“Reverence…is a strange word, this combination of fear and honor: fear which honors; honor which is pervaded by fear.”
– Romano Guardini, Learning the Virtues, p. 57
Reverence Involves Fear of the Lord
Many balk when they hear “fear of the Lord,” because of that one word — fear. It evokes strong negative reactions in us as we consider the most common meaning of fear: terror, dread, anxiety, distress, horror, or fright to name a few. But fear in the case of reverence is more closely linked to “wonder and awe.”
What – or Who – we revere aids us to ponder our littleness, our nothingness, in relation to the greatness of the Being of God or the immense beauty of art or the vastness of creation. Reverence, then, isn’t about being afraid of God; rather, it’s about honoring Him with such appreciation and gratitude that we cannot consider ourselves as important — only Him.
Humility must precede this virtue of reverence. There’s such a lack of reverence in our society: most people are egocentric and do not contemplate who they really are. If, in fact, I do remember that “I am dust and to dust I shall return,” then I’m less likely to spew vile, vulgar, vitriolic words on social media. I’m probably not going to be rude and impatient. Instead, I am always seeing that I am less than the vastness of God and therefore should respect all of God’s creation — both humanity and the created world.
Reverence & Respect
Respect is the most rudimentary aspect of reverence. Theologian Romano Guardini wrote that “respect means that one takes another’s conviction seriously…conscious of the fact that I am dealing not with an abstract sentence in some book, but with a person, who, on the basis of his conscience, has decided upon his opinion” (p. 59). If I behave in such a manner, I’m not going to treat people with indignity; instead, I will take a step back to stop talking, pray, and listen to that person with an open mind and heart.
This is not to say I don’t have my own convictions or opinions; on the contrary, true reverence means I am constantly aware — whether consciously or subconsciously — of the other person’s image of God within. I remember that the other’s personhood outweighs my rash desire to smack down his viewpoint or prove that I am right.
Again, I return to the importance of developing humility, which, like meekness, calms and quells my anger so that I am better able to see clearly how God wants me to interact with others.
Reverence and Courtesy
Guardini wrote that “true courtesy is the expression of respect for the human person” (p. 60). Respect resides in my attitudes, thoughts, and emotions about humanity – essentially rooted in the Christian worldview I purport to cherish. But courtesy involves my behavior: how do I act toward others in general? Am I polite? Do I use my manners and say “please,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” or “excuse me?”
I’m astonished at the lack of common courtesy I see in my small community. When I venture out, I am seldom greeted with a smile, eye contact, or any exhibition of graciousness. It’s very oppressive to return home after observing other people’s responses or reactions to my mere presence in their path.
For example, when I go the grocery store for a simple errand, drivers rarely stop to allow me to cross their path as a pedestrian in the parking lot. Once I enter the store, people push past me without acknowledging my presence, that they may get a cart. I try to wait, usually smiling and saying, “excuse me” or “thank you,” but if people make eye contact with me at all, my words are often met with a grimace or grumbling.
This is essentially lack of reverence, and we are seeing even this reverence recede in western society. It means that most of us are too self-involved, too preoccupied with our own lives to stop and notice how our behaviors affect those around us, because we aren’t inherently affirming the dignity of every person we encounter. We aren’t taking time each day in solitude to revere God, much less honor the personhood of those around us.
Reverence & Humility
Another reason so few of us extend courtesy or respect to others is that we are jealous of them or envious of their gifts and talents. We recognize greatness in them, and because we see ourselves as lacking, we pounce on their flaws or nitpick at what we perceive as their weaknesses.
Guardini asserted something quite profound in his book:
“If one freely affirms and accepts the great man because greatness is beautiful, even if it is found in another, then a wonderful thing happens; at that moment, the one who reveres stands beside the one revered, for he has understood and recognized his greatness” (p. 61).
We cannot achieve greatness ourselves without first realizing and accepting our nothingness in the sight of God and His wonders, even in the midst of truly magnanimous people. Yet a return to reverence in our lives seems to be the first step in moving toward our own actualization of excellence, both in our spiritual development and in accomplishing all the good works God has planned for our lives.