My daughter, Sarah, has profound special needs. She’s a bit of a medical mystery, honestly, without a specific or clear diagnosis. In practical terms, though, her condition means that she can’t communicate using spoken or written words, she can’t care for her personal needs, and her atypical muscle tone results in an awkward gait.
All that said, Sarah is also unusually perceptive and profoundly aware of her surroundings. She loves being with people, she clearly follows much of what is said in conversations, and she has an incredibly generous spirit. She has taught me and everyone in my family all kinds of powerful lessons about life.
And, when it comes to the subject of Awe—the theme of this issue—it turns out that Sarah also has something to teach us. And it involves dogs.
Whenever we are with Sarah and we come up to a dog—whether it’s a dog Sarah has met and seen many times, or whether it’s a dog she has never met before—Sarah is interested in seeing the dog. She wants to be close to it. She wants to pet it. She wants to touch it.
But alongside that strong desire to see the dog is an equally strong impulse to avoid the dog. To run away from it. To avoid it. To protect herself from it.
Believe it or not, that battle within Sarah—wanting to both be with and to avoid dogs—represents a famous definition of how we feel when we are in the presence of the holy—a feeling that can be described with the word awe.
In Latin, the phrase is mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which can be translated as “awe inspiring mystery,” but which, more literally, means: the thing before which we both tremble and are attracted, or the mystery which is both terrifying and fascinating.
Sarah seems to understand that there is something about dogs that is attractive. And she’s right about that. She can play with them and cuddle with them.
But she also seems to sense that there is something potentially dangerous about them. And she’s right about that, too. They might, after all, bite her or scratch her. So, her response to dogs is totally appropriate.
And our awe-filled response to the holy—fascination and a sense of fear—is also appropriate.
After all, God loves us, which we crave and desire. So, we are drawn to and attracted to God. But we also sense that—precisely because God loves us and wants what is best for us—God may want to change us. And since change is hard and painful, we want to avoid God.
Both responses make sense. They’re understandable. But remember: When Sarah finally allows her attraction toward a dog to override her fear, the result is joy.
And when we allow God to get close enough to change and transform us, the result is a new creation. And—spoiler alert—that new creation is AWEsome.