On Reverence

"By practicing reverence for life we become good, deep, and alive."

— Albert Schweitzer

The dark blue waves roll by as the low evening sun glints off of their crest. Dangling my feet over the lava rock cliff, the salty breeze gently playing with my hair, I watch below as a wave begins to form. It gets larger and larger as it approaches the shore, welling up into a giant barrel that comes crashing down with immense force. The sea spray catches the golden sun and the light scatters in a million sparkles. As the salty foam fizzes, it quiets down like the pause in between the exhale and the inhale. A lone seagull squawks overhead.

Something catches my eyes in the distance near the horizon. I move my head just in time to catch the end of a splash. Whales! Sure enough, a few moments later I see the tail of a humpback whale lift out of the water and come down with a huge splash. To be graced with the honor of a sighting of these giant majestic beings brings tears to my eyes.

I take a deep breath as the warm afternoon sun dips behind the horizon and the sky lights up with cotton candy pink. How incredible to think that these ancient creatures have swum in our oceans for millions of years, the very same oceans in which life emerged on this planet. Contemplating how we are all a part of this sacred web of life, I am filled with reverence.

“If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs.

Pray instead that all may be reverent.”

~ Paul Woodruff

What Is Reverence?

Reverence is defined on dictionary.com as “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe; veneration.” Wikipedia says “reverence involves a humbling of the self in respectful recognition of something perceived to be greater than the self.” While religion is a common place that reverence is experienced, it can also exist outside of religion; depending on one's worldview, it may influence the context in which one senses it.

Along with being a self-transcending positive emotion, reverence is also considered a cardinal virtue. "A virtue is a capacity, cultivated by experience and training, to have emotions that make you feel like doing good things," says Paul Woodruff in his book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. While practices of reverence differ from culture to culture, Woodruff makes the case that reverence is a virtue that can be detached from specific beliefs, rituals, or religions, and he also says that since he sees it as a cardinal virtue, it is something that can be cultivated by anyone.

Reverence is closely related to awe. In the study, Assessing Reverence in Contexts, Ai, Wink, et al, created a great chart to distinguish between awe and reverence. The authors defined awe as arising in response to perceived vastness, to something larger than oneself, to something beyond current understanding, or to power, whereas they saw reverence as arising in response to exceptional people, ideals or core values, something of great meaning, or someone or something sacred. The bodily sensations they associated with awe were goosebumps and a startled surprise feeling, whereas they associated a peaceful inner tranquility with reverence. The motivational outcomes for awe were a desire to accommodate the experience by changing mental models, to seek new meaning, or to transcend the self. The motivational outcomes for reverence were a desire to preserve, to protect or to engage with the respected or sacred, and a desire to adopt values, to devote oneself, or to transcend the self. The full chart is available here.

Reverence also is connected with what we consider sacred, whether in a religious or secular context. One definition of 'sacred' is “entitled to reverence.” In a graduation speech that Dacher Keltner gave, he said, "in caring and imagining the lives of others we encounter the fragile, fleeting beauty of life. This is the heart of reverence—our recognition that we are part of something sacred that is larger than any individual self."

"Everything is a sacred reality with infinite preciousness with immense potential to unfold. So the idea of reverence and respect is something that connects our ecological thinking and our social justice thinking. The entire universe is composed of precious beings, precious sacred realities and we’re here to commune with them."

~ Drew Dellinger

Why Is Reverence Important?

Paul Woodruff makes the case that now is the time to revive reverence. He explains:

Why write about reverence? Because we have forgotten what it means. Because reverence fosters leadership and education. Most important, because reverence kindles warmth in friendship and family life. And because without reverence, things fall apart. People do not know how to respect each other and themselves. ...Without reverence, we cannot explain why we should treat the natural world with respect. (source)

A key reason to write about reverence is that many believe that a loss of reverence is at the heart of most of our global crises, including our ecological crises. In a world where so many of us have forgotten that we emerged from and are an integral part of the web of life, and that our earth community needs us humans to take our roles as stewards and custodians with reverence, humility, compassion, and love, renewing reverence is part of the work of our times.

"This is the heart of reverence—our recognition that we are part of something sacred that is larger than any individual self." ~ Dacher Keltner, Graduation Speech

Reverence for Life

Reverence for Life was the core of Albert Schweitzer’s moral philosophy, and this contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the mid-20th century. He believed that having reverence for all of life was the essence of morality. The auth