ON REVERENCE

Few would argue that the human condition is bereft of reverence. But in practice these days it would seem so at times. The infectious irony and scepticism of the postmodernist age have tended to unsettle our culture. Even if, as some people claim, we have moved on and postmodernism is dead, it rules us from its grave in so many social aspects.

 

Reverence is one. Indeed being called ‘irreverent’ can be a compliment. Used this way, it’s meant to be an ironic response to pretentiousness and pomposity or a sceptical comment on authority. It speaks of a pride that will not bow to pressure. Arguably, the origins of its recent appearance lie in the turning away from authoritarian elements of religion and upper-class dominance. Dada, shock art, punk rock and some rap music are a few of its manifestations in the aesthetic field.

Admittedly irreverence’s popularity doesn’t deny the value of reverence but it can tend to reduce its appeal and pave the way to trivialization.

More insidious though is the palpable neglect in showing reverence, which is so prevalent in our time-compressed and Internet – distracted society. And the sirens of narcissism, which seduce attention away from anything outside the self, coddle the disregard. We may not notice the diminution but are impoverished by it. Exceptions of course exist but their paucity advocates the case.

But, the veins of reverence run deep and eternal through the human condition, no matter how often ignored. As Sophocles, the Greek playwright, who signalled wisdom even in his name, said, “Reverence is not subject to the death of men; they live, they die, but reverence shall not perish.”

What is the definition of reverence? The Oxford Dictionary calls it a feeling of great respect or admiration for somebody or something. Paul Woodruff in his book on the subject adds awe and shame.

Shame might seem a curious word to use when defining reverence. He means the acknowledgement of insignificance in the presence of something greater than oneself. Perhaps humility might have been used, but shame is more piquant.

Sophocles held that “shame shares the throne with Zeus”. That shame can sit in such an exalted place illustrates its critical role in punishing behaviour that falls short. This would include failing to show reverence or exhibiting hubris, it’s the antagonistic opposite. It could be said that shame in this context assists in defining reverence for it acts as a consequence of negating it.

According to Woodruff, and it seems to be the case, reverence now has no part in discussions of ethics or political theory. It’s even left out of discourse on ancient cultures whose fundamental norms were based on it. Respect is afforded a place, but not in its evolved form, the form which gives breath to reverence and transforms it into one of the higher virtues.

Perhaps the main reason why reverence is so often missing in action now is that it’s integral to religion and identified with it. As a result, it’s accused of being inappropriate to the secularizing world we find ourselves in, seen too much as a servant of an aging master. The concern is understandable but born of misconception.

While religious devotion does indeed express reverence and always has, it’s not the only form. What can bring out the feeling is diverse, accommodating both religious and secular states. Though different in form its substance is the same, for it emerges from the interior of the person, a source common to all human beings, no matter what their beliefs.

We can have reverence for many things, small or large, and in different degrees, from mere common daily interactions to the most sublime. All are valid, though some are more profound than others. For example, one may feel reverence towards a display of excellence in sport and the players responsible, or towards the beauty of water lilies on a pond, or the grandeur of the universe.

They all evoke awe, heightened respect and a sense of humility, to a varying extent, by comparison to one’s own lack of importance. The comparison amplifies the feelings and helps to generate the contact with reality that reverence affords.

The origins of reverence go back to a time beyond mind, to the first occasion that Homo sapiens, and perhaps its forbears, stared at the terrible sky in a thunderstorm and wondered how to relate to its power.

Over the years, religious practices emerged to respond, to give expression to the feelings that so naturally arise in the presence of what is observed to be ultimate force – that which is scarcely knowable.

Coterminous with human consciousness is the experience of wonder, the transcendent extension of awe and the soft energy that gives life to reverence. The feeling is linked to the emotions that inhabit the place of the spiritual; experiencing reverence is to reach for infinity.

Each of us has a spiritual dimension, whether we are religious or not, just as we have a mental and physical one, and all must be actuated if we are to consider ourselves healthy. The spiritual is where our deeper sense of meaning resides. Indeed it has an influential effect on our values and concept of self. One might say it animates vision, the aspect of life that raises our gaze above the mundane.

