Calling from the pay phone in our dorm lobby, I told my mom that I had decided to major in philosophy. Some parents would fret about their son or daughter studying something so impractical. But not my mother. She reacted as if I were announcing my engagement to a member of the royal family.

A week later we were having another long-distance conversation. My mom said, “I didn’t know what philosophy was, so I looked it up. It means love of wisdom. That’s you. You love to learn.”

69E511C3-A582-417B-88FB-AB13EEDC4752Hearing anybody suggest that I love wisdom would have brought the house down with laughter among my old high school friends. Not a few of my college classmates would have rolled their eyes at the idea.

When a friend since childhood found out that I had been ordained to the priesthood, he said something like, “How did a cynical hedonist like you end up doing that?” Ouch. The truth can sting.

As I entered my late teens and young adulthood, I had gradually developed a Timon-like attitude toward the world. You may recall that Timon is Simba’s meerkat companion in The Lion King. His philosophy of life is summarized by the phrase “hakuna matata.” No worries. No worries because nothing really matters.

To clarify, Timon put it this way, “When the world turns its back on you, you turn your back on the world.” Cynics expect the world to let them down. So they refuse to get suckered by any of the world’s promises. 

I can’t speak for any other recovering cynics, so you can take or leave what I’m about to say about the roots of my own cynicism. 

My parents divorced. Living with a profound speech impediment left me feeling isolated. I was ashamed of our perpetual financial struggles. And I hid from everybody the dark secret that a neighbor had sexually abused me as a child.

7C8B14AF-839B-410A-8B5B-221DE4BE3B5AFor me, the world wasn’t what it pretended to be. And I wasn’t about to let the world get it over on me one more time.

Initially, I mistook my cynicism for wisdom. And in my hands philosophy functioned like a sort of scalpel. Reason revealed untruth and uncovered hypocrisy lying just beneath the intellectual skin. Other people’s skin that is.

With some embarrassment I admit to feeling a sort of smug satisfaction at dismantling other people’s naive beliefs or rubbing their noses in their intellectual and moral inconsistencies.

In the midst of my campaign on behalf of intellectual anarchy, I guarded a dirty little secret. Especially from myself. Even while I delighted in showing people that only a chump would put their trust in something, I was struggling to believe in me. To believe that my life really matters.

Cynicism, as it turns out, is the opposite of wisdom. Cynicism distances us from one another and erodes the sense of our own worth. By contrast, wisdom imbues life with meaning by drawing us into ever deeper relationships. No wonder the young king Solomon asked God for wisdom above all things. (1 Kings 3:9)

24948972-56F0-4DEA-9281-3F5440B790DDSolomon didn’t ask for wealth or long life or military success. As the leader of God’s people, he asked for wisdom. Over his long reign, he did many unwise things. Nevertheless, he ascended the throne asking for wisdom. In this, he points to a path that beckons us all. The path of wisdom. The way of Jesus walks.

In the Psalms and in Proverbs we read that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Hebrew word rendered as “fear” is better translated in this case as “awe.” Awe is the beginning of wisdom.

Anne Lamott helps me understand the experience of awe when she discusses the third basic kind of prayer in her book Thanks Help Wow. Wow is the prayer we utter when we encounter something or someone whose beauty and grace and goodness exceeds our capacity to think, much less to speak.

In other words, “Wow” is what we say when we experience wonder. To be in awe is to be wonderstruck. When we encounter God—whether in a sunset, a starry sky, the Holy Sacrament, the lines in an old woman’s face, or the immensity of the sea—we experience wonder.

Some philosophers like Immanuel Kant have used the word “sublime” to refer to encounters like this. When a finite heart and mind crosses paths with the infinite. When an incomprehensible magnitude stretches to bursting all the limits we place on our thinking and our feeling.

Wow! We don’t have the words. And we are not the same after such an encounter.

But being stretched by the infinite is only part of the story. Awe reveals to us that we matter to this infinitely good and beautiful and powerful being. The divine has brought us into being and sustains our existence as an act of inexpressible love.

In the nanosecond that awe holds me in its grasp, I realize that—in my Maker’s heart—I am irreplaceable. I cannot be interchanged with anyone or anything else. I am peerless. I am the Aretha Franklin of the creation. Just like every woman, man, screech owl, goldfish, and proton.

We feel awe as the Infinite Love stretches us. Stretches us to receive more of God. More of each other.

I once was mostly immune to wonder. These days I’m susceptible, at least in my better moments, to being wonderstruck.

 

24 Comments

  1. Bishop Jake,
    As you were talking about awe, I was thinking about Aretha Franklin’s talent and her musical legacy. Thank you for mentioning her.

    Stay blessed,
    Father Wayne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are correct father Wayne . Everyone in 21st century America , whether in the secular or religious communities , has heard of Aretha Farnklin and her music . That’s very gracious of the reverend to mention her passing in his blog . And I thank him for it . Because both communities will miss her musical talents . Her last video recording was of her singing the Nessun Dorma .

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  2. This meditation was so refreshing, it brought a tear this old man’s eye and a reminder that the religious experience of awe is nothing less than factual evidence that grace not only exalts but heals the deepest reaches of the soul. Thank you, Bishop, for your insights.

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  3. I recently listened to a podcast by Jen Hatmaker with Jim Burns. He used the word awe as an acronym for parenting: Affection, Warmth, and Encouragement. I loved this and think it can also guide my life as a teacher. God calls us to be in awe, to wonder, and to love. You exemplify that in all you do and say. Thanks!

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  4. You’re walking the talk and telling your own true story. But your learning and experience enable you to share valuable lessons and insights as well. I’ve always felt confused by people who are confrontational plus cynical. While I understand that you were struggling to believe in yourself, I also wonder if your behaviour was a mask for an underlying genuine desire to find the Real or the Truth? …hoping to find someone who had a rock-solid basis for what they believed? What you’ve said about cynicism is interesting and helpful.

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  5. Thanks for sharing, life is puzzling and askew, cynicism brings these notions to the forefront and awe and faith puts them in perspective, I believe. Hope you have a blessed day. Thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for sharing this and also sharing your story Jake ! You’ve had some tough times and its brave of you to share such personal parts of you with us . I’d love to know how you ended up coming to the Lord after all you’ve been though ❤️❤️

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    1. Thanks for reading, Sandy. My books relate the stories. It’s been a long and undulating road. I’ll sum it up by saying that Christ has always been coming to me. Not the other way around. Seeing and being receptive, these are the growth areas for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Bishop Jake,

    Every word you write or speak is like a fine jewel, but the ones that touch my heart the most are the words of your own story! You are such a special person.

    I am blessed to receive this gift of light! Joy in Christ! Deacon Belle

    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

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