wow /wou/: expressing astonishment or admiration.
Recently I visited the local art museum to view an exhibit focused on French art from the late 1600s to the early 1900s.
This particular exhibit contained many works from the greats of that time period, such as, Degas, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and van Gogh.
At first, I was moving slowly through the exhibit pausing in front of each work with an audible and involuntarily, “Wow!” The genius of each artist was evident even to me.
With each passing gallery my pace began to quicken; I was pausing less at each work. Toward the end of the two-and-a-half hours I noticed my initial “Wow!” response had faded. Sure, I would occasionally come across a work that stood out in some way and I would get another shot of Wow!, but, for the most part it had faded even though I was still standing before works of true art by rare geniuses. Mostly, though, I was getting tired. There was no longer enough Wow! to keep me engaged and energized.
We humans are fickle creatures, aren’t we? We are forever seeking Wow! and then more Wow! I think this points to the central problem with Wow!: we eventually become numb to the initial precipitating Wow! experience and begin looking for more of it—whether in the form of the next adrenaline thrill or the next great novel or a new way to read something in the Bible or the latest generation of smartphone or…wherever. Like a drug to which we have built up a tolerance, we need a greater and greater Wow! fix to keep our interest.
I noticed something else at the museum. After viewing the exhibit, our small party of four gathered in the middle of one of the larger galleries to discuss our thoughts of the exhibit and our plans for dinner together. As we talked, I found myself beginning to stare at several of the nearby impressionist paintings. Being able to so easily view them together from a distance of about 20 feet allowed me to see them in a way I had never seen them before and to immediately understand impressionism in a new and profound way. My first response was, of course, Wow! We continued to stand in the gallery and I began to enjoy the extended time to engage with these few paintings in this new way—I was no longer seeing the paintings; rather, I was experiencing the paintings. And then a strange thing happened, my Wow! began to change to a quieter and prolonged “wow…”
My Wow! had given way to awe.
My Wow! had given way to awe.
awe /ô/: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.
“Wonder” is such a terrific synonym for “awe.” Perhaps you recall a day when you noticed a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset, one so remarkable that it stopped you in your tracks. Likely you couldn’t help but stare at it, not thinking about it but experiencing it in wonder. Standing there, staring at the beauty before you, doing nothing but being in the experience of the moment is, paradoxically, a deliberate act of contemplation. The “awe” you felt can only come from such deliberate contemplation.
Have you ever been curious why the so-called Christian mystics focus on contemplation of God as the way to God? It is easy to believe, from our modern standpoint, that contemplating God is an archaic practice for those with nothing else to do. It is a waste of time, we tell ourselves, because we are not doing anything for God. Not so. I believe the act of contemplation is indeed the path to God exactly because of my experience at the museum: without contemplation I only think or hear about God and maybe it gives me a sense of Wow! I look to God for a Wow!-inducing miracle and then, like those who saw Jesus perform miracles and wanted more, I, too, continuously seek more and more Wow! from God. However, when I slow down to contemplate God I begin to experience Him more deeply, to experience Him with fear and wonder…to begin to engage Him with a sense of awe.
Contemplation requires time, and, sadly, time is something we have so little of, or so we believe.
The biblical writers often write with a sense of awe:
O Lord, our Sovereign how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8)
Ancient Israel’s King David took the time to contemplate creation around and above him and was clearly in awe of God as he wrote these words. In those final minutes at the museum, as I began to contemplate the art around me, I found myself in awe of the work and the artists…and of God, their creator. Contemplating something from God had drawn me into contemplation of God.
Without God’s help, we are simply incapable of seeing Him and contemplating Him. In the 1300s, a monk from the East, St Gregory Palamas, wrote this about God’s initiative toward us:
[Because we are incapable of seeing God, He] illuminates the mind alone with an obscure light, so as to draw a man to Himself by that within Himself which is comprehensible, and so as to evoke his wonder at that which is incomprehensible, and through this wonder to increase his longing, and through this longing to purify [his desire for] him. (The Triads)
The light is God, and the mind (nous) of which Palamas speaks is not the brain or the mind as we think of it now. He speaks of an inner organ of vision with which we are all able to see into the spiritual realm, a sight that has been obscured by the sin of mankind.
God is all around us and is ever inviting us, wishing that none of us turn from Him. However, because our spiritual vision is so poor, we can only begin contemplating Him with our our senses or intellect through things that we “see,” such as great art. Thankfully, as we seek Him He is at work in us, His children, clarifying our inner sight so that we might increasingly behold Him in awe.
Next time you see someone staring at a flower, at a sunset, at a two-legged image of God, at a work of art, or even staring off into space apparently wasting time, perhaps it is me contemplating God and experiencing Him in awe. Come and sit beside me for awhile.