In our Journey groups this month, we are asking you to describe an experience of awe. I’d love to share one of mine:
I was a teen, camping with my Girl Scout troop in northern Vermont. While we had pitched tents, the night was so warm and the sky was so clear, we opted to move our sleeping bags outside and lie underneath a blanket of stars. I was in that twilight stage of sleep when my eye caught something green and shimmery in the sky. I sat up with a start, unsure of what was happening, but soon I was enveloped in the beauty of the northern lights, the waves of color sweeping overhead, so seemingly close that I could almost touch the velvety sheets of blue, green, and purple lights. The universe felt so close, and I was enchanted by wonder. As others saw it, we shared a moment of feeling at once infinitesimally small and at one with the universe.
The next morning, our leader explained in detail the scientific phenomenon we had witnessed – that the aurora borealis was nothing more than charged particles from the magnetosphere colliding with atoms in the earth's upper atmosphere, absorbing extra energy that is expressed as light. Some of my fellow Girl Scouts were dismayed to know it hadn’t been a miracle – their bubbles had been burst like the kid who found out Santa isn’t real.
But for me, knowing that this could happen in such spectacular array left me even more in awe. I still remember that moment and the feeling of childlike wonder – wonder that led me to learn more about astronomy, which led me to learn more about mythology and ancient cosmologies, which in a way led me to ministry.
But it isn’t just scientific phenomena that evoke childlike wonder; it can be almost anything, big or small. You don’t have to see an event to be awed by it – perhaps it is a sound, like jingle bells around midnight on Christmas eve… or a touch, like your brother surprising you from behind as he returns early from war… or a smell, as you open the door to wafts of a still-baking apple pie … or a taste, like discovering a hint of mint in a Hershey’s kiss.
Sure, we may know intellectually that it’s our cousin playing with the bells, or our brother wanting to surprise us, or our roommate’s sudden impulse to bake, or simply our not paying attention to which chocolate we picked up. But it doesn’t make the moment any less special. In fact, it may be more special because we were caught off guard by something wonderful. Theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman encourages us to make room for these moments; he writes, “There must be always remaining in every life, some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathless and beautiful.”
It’s not hard to reclaim space for childlike wonder. It takes a little something like trust… or hopefulness… I call it faith. Faith in what? That’s up to you. But faith in something allows us to let go a little and trust the moment, even when we don’t know what the moment will bring. Faith lets us experience – with joy – the excitement of anticipation, the element of surprise, the appearance of the unexpected, the seeming impossibility of its happening. Even when we know the truth behind the stories, faith lets us lean a little into the wondrous.
Here’s to those moments of awe, that take our breath away, that provide a moment of joy, that remind us of our childlike wonder.