free thinkers have always questioned the usefulness of outward forms to express inward virtues. And because we do, we get into trouble. Many people in the world find tremendous comfort and value in ceremonies of reverence that make others of us itchy and suspicious. For wondering why we must pledge allegiance to a flag, for example, we may be accused of irreverence. For questioning whether it is really reverent to invoke God' s presence or to pray during civic or state-sponsored gatherings, we are accused of "trying to remove God from society" (I was accused of this very thing the other day).

Those of us who live with reverent hearts find it somewhat ridiculous that God would need, like a member of the social register, to be admitted into society. This is obviously a difference of theology. It would not occur to me that the ACLU or any other liberal group could remove God from society, as one would sneeringly draw a line through an undesirable name under consideration for country club membership. As a matter of fact, I consider highly irreverent – in fact, even blasphemous-- the assumption that mere human beings somehow have the power to – to extend the social club metaphor – blackball the Deity from being that holy presence in which we "live and move and have our being."

It is almost comical. Unfortunately, policy is made on such comedy. Wars are fought over it; human beings are deemed subordinate to gestures and they are kicked out of churches, thrown out of ceremonies, insulted and manipulated in countless ways by those who believe themselves to be the truly faithful.

I try to maintain compassion for those who are so insecure in their faith as to react hysterically to those who choose not to conform to prescribed actions that display reverence, but it is difficult. I lose patience. There are ceremonies of kindness, hospitality, responsibility and goodness that are universal and that work perfectly well for me as evidence of reverence. Very few of them are those taught by a particular sect.

Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama justice who has made a cause celèbre by refusing to remove a granite monument of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court building, is exactly the kind of man who I believe would greatly benefit from embracing a wider definition of reverence. How threatening the world must feel to such men as Judge Moore -- a dangerous, heathenish place where civil libertarians and other of the "godless" seem to be dismissing God from the throne of public sovereignty.

You know the constitutional arguments by which Judge Moore was legally admonished to remove the monument: we live in a religiously pluralistic nation where no one creed should be allowed to become the law of the land. We must preserve all Americans from being coerced, however subtly, to follow the religion of the majority, or even of a persuasive minority. On the purely human level, I am sorry for Judge Moore that his guiding principles cannot be displayed in the public square if he feels the need to have them there. Perhaps he might, as the Jews have done for thousands of years, wear them on his person so that he can refer to them whenever he feels the need to reaffirm his moral commitments.

But there is something else. There is an argument not about constitutionality but about that component of reverence that was also missing from that terrifying spectacle in the woods where the Klan marched in solemn, pious formation to its sinister god. It is something that the great African American theologian Howard Thurman alludes to when he reminds us of the ultimate reality that for faithful people to be virtuous in their faith, God must be a spiritual reality that both is love and leads us to love. Thurman, a Baptist minister and civil rights leader who inspired such non-violent leaders as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi, lived such a life as should remind us that the virtue of reverence is forged for some in the fire of brutal oppression; the most extreme expression of irreverence.

What then is reverence? We have not yet quite got a grasp on that slippery fish, but we have a better idea, I hope, of what we mean by it then when we first came in. Reverence is one part awe and one part respect for those things that indiscriminately create "life more abundant" for all living things. Reverence is one part appreciation and one part participation. It contains both solemn ritual and spontaneous joy. Reverence is an emotion and an instinct; it fills the heart and brings the reverent one to gladly assume a humble posture before the grandeur of life. Above all, reverence requires love. There is no reverence without it. Piety, perhaps, but not reverence. Before loyalty to ceremony or ritual, before acquiescence to outward forms of devotion to anyone and anyThing, the reverent heart must first and foremost be a loving heart.

Of course you already knew that. So let Paul Woodruff have the last word: "Virtues grow in us through being used, and they are used mainly by people living or working together." So may it be, and may we live to make it so, with reverence and love leading us on. Amen.