Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.
– Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been thinking about the word reverence lately. I’m not sure why it has been on my mind, but I find this word interesting, intriguing, and ambiguous. I can’t come up with a clear, concise definition, but I do believe that the practice of reverence is a way of life, characterized by compassion and kindness. It is increasingly important in today’s broken world.
As I was thinking about this illusive word, I kept coming up with another word: respect. I began to wonder: Are reverence and respect the same thing? Is there a difference in meaning between these two words? Paul Woodruff, in his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue,* states that reverence and respect do indeed have different meanings. He says that we can have too much respect by respecting the wrong things, like violence or meanness. But reverence is different. Reverence, he says, “can never require of you anything that is wrong.” (p. 66) We revere only what is right and good.
It’s not always easy to hold on to a sense of reverence. It may be difficult to practice reverence at all times and in all situations. When someone has treated us unjustly, we may want to turn away from or discredit them, rather than revere them. We may find it difficult to regard them as having inherent worth. And the same challenging dynamic happens between larger groups as well: religious denominations, political parties, and countries. So how do we, then, practice reverence in a broken world?
The conversation around reverence is a broad one, and I don’t expect this post to be the last word on this topic. But for now, perhaps we can say that practicing reverence is a discipline that requires us to be intentional in our thoughts and actions. It is a discipline to be kind when we’re feeling impatient, a discipline to try and understand when we really don’t, a discipline to yield to another’s preferences rather than our own. Reverence, it seems, is a spiritual practice that often requires much of us.
*Published by Oxford University Press, copyright 2001.