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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 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 author of Schweitzer's biography, James Brabazon, described the philosophy as such: "Reverence for Life says that the only thing we are really sure of is that we live and want to go on living. This is something that we share with everything else that lives, from elephants to blades of grass—and, of course, every human being. So we are brothers and sisters to all living things, and owe to all of them the same care and respect, that we wish for ourselves."

Using this philosophy as a guiding ethical principle, Schweitzer said, "a man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help." He also said, "Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil."

His work greatly influenced Rachel Carson, who dedicated her book, Silent Spring, to him. Her book has been credited with helping launch the environmental movement.

From a sense of reverence for all life, compassion naturally emerges. As Woodruff said, "reverence entails compassion, because it entails understanding the weaknesses you share with other human beings. When the reverent soul is aware of human suffering, it does not turn away. ‘That suffering could have just as easily been mine,' says the reverent soul, and feels accordingly. Then the reverent soul follows those compassionate feelings into action" (source).


"What we call love is in its essence reverence for life."

~ Albert Schweitzer


Of course this sense of reverence for life did not start with Albert Schweitzer. Indigenous people have long known the sacred nature of existence and the kinship us humans share with all life. The land, the rocks, the four-legged creatures, the sky, the sun - all are seen as sacred and worthy of respect. There is still much to learn from indigenous communities around the world about living a life of reverence. Here is a beautiful example of this worldview, rumored to come from excerpts of a letter that Chief Seattle wrote to the United States government in 1800:

The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land.

Buy our land? But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming inset. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

This we know. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected… Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.


"What is life?

It is the flash of a firefly in the night.

It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.

It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset."

~ Crowfoot's last words, 1890

The Science

There isn't a large amount of scientific literature on the subject of reverence, but the studies that have been conducted have shown some interesting results. A study conducted on coronary bypass patients in 2009 concluded, a "sense of reverence in secular contexts predicted fewer complications and shorter hospitalization."

A similar study called Secular reverence predicts shorter hospital length of stay among middle-aged and older patients following open-heart surgery showed just that: secular reverence predicted shorter hospital stays. In this study, reverence was defined broadly as a "feeling or attitude of deep respect, love, and awe, as for something sacred." The authors concluded, "Secular reverence exerts a protective impact on physical health."

Not only does reverence seem to help physical health, it also appears to be connected to resilience. In a study just released last month on Iranian nurses and their ability to be resilient, the authors concluded, "nurses with intelligent resilience are able to bring peace, reverence for others, and situational self-control to stressors thereby providing higher quality of care to their patients."

Ai, Wink, Tice, and other collaborators recently created an assessment scale, the Sense of Reverence scale (SOR) and extended it for both reverence in religious and secular contexts (R- and S-reverence). By positing that reverence is a psychologically measurable and self-transcending positive emotion, this could really start to advance the research on reverence. (source).

Can We Cultivate Reverence?

In Woodruff's book, he makes the case that because he sees reverence as a virtue, he also sees it as a seed that we all have that can be watered and encouraged to flourish, or can be neglected and lose strength. After much research, he concluded, “A broad consensus in ancient Greece (as in ancient China) held that all humans have a natural capacity for virtue, but that this capacity must be developed by teaching and may therefore be developed differently in different people."

So how could we renew reverence? Woodruff suggests three approaches: paying attention (mindfulness), speaking the language of reverence (music, poetry, ceremony), and asking the right questions (“Can I do this thing I am planning on doing in a reverent way?"). On how he places his attention, he wrote:

I do not have to travel far to see wonders. Stepping by accident into a polluted mud puddle, I may see an iridescent rainbow. Looking up when I hear an infant screaming, I may recognize the tenderness fo a mother’s face hovering over the child. Or as a mosquito prepares to draw blood from my forearm I may be struck by the delicacy of design in a creature so light and powerful. When the moon sets long before morning on a clear night, I may rejoice in the wonder of a dome of stars arched over by the cream of the Milky Way.

I need time and patience to see things in this way. The mud puddle seeped into my shoes, chilling my feet, the crying child interrupted a conversation I wanted urgently to finish, and the mosquito threatened me with a tropical disease… I can’t always pay attention to beauty. Still, I pay attention when I can, at whatever opportunities my life gives me to exercise my sense of awe. (source)

Woodruff explained that ordinary words cannot do justice to the experience of reverence, and that is why music, poetry, art, dance, and ceremony are necessary. “Art speaks the language of reverence better than philosophy does,...paintings and photography, hymns and song may widen the sphere of majesties for which people can feel a sense of awe” (Woodruff, 20).

Ceremony is another important topic. Woodruff says that ceremony can become mere dry habit devoid of meaning without reverence, but with it, "the meaning of ceremony is reverence." "Ceremony is like a language: You cannot simply invent it and you cannot do it all by yourself; it must be part of the texture of a shared culture. You need not believe in God to be reverent, but to develop an occasion for reverence you must share a culture with others, and this must support a degree of ceremony” (Woodruff, 43).

In the video below, Jason Silva talks about designing spaces to help elicit reverence, awe, and a sense of the numinous. The spaces and environments we put ourselves in, the people we expose ourselves to, the art, music, and books we enjoy, can all help us water the seeds of reverence.

And of course, we can always contemplate the fact that we are made of stardust, as are all living beings in the web of life, including the majestic whales. That always helps me experience reverence.

*The first photo of the whale was taken by the amazing Patrick Kelley.



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