Wednesday, 8 June 2011

"It was truly awful, it was full of awe"

"The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean
make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your 
own breathing disappear. There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you
that you are connected to Earth. 

You have an almost dispassionate platform - remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below."
Thomas Stafford Apollo 10.

I can only imagine what Thomas Stafford must have felt as he orbited the earth. Very few of us will ever experience that sense of total physical disconnection from our home, the earth. Yet from this distance Stafford began to appreciate that from which he came. From space he looked on the earth in awe, not wonder, awe. Although he was physically disconnected, his soul appeared completely connected to what he was gazing upon, it shut out all the noises of his spacecraft and even his own breath. Staring down at the earth, took his breath away. It must have been an incredibly beautiful and yet in some sense frightening experience. To me this is worship, this sense of connection that moves way beyond the confines of the physical.

We often hear about the need to develop a sense of wonder, in order to give life meaning. I do not believe that this is enough. What is required is a reawakening of our sense of awe. Awe and wonder are not exactly the same, although the words do appear to be used interchangeably. They both posses an element of surprise or even astonishment about them; they both grab our attention and focus completely; they both awaken our senses. Awe though is different to wonder, there is more to it, this is because it possesses an element of fear and reverence. It is perhaps best described as revered wonder with a sense of fear or trepidation blended in. Wonder opens the senses, where as awe brings them to a different level of being. There is a greater power in awe, than in wonder. It is almost overpowering, over whelming.

I was recently talking with a mother who described the birth of her daughter as the most awful experience of her life. I was a little taken aback by the use of the phrase awful, it didn’t seem right. Then she explained! At the first sight of her daughter she was just full of awe, not wonder awe! She was blown away, by this tiny presence right before her eyes, that she loved revered and worshipped. She described the feeling as over powering and to some extent frightening. It was truly awful, it was full of awe.

Isn’t it strange how awful is understood negatively, where as wonderful has only positive connotations. I suspect that this is because we fear that sense of being out of control that accompanies awe. We do not like to experience powerlessness; we like to believe we are masters of our destiny, masters of the universe. We are not, life is fragile. That’s what makes every moment, every experience, potentially awesome.


  1. When James I saw the completed St Paul's cathedral, he said it was "awful and artificial" - by which he meant awesome and full of artifice - both compliments! I remember being told this when I was about 12 to illustrate how words change their meanings over the centuries.

    Yes I think awe and wonder are somewhat different.

  2. I like that Yvonne...we humans like to think we oen things and the truth is we don't even own language from one generation to the next...will try to remember this about James I of England VI of Scotland

  3. Nice article, Danny. It's funny, I have a bit of a 'word origins' hobby. It's rather interesting that awful meant full of awe or inspiring awe, right up until the 18th century, when people started defining the word to mean so bad that it creates awe. It comes from the 13th century Norse word 'agi' which means to fear...which was used in Religion to reflect the feeling one has towards their deity (fear and wonder). It's interesting how time changes language...maybe if we work at it, we can change it back to the original definition? :)

  4. Certainly give it a good go Billy...thank you for this