“Where there is no vision the people perish”, says Proverbs. And in the poetry of Robert Browning, “Ah, a man’s reach must extend his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

The ancient Greeks give us guidance on reverence. For them, a well-ordered life required reverence for the gods, the ultimate authority, and the creative force of the world. In essence, it was the recognition of how puny and weak we humans are in relation to the cosmic energy that controls us. It’s a sense that demands a humbling of the self, the antidote to hubris, the sin so severely punished by the gods.  Humans are an expression of that cosmic energy, and hubris is a separation. It’s the separation that’s the nature of sin.

The Greeks well knew the need to quell the unruly and destructive vigour of the self when it bursts its natural limits and acts above its right. Their myths abound in cases of it.

One of the more famous is the punishment of Marsyas for hubris, which is seen to be the cruellest of all assaults on reverence.  The most notable musician of his time, he boasted he was best not only among mortals but also among the gods. His pride propelled him not to pay reverence to Apollo, god of music, but to challenge him to a competition.  Though shocked and angry, the god accepted because he could not tolerate the chance that, if he refused, he might be considered afraid of a mere mortal, or, even worse, not as good.

At the grand event, which all Olympus watched in rapt attention, the Muses were the judges. Marsyas played the flute which had been discarded by Athena because it distorted the beauty of her face, and Apollo the lyre. The prize was that the winner could treat the loser any way he wished. Marsyas gave a brilliant performance, impressing the Muses. Then Apollo played, just as beautifully. They were considered equal for a while but eventually, the music god forged ahead to win the contest.

He took his prize by having Marsyas flayed alive and his skin made into a wine sac, his blood flowing downhill to join the river Meander in Anatolia. And so, humans were warned.

The myth takes account of the tinge of fear that has, over time, lurked in the feeling of reverence, at least when it’s expressed in the presence of the divine. The emotion springs from an awareness of the potential for retribution, a reaction that inevitably occurs when humans fail to observe the appropriate relationship they are born to have with the force whose nature is above theirs. The concept ranges well beyond Greece; it appears in the Old Testament where Proverbs states, “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom: and before honour is humility.

In the Iliad, Homer describes what can happen if even a king fails to display reverence when due.  Agamemnon refused to free Chryseis, the beautiful daughter of Apollo’s priest, taken as a prize of war, despite her father’s pleas. Angry at the Commander in Chief’s failure to show reverence to him by complying with his priest’s entreaties, the archer god shot the Achaean troops with plague-tipped arrows. Ashamed of his impiety, Agamemnon redeemed his error by returning Chryseis to her father. Apollo was appeased and stopped the plague.

So important to the Greeks was reverence that Plato put into the mouth of his interlocutor, Protagoras, “And so Zeus, fearing that our whole species would be wiped out, sent Hermes to bring reverence and justice to human beings, in order that these two would adorn society and bind people together in friendship.”

Accordingly, to the ancients, reverence, both to feel and to show it, was a vital part of the universal order of things, what Pythagoras called the cosmos. And it was more. Reaching out to feel a connection with something qualitatively so much greater than us is liberating. The sense of inferiority, the acknowledgement of which starts the process of reverence, loses its sting as it melds into a positive relationship with power. The transformation kindles a sense of mellowness, of well -being.

Today, in the minds of many people, the fear of retribution so common in the past has evolved into a different state. For them, the relationship to the object of reverence is love, a love when expressed inadequately leads to a feeling of shame – punishment yes, but internal, not meted out by an external agent.

Much comment is made about the rising anxiety levels in our society, particularly among the young. A common form of anxiety stems from perceived loss of control in the midst of competing pressures, particularly from social media.

In the action of reverence, especially in its higher form, personal desires, which are dependent on the ego, are transcended. And so anxiety, however, caused dissolves, at least for a time, like a shower clearing a muggy day.

The longevity of its existence demonstrates that the condition of reverence is natural to humanity. It’s fundamental to what consciousness provides. Neuroscientists tell us it’s a mental experience of a bodily state. It releases oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that produce feelings of pleasure. The deeper the state of reverence, the more powerful is the neurotransmission.

For the Greeks and for all people, before and subsequent, reverence is shown in ceremony, no matter how complex or simple. Traditionally the ceremony is in the form of ritual observed in places of worship where the distractions of the material world are excluded and quietness seeps into the gap to allow the state to reveal itself. Symbolic acts are performed which concentrate the feeling, encouraging it to penetrate the deepest regions of the soul. But these are not the only means for aiding its expression.

