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Awe: too easily forgotten

by
01 April 2022

Finding beauty in the ordinary is a form of salvation, says Cole Arthur Riley

istock

PEOPLE who truly know how to wonder don’t expend a great deal of energy talking about it; they are off catching snowflakes on hot tongues. They’re folding themselves in half to smell the sweet potatoes in the oven just one more time.

I no longer try to convince someone of the delight of soup dumplings; I take them to Dim Sum Garden on Race Street, in Philly, and let them watch me slurp. I let the steaming miracle broth run down my face and lap it up in remembrance.

I think awe is an exercise, both a doing and a being. It is a spiritual muscle of our humanity that we can keep from atrophying only if we exercise it habitually.

Awe is not a lens through which to see the world, but our sole path to seeing. Any other lens is not a lens but a veil. And I’ve come to believe that our beholding — seeing the veils of this world peeled back again and again, if only for a moment — is no small form of salvation.

When I speak of wonder, I mean the practice of beholding the beautiful. Beholding the majestic — the snow-capped Himalayas, the sun setting on the sea; but also the perfectly mundane — that soap bubble reflecting your kitchen, the oxidised underbelly of that stainless steel pan.

More than the grand beauties of our lives, wonder is about having the presence to pay attention to the commonplace.

It could be said that to find beauty in the ordinary is a deeper exercise than climbing to the mountaintop. When people or groups become too enamoured with mountaintops, we should ask ourselves whether their euphoria comes from love, or from the experience of supremacy. For example, whiteness, as a sociological force and practice, loves mountaintops.

Being born of an appetite not for flourishing but for domination, it loves the ascent, the conquering. It will tell you about the view from there, but be assured that it is only its view of itself that rouses its spirit. It is about bravado and triumph. There is nothing wrong with climbing the mountain, but bravado tends to drown out the sound of wonder.

 

PERHAPS you’ve known that person who devours beauty as if it belongs to them. It is a possessive wonder. It eats not to delight but to collect, trade, and boast. It consumes beauty to grow in ego, not in love. It climbs mountains to gain ownership, not to gain freedom.

I’ve climbed to 13,000 feet in the Himalayas, and when I think of it now, I very rarely find myself drawn back to the memory of the peak. I think of myself stopping somewhere along the way to watch a girl pick purple flowers sprung from snow.

I’m listening to the Sherpa hum what sounds like Rihanna as he floats from rock to rock and I’m breathing hard as hell. I’m bowing. Namaste. I’m stealing glances at the tops of heads as I pass by the people in each village, and they bow, too. Namaste.

To encounter the holy in the ordinary is to find God in the liminal — in spaces where we might subconsciously exclude it, including the sensory moments that are often illegibly spiritual.

When I was 22, I boarded an unreasonably small plane to Nome, Alaska, and went to volunteer with the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The historic trail, much of which was once a trade route for Alaska Natives, was made famous after mushers with teams of sled dogs raced a serum to a remote village in the pits of a diphtheria outbreak.

Now, each year, dozens of teams compete in a dogsled race to commemorate the journey from Anchorage to Nome. I was working the lot overnight, scuttling around in the dark to keep my toes from turning to ice, when the winning musher and team of dogs came tearing through the finish line. I helped as the race vets examined the dogs.

We walked them around as the doctors paid attention to how they moved. We slithered off their poop-caked dog booties. We helped bed them down, breaking apart straw bales and making nests in the snow. Sled dogs don’t look like they do in the movies. They were small and wet and perfectly ordinary looking.

When I tell people I helped bed down the winning dogs of the 2014 Iditarod, their eyes get a particular shine to them. It reads like quite the grand adventure for a Black girl from Pittsburgh. And, in its own way, it was.

 

BUT this is the story from Nome that has settled into my skin: there I am, sitting on porch of a rusting youth centre with a friend and a local Inupiaq girl who can’t have been older than 12. We ignore the brown snow-slush coating the porch as we kick our legs over the side and brace our chins on the cold of the metal railing that wraps the perimeter of the porch.

The girl is in the middle, holding her phone up like an offering, and our cheeks are all but touching as we lean into the screen and watch one video again and again — a parody of Psy’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style” that recreates the entire song’s music video using the game Minecraft, changing the iconic chorus to “Minecraft style”. To our right, the frozen expanse of the Bering Sea.

Above us, powder leaks from the sky. And three very different humans squeal and pitch our voices two octaves too low as we sing out “Minecraft style” like it’s as important as Ave Maria. This I will not forget.

Lips cracking, bellies burning, snow sliding down my pants as I rocked back in laughter. It was one of those rare occasions that I knew was becoming a part of me as I lived it.

The moment wasn’t just happiness, though that was a quality of it. It was a kind of pleasure that made me feel a part of something — where beauty meets belonging. When I talk about Alaska, no one really cares about this moment. It’s simple and childish. To me, it was a miracle.

The Northern Lights are one thing, but when I die, tell them that I went to Nome, Alaska, only to find God in a Minecraft parody. This past winter, I made my husband lie in our backyard with me and look up. There was snow a few inches deep, and we were supposed to be covering up wood with the tarp to keep it dry.

I was embarrassed to ask him. Just for a second. I wanted to see if he could see the air. He couldn’t, but we lay there anyway, like forgotten rag dolls, and he let me tell him how the tiny clear things moved and popped around us. There are more of them now, but I don’t let myself lie as long. A minute.

And we went back to the wood and a conversation about the injustice of urban air quality. There was work to do. If you want to know if you’ve forgotten how to marvel, try staring at something beautiful for five minutes and see where your mind goes.

 

“TASTE and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34.8): the Bible talks of knowing God as though it’s closer to dinner and a movie than any three-point sermon. What does it mean that our knowledge of the spiritual is deeply entwined with the sensory? That it is bodily? French toast on Sundays. Double Dutch and the sound of braids and beads clacking together. The soft prickle of grass on bare feet.

These are connections that require us to attune ourselves to our bodies. Wonder includes the capacity to be in awe of humanity, even your own. It allows us to jettison the dangerous belief that things worthy of wonder can only be located on nature hikes and scenic overlooks. This can distract us from the beauty flowing through us daily.

For every second that our organs and bones sustain us is a miracle. When those bones heal, when our wounds scab over, this is our call to marvel at our bodies — their regeneration, their stability or frailty. This grows our sense of dignity.

To know that we should be able to marvel at the face of our neighbour with the same awe we have for the mountaintop, the sunlight refracting — this manner of vision is what will keep us from destroying each other.

Our caution is to not become those who focus on beauty in order to dismiss tragedy or to disguise feelings of their own inadequacy. When we ourselves feel ugly and insignificant, or the pain of the world feels unbearable, it can be very comforting to talk of mountains and sunsets.

We train our focus on beauty here or there — this poem, that architecture — because it is easier than bearing witness to our own story. We begin to gravitate not toward beauty but toward illusion. In this state, you are not approaching what you seek. You are running from your own face.

But this is not the way of wonder. Wonder requires a person not to forget themselves, but to feel themselves so acutely that their connectedness to every created thing comes into focus. In sacred awe, we are a part of the story.

This is an edited extract from This Here Flesh: Spirituality, liberation, and the stories that make us whole by Cole Arthur Riley, published by Hachette at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £14.99); 978-1-52937-279-3. Listen to the author’s conversation with Chine McDonald on the Church Times Podcast.

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