Fr. Britto's Blog

Give in to Awe

The last couple of weeks I have been looking out of my living room windows admiring how the trees outside are coming back to life. Just a short while ago they were masses of dry, dead limbs with no sign of life. Suddenly green buds are raising their heads and in another few days the trees will be fully adorned with bright green leaves. Every spring I am moved by this relentless cycle of life, this movement from death to life. The experience fills me with awe. Growing up in a big city in India where we have only three seasons – hot, hotter and hottest – I was not a witness to this amazing dance of death and life.

As spring comes along and our spirits get a boost of energy, I would like to invite all of us to reflect on the role of wonder and awe in our lives. An article in Psychology Today that I read recently inspired me to discuss this topic in my column. Even psychologists acknowledge the benefits of letting ourselves be filled with awe. Sense of awe is being overwhelmed by something bigger than ourselves; it is a sense that transports us out of our banal material existence into a superior realm. For us who are faith-filled Christians, awe carries us into the divine sphere as it fills us with profound appreciation for the Creator. One of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit conferred on us at our confirmation is awe or wonder.

Even psychologists suggest that awe is the best antidote for our narcissism and self-absorption. When people are filled with awe, they engage in self-transcendence. They are no longer obsessed with self or trivial concerns. They feel more connected to their social groups and motivated for the common good. They lose themselves in something bigger.

Awe is also beneficial to health. Richard Louv, the author of The Natural Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age, points out that awe which arises from contact with nature brings forth several benefits. It boosts the immune system and improves cognitive functioning by increasing our attention span. Stanford researcher, Gregory Bratman found that college students who walked through green, leafy parts of the campus were happier and more attentive afterward than those assigned to hang out near heavy traffic.

Besides nature, there are other venues that fill us with awe. Robert Leahy, a clinical psychologist, asserts that awe-inspiring experiences are often provided by places of worship where architecture, music, art and prayer draw attendees outside of themselves. Others describe religious institutions as places that elicit, organize and ritualize awe. In addition, monasteries, museums, art galleries and bodies of water are all viable alternatives to nature to fill us with awe.

Most of us urbanites are awe-deprived. We live in a concrete jungle with scant exposure to nature in all her glory. Noise increases our stress levels and light pollution prevents us from gazing at the stars. Our lives are so consumed by ordinary, everyday concerns that we take very little time to contemplate the mystery of the cosmos. We fail to engage in something that is very beneficial to us.

As we draw closer to summer and as you are planning your vacations, I would like to invite you to choose experiences that will fill you with awe. Take time to contemplate God’s grandeur in the beauty of nature. Dante said, “Nature is the art of God.” Visit art galleries or listen to music by the great composers. Spend time near the ocean or on the mountain, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Wrap yourself in wonder. Allow yourself to become small before the enormity of the cosmos. Your troubles will shrink in size and your tendency to worry will diminish.

Many of us worry constantly because we are so self-absorbed. Mulling over worries or rumination is the strongest predictor of depression and anxiety. Dr Leahy says, “Awe is the opposite of rumination. It clears away inner turmoil with a wave of outer immensity.” 

Unfortunately both psychology and science fail to recognize that the ultimate object of awe is the Creator Himself. The article I referred to earlier concludes thus: “We are the exception, specks of dust, but ones that, as part of a rare universe with intelligent life, are the byproducts of countless miraculous accidents.” We do not believe in accidents but in Providence. We believe in a God who not only made us but also sprinkled His grandeur all over the universe so that filled with awe we will trace our steps towards Him.

I shall leave you with a few lines from a classic hymn we sing so often:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, 
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, 
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, 
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, 
How great Thou art, How great Thou art 

May the Holy Spirit whose feast we await fill us all with wonder and awe!

Who is Fr. Britto?

Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.

After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...

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