November 7th, 2008

Generic Meditation Issues: Dread and Awe

          The fear of the lord prolongeth days...
           In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence...
           The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 10:27, 14:26, and 1:7)

Awe is a natural response to the spontaneous awareness of the sacred.  I have been lucky enough to have been awed on several occasions.  Usually this was in response to natural phenomena -- a deep canyon, or a dark night, or watching a hurricane on TV. Twice however, the experience seemed to have a supernatural element.  Once at age nine I was playing in the mud and had a brief but certain moment of absolute clarity: I was at home and at ease in the universe.  The second experience was not so brief nor so pleasant.  At age 16, I became aware, again with absolute certainty, of the meaninglessness of existence.  All my life, I have viewed this experience as "demonic" but in the light of the experiences of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Saint John of the Cross, I am no longer convinced of that.  At least I know that I am not Rabia or Catherine of Genoa; my love of the divine is conditional on its benign behavior.  The experience lasted three months and was interrupted by  the start of the senior year of high school where I was able to be an ordinary teenager again,  By spring, the horror of damnation had been replaced by a not too uncomfortable drift toward agnosticism. I mention this because I identified the first experience, but not the second as "full of awe."  The second experience, but not the first, had a heavy component of fear.  Awe without fear versus fear without awe.  Ought one have "holy dread" as part of the experience of awe? 

My dictionery defines awe as a mixed emotion of reverence. respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity or might,  Three words trouble me here: dread, authority, and might.  I might touch on the latter two in a subsequent entry. The dictionery then gives two examples of the usage of the word:
          We felt awe when contemplating the works of Bach, and
          The imprisoned soldiers were in awe of their captors.
Well, each experience might elicit strong feelings, but would the same word apply in both situations?

My hero, Dorothy Day. was fond of quoting Dostoeyevski to the effect that "love is a harsh and dreadful thing."  But the character in whose mouth Dostoeyevski put those words seems to me to use them in a mocking sense.  Ivan Karamasov is telling the priest that he might have become a nurse if it weren't for the fact that patients are so damned ungrateful,  The priest replies: "Compared to love in dreams, my son, love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing."  The negativity in awe is that we cannot fully experience the source of that awe from our "fallen" state.  This, to me, is also John of the Cross' "dark night."  The dark night is a blessing because it hides the distractions of the secular world and allows one to focus on the sacred; but it also a curse because we cannot "look upon the face of the Lord and live."  The mystery remains mystery no matter how much one longs to enter it,

Dread is an element that is strongest in the state polytheisms that preceeded monotheism.  The rulers and their priests presided over hierarchically structured societies with massive structured inequalities.  Religious dread was part of the social control mechanism that permitted harsh, unjust, and unequal regimes.  It should be no part of the religions of societies that pretend to be democratic. It certainly has no part in mystical religion as Rabia and Catherine of Genoa both knew.  Fear not.