It can be celebrated in any manner, through observing silences in public gatherings, and candlelight vigils in the street for the sad remembrance of tragedy, for example. To commemorate the centenary of the Armistice after the catastrophe of the First World War, two thousand people assembled at the War Memorial in Canberra to feel, with bowed heads in a minute of solemn solidarity, the sacrifice of sixty-two thousand Australian soldiers, and others who gave their lives for freedom. And of course, funerals are held in venues, both religious and secular, so as to connect natural affection for the deceased with a sense of the venerable but tenuous status of human life in the universal order of things.

The power of reverence crossed national borders when the Queen visited Dublin in 2008 and laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to commemorate the Irish republicans who fell in their struggles against England. She reverentially bowed her head, an act of royal grace possible only in contemplation of the unity of humanity. The Irish Prime Minister said on television later that day all hearts in Ireland melted.

In a lighter vein, reverence is shown through the ceremony of displaying national flags and playing or singing anthems. Sometimes, though, national anthems can touch the soul. At the recent Rugby World Cup in Japan, for example, the sincerity of both teams while they were singing, often at the top of their voices, showed a profound reverence, generated by awe-inspiring awareness that they were responsible for the prestige of their country. For the moment, the emotion melded them not only into their team but also into the greater unity of their nation.

Recently I attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a major extension of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Contemplation of art’s role in contacting the human spirit would be enough to inspire reverence in itself, for art speaks its language, but on this occasion, it was enhanced by a particularly moving Welcome to Country. These recognitions can often be perfunctory, but this time not so. Six young Aboriginal children, in turn, gave it in such innocence and sincerity, that everyone in the large audience was deeply touched.

For a ceremony or ritual to express reverence the participant must have the “right feelings” as Woodruff says. For this, authenticity is vital. Of course, that doesn’t always happen; many of us merely go through the motions, stripping the exercise of substance. In fact, concentration on the frequency of this hypocrisy is one of the reasons reverence has lost its prominence in the realm of human behaviour. King Claudius’ admission in Hamlet comes to mind,

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

There are many agents for reverence. Music is one of them. It has long been composed to elicit the feeling; sacred music as we know it dates back to Gothic voices and beyond. It’s the sound of the soul. As arguably the most emotional of the arts, music can go straight to the amygdala, the emotional heart of the brain. It stirs; it resolves. In its religious form, it’s a pathway in the spiritual realm, leading through the valley of perfect security.

Brahms’ German Requiem shows this. Its soaring notes lift us out of ourselves, high into a transcendent sphere of unity beyond the state of death, and its resolutions calmly guide us to a place of eternal peace.

Secular music can also express the sounds of reverence. One of them is a mystery, when it expresses the wonder of the unknown. The slow and melodic otherworldly strains of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis carry us into places that we can never know but would love to know.

 

With the rise of the environmental movement in recent decades is a growing respect for nature, a sensibility that evolves into reverence at times when life’s activity is allowed to pause in quiet for a while. Ceremonies as simple as merely standing in wonder of its presence are sufficient. Montaigne advises us, “We must judge with more reverence the infinite power of nature.” And Immanuel Kant said, “Two things awe me most, the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.”

These thoughts, in one manner or another, I imagine, must move the brush of landscape painters no matter what their style, at least in the more reflective ones. Reverence can insinuate the wonder of nature into the artist’s soul where it urges the creative spirit to express its form on the canvas. Some of nature’s essence is captured, but whatever it is, reverence is the godfather.

Reverential thoughts about the land have animated Australia’s indigenous people since the time of their creation stories. At a point, before it became studded with tourists, I used to visit Ubirr rock in East Arnhem Land (in the Northern Territory). Far distant from human habitation, the rock is a weathered sandstone promontory rising out of the ground like a giant mushroom. Surrounding rocks at lower levels make the climb easy.

At sunset, Aboriginal people, and some white fellas too (who I knew to be atheists but reverent towards nature) would go to sit on the flat top. It oversees a wide flood plain bordered with sandstone escarpment and eucalyptus trees modestly blue in the distant haze. As the light slides away over the ancient land, magpie geese, whistling kites and other birds fly to their nests across the field of vision in black silhouette, and stars begin to emerge, shy in the twilight.

The demeanour of the people, silent and motionless, and the concentrated calm on their faces manifest a profound reverence, one whose awe and wonder transcend the material state and touch the omnipotence that swallows all ego. In its spell, truth can be sensed, not fully understood, but felt. And the hands of unity are joined.