Awe and Joy — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Awe and Joy

African American Spirituality and Song

Awe and Joy
Friday, February 12, 2021

The spiritual journey is a constant interplay between moments of awe followed by a general process of surrender to that moment. We must first allow ourselves to be captured by the goodness, truth, or beauty of something beyond and outside ourselves. Then we universalize from that moment to the goodness, truth, and beauty of the rest of reality, until our realization eventually ricochets back to include ourselves! This is the great inner dialogue we call prayer. Yet we humans resist both the awe and, even more, the surrender. The ego resists the awe while the will resists the surrender. But both together are vital and necessary.

The way to any universal idea is to proceed through a concrete encounter. There are a number of ways to say the same thing: the one is the way to the many, the specific is the way to the spacious, the now is the way to the always, the here is the way to the everywhere, the material is the way to the spiritual, the visible is the way to the invisible. When we see contemplatively, we know that we live in a fully sacramental universe, where everything is a pointer and an epiphany.

To let the moment teach us, we must allow ourselves to be at least slightly stunned by it until it draws inward and upward, toward a subtle experience of wonder. We normally need a single moment of gratuitous awe to get us started—and such moments are the only solid foundation for the entire religious instinct and journey.  

As she often does, Barbara Holmes expands and strengthens my thinking. She names this moment of awe “Joy Unspeakable.” But awe is not always inspired by beauty and goodness. Truth sometimes comes in hard packages. It takes both great love and great suffering to stun us and bring us to our knees. God is there in all of it, using every circumstance of our life, to draw us ever more deeply into the heart of God. Barbara writes:

We are not headed toward a single goal: we are on a pilgrimage toward the center of our hearts. It is in this place of prayerful repose that joy unspeakable erupts.

Joy Unspeakable
erupts when you least expect it,
when the burden is greatest,
when the hope is gone
after bullets fly.
It rises
on the crest of impossibility,
it sways to the rhythm
of steadfast hearts,
and celebrates
what we cannot see.

This joy beckons us not as individual monastics but as a community. It is a joy that lives as comfortably in the shout as it does in silence. It is expressed in the diversity of personal spiritual disciplines and liturgical rituals. This joy is our strength, and we need strength because we are well into the twenty-first century, and we are not healed. How shall we negotiate postmodernity without inner strength? [1]

[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 200.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Just This (CAC Publishing: 2017), 9–11.

Story from Our Community:
Every time I read a reflection by Richard Rohr, I have a sense of completeness that I have known in my heart, but has never been fully expressed within the church. Wherever I have worshipped, it seems that Christian life has been divided or diluted to suit the needs of a particular faith community. I want to thank the Center for Action and Contemplation for these meditations, which serve as a reminder of the Universal Christ, seeking to bring unity to each heart and soul that we might offer unity and healing to the world in which we live. —Judy C.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
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