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Burned: The Power of Awe

posted Oct 1, 2017, 6:11 PM by Penny Skildum
Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me with a live coal taken with tongs from the altar. Touching my mouth with the coal, the angel said,
“Look. This coal has touched your lips. Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.” (Isaiah 6:6-7)

One experience of awe.

How can we describe a moment of awe that is beyond description?

Around 2,750 years ago a priest of the God of Israel had a powerful experience of awe in the Jerusalem Temple.

That experience is described in the sixth chapter of the book in the Hebrew and Christian sacred writings that is named after him, Isaiah.

It is a story of Isaiah in the presence of the sacred or divine. It was both humbling and affirming, where the foundation of the Temple shook and was filled with smoke. An experience where Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then a fictional, sacred creature called a seraph flew to him holding a live coal from God’s altar and touched his lips saying, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah’s response, when the God of Israel asks, ““Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah’s affirming response, “Here am I; send me!”

This is probably not Isaiah’s literal experience of awe and wonder, it is a creative and imaginative effort to put into words what is at its core indescribable. It does not mean that Isaiah made up a non-existent experience of the holy or sacred, it is an expression that is deeply human; moments of wonder when we feel the presence of something vast that transcends the understanding of ourselves and the world.

I think the story of Isaiah gets it right, we all have experiences of fiery awe that burned themselves onto our lips yet we cannot put into words; they transform our souls and transcend our concrete reality into something beyond ourselves.


What are the results of experiencing awe.

But what is even more wonderful is how awe impact our lives.

In May of 2015 a study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that tried to measure the impact of awe on an individual. The study used a series of experiments to examine different aspects of awe. Some of the experiments measured how predisposed someone was to experiencing awe; others were designed to elicit awe, a neutral state, or another reaction, such as pride or amusement. In the final experiment, the researchers induced awe by placing participants in a forest of towering eucalyptus trees.

After the initial experiments, the participants engaged in an activity designed to measure what psychologists call "prosocial" behaviors or tendencies. Prosocial behavior is described as "positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship." In every experiment, awe was strongly associated with prosocial behaviors. In a press release the lead of the study, Paul Piff talks about the impact of awe on those who participated in the study and on individuals in general.

“Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you're at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.

Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion. Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”

Indeed, it seems awe promotes one of the most important prosocial characteristics advocated by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, loving-kindness.


How do you experience awe?

Piff and colleagues summed up their findings on the importance of awe in their report saying:

Awe arises in evanescent experiences. Looking up at the starry expanse of the night sky. Gazing out across the blue vastness of the ocean. Feeling amazed at the birth and development of a child. Protesting at a political rally or watching a favorite sports team live. Many of the experiences people cherish most are triggers of the emotion we focused on here—awe.

Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. Future research should build on these initial findings to further uncover the ways in which awe shifts people away from being the center of their own individual worlds, toward a focus on the broader social context and their place within it.

Matthew Fox, a present day religious leader and thinker describes awe as an “awareness of wonder everywhere.” Wonder is open to all of us and has been experience by all of us somehow and at many times. It is our ability to be aware of wonder that opens us to awe. Awe is an everyday reality and it is wonderful just to take a few seconds or minutes to pause, allow myself to experience it and immerse myself in a sense of loving-kindness.

Northern Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison's song, Sense of Wonder, seems to sum up the essence of awe. The link below will take you to a video of the song with images put together by an individual envisioning “myself walking along a forest path and remembering various events in my life, both big and small.”  Wonderful, I hope you have time to listen to it.