Of Awe and Aunties

Jan 15 / Lisa Graham McMinn

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We adopted our daughter's cat, who, while cuddly with humans, terrorized birds and other cats in their residential neighborhood. I wonder what Cliff thinks happened to his cushy life. It does not appear as though he blames us for his demoted status to barn cat, though he has expressed no joy over his new circumstances. Cliff favors neither the goats nor our small dog, Oliver (which is understandable given Oliver's proclivity to chase Cliff through the orchard rather than engage him in curious conversation. I fault Oliver mightily for this. He tells me he cannot help himself, but will resolve to be more hospitable. I am not holding my breath for this).

As I watch these beings live out their precious lives, I wonder how they experience each other. The goats lean into this unfamiliar place with curiosity and a graciousness I admire. I wonder what the birds, mice, and voles make of their newest neighbor, and imagine word spread fast that a feline terror moved in and of their collective need to be on guard. I empathize with them, as their kind occupied this land long before Mark and I showed up with carnivorous cats and dogs. These little quick-footed and winged creatures hope they and their offspring will flourish, a shared desire of all living things.
I experience awe when I consider my existence--and theirs--in this way. It drops me into a mystical place where I sense the pulsing connection of all things held together by God's living life and sustaining love. 

More often, I carry wonderments of a different sort. These questions arrive like an anxious, dripping-wet aunty swooping in on a blustery dark night with her complaints, opinions, critiques, and requirements. Her negative energy sucks warmth and comfort out of the room. 

This aunty is me, fretting over the unwellness of our planet (and blaming consumerism and industry), speaking of my longing for peace in a world at war (blaming governments and failed leadership), naming sufferings of all sorts (blaming God-knows-who for all that). When my family finally settles me by the fire, wrapped in a warm throw and drinking tea, I admit to the awareness that I have complicity in these matters and feel helpless about what I can do. 

I doubt I am alone in this. 

So at the beginning of this new year, I'm wondering what healing and hope for the second kind of questions might come from a collective shift toward gratitude for wonderments inspired by awe. Like the sunrise I saw on the way to a breakfast, met with animated chatter about the cloud and sun play from others who had stopped to watch the sun do what it does every day, never in quite the same way. Those of us who saw it shared a moment that connected us to each other and something bigger than ourselves. Surely, that collective noticing multiplied our gratitude. Perhaps awe offers a doorway for hope and healing. 

I will not risk dismissing that as a small thing. 

We inhabit an enchanted world full of storied lives. Awe recognizes that Cliff has a story, as do the birds and mice he will hunt, the coyotes undoubtedly now aware of his presence, and the forest and creek in constant communion with it all. Noticing this accepts an invitation into the peace of wild things. ¹

Abraham Joshua Heschel ² spoke of knowledge fostered by curiosity and wisdom fostered by awe. Those words are worth pausing over. Awe is more than an emotion. Heschel says it is a way of understanding, of gaining insight into meaning that is bigger than ourselves. Understandably, we focus on the surface of our existence, which we manipulate this way and that. 

On the surface, the world presents to us as a thing we own--including our own lives. This world is full of questions demanding answers that will give us the security we long for so that our lives might be better, less fearful, mitigating the harmful realities that haunt our days. This world is a marketplace of sorts, offering answers that look like certainty, knowledge, safety, and/or escape via experiences and things intended to satisfy our longings and manage our fears. 

Another way the world presents to us is as a mystery--if we allow ourselves to stand in it. We engage mystery through awe, as one seeing the ocean for the first time or attending to a spider spinning her web, wondering at her story, including her experience of you, a mere two feet away. 

Yes, we must wrestle with Aunty's list, the quest of which leads to a kinder, more just, healthier world. And what good might come if we spent some part of every day standing in awe and touching something of the connection to God that is in, between, and beyond all things? 

Maybe it would provide a humble self-forgetfulness that would free us to imagine new ways of being in the world, loving and inhabiting it as God does. 

What if standing in awe with wonderment of our ordinary existence is a path to wisdom—one less unpacked than experienced? I sense this invitation--offering mystery upon mystery if I face into and engage it. 
¹ I'm referencing the poem, The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry, which I memorized during Advent and recommend heartily to you.
² Abraham J. Heschel, Who is Man? (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965), 88-89, as cited in the Center for Action and Contemplation devotions 12/5/23. 

Lisa McMinn
Lisa retired from college teaching to pursue a vocation in spiritual care. When not listening to the nudges of God through spiritual direction she might be found meandering the woods, tending goats, hens, and gardens. Lisa is a contemplative Quaker who sees each storied life as part of a bigger story—all of them held together by God. Although also a writer and speaker, she now more often is found hosting space for spiritual renewal and exploration via spiritual direction, supervision, and personal retreats through Into the Woods Spiritual Care, housed at Fern Creek Farm a few miles outside of Newberg, Oregon, where she lives with her husband.

You can learn more about Lisa, what she offers, and her books and current writing at www.ferncreekfarm.com.