Developing Reverence 
By Charles Rush
April 17, 2005
I Timothy 2: 2
I want to say something on the subject of developing reverence, particularly infusing it in the next generation. This is something all parents have to deal with.
About 10 years ago, I was traveling in
Italy with my oldest son who was about 14 or 15 at the time. We were with long
time family friends who also had a son about the same age. We were getting a
lot of teenage agita the entire trip… "Italians don't know how to make
Pizza"… "Take me to McDonald's"… the type of irritant that your
own children can serve up with more chaffing effect than poison ivy in the
We get to a farmers field, one of the
highlights of the trip for me and the other Adults. In this field were a number
of Etruscan tombs that had been excavated and preserved for public viewing.
These are the people that lived in Italy before the Romans, so the tombs dated
from 500-300 B.C. and this region is named for these people, who never moved,
I explain to the boys that this is a
rare opportunity to see these tombs pretty much as they were left two thousand
years ago. Not interested. "Bunch of dead dudes dad." I explained to
them that Etruscan tombs were painted with scenes from ordinary life that
depicted the deceased as they lived, artifacts and all. They want to stay in
the car and play game boy. I explained to them that they had to go see one tomb
with me or after their mothers were gone, I would strangle the very life out of
them- or some kind of threat that fathers make to their recalcitrant teenage
sons. They got out, grousing and sneering.
True story. We get to the very first
tomb. Incredible condition. The boys are in front of me looking through the
glass at the mural on the back wall. I'm gazing around at all the artifacts on
the ground. When I finally focus on the mural in the background, I see that it
depicts a man and a woman in various acts of sexual engagement involving, so it
would seem, every piece of furniture in their house.
I wasn't sure what to say, so I did
the wise thing… and I shared a moment of silence. After a prolonged review of
the site, the boys both took off at a trot, checking out each and every tomb in
the entire field… It was a small victory for the study of Antiquities.
I love that line… You are at the
Vatican… "Dad, bunch of dead dudes"… You are at the Louvre in Paris…
"Pictures from a bunch of dead dudes."…
I use the example of teenagers at the
height of their alienation because of the hyperbole. There comes a moment when
you really want your children to develop a sense of reverence, of respect, and
you wonder if they are actually going to get it. We have a worry that they seem
to think the world around them is only to entertain them and meet their ego
needs, that they don't seem to appreciate the intrinsic worth of the great monuments
that a previous generation built for them to enjoy. We want them to have
character, respect, to have that fundamental spiritual sense of reverence for
the world, for other people, for previous generations, for the rituals that
make us and keep us human.
I was thinking last week just how much
the world has changed around us in the way that we develop the capacity for
reverence in the next generation watching the funeral for the Pope.
There you have a snapshot of the way
we did it in the Old way in the Old country. Part of it has to do with size and
scope. Literally a couple million people descended upon Rome and filled the
vast plaza in front of the Vatican to pay their respects. All those people
followed a ritual that has been established by the Church for nearly 2000
years. When you are actually present at an event like that, you are immediately
overwhelmed with the sense of something that is so much bigger than you.
You are just one of hundreds of
thousands of people. You are participating in a ritual, a liturgy in this case,
that your great, great grandparents before you participated in, and your great
grandchildren will participate in.
And the liturgy itself communicates
the meaning of life and death, our place in the world, our place before God. At
the funeral itself, you had all of the Cardinals and the Archbishops adorned in
Priestly vestments that were replete with symbolic meaning and authority. The
liturgy itself creates it's own sense of order and structure.
And all of the leaders of the world
gathered in one place, dressed in black or dark blue, the symbols of mourning.
All of them also kneeling before something that was bigger than they were. All
of them dressed alike bringing a certain homogeneity to large superpowers and
leaders of small countries. On this occasion, they were mostly alike and
Then there is the majesty of St.
Peter's basilica itself. When you walk into St. Peter's or Notre Dame in Paris
or the great Cathedral in Milan, you look up instinctively. It is so tall and
you are so puny. They are designed to give you a spiritual sense of perspective
about the world and about yourself. How important that is to interiorize
viscerally from time to time. And now that our world has increased so much in
scope, it seems to me that more than ever, we need Cathedrals that many times
taller still, so that we remember- We remember that our earth is a tiny planet
circling a small star in a minor galaxy in the backwater of the universe that
is so grand and vast we have a hard time actually conceptually imagining it in
any significant sense.
There at the funeral liturgy itself,
we are grounded in something that is even eternal. We are ushering one man from
this world to the next. The liturgy itself explains our life and the realm of heaven.
You have before you the College of Cardinals, a kind of living symbol of the
Authority of the Church that will meet you on the other side in addition to
being the spiritual authorities on this side. It is so much bigger than our
temporality… it is eternal.
Everything has it's place, every
person knows their role; There is an order that we follow that is meaningful
and succession takes place in a structured way. We are bound not only with each
other but down the generations before us and after us. That is the way that we
communicated reverence and respect in the Old world in the Old country. And we
did it like that for 2,000 generations before us in every culture, in every
religion. I just use the example of Rome because Rome has always done it so well.
But reverence is not something that we
simply experience in religion, it is a spiritual dimension that runs throughout
our existence. Those of you that are musicians have probably experienced it at
some point in your life. A group of musicians or singers practice and practice,
they tweak and work their piece. Every once in a while, they are playing
together, and they get into sync with each other and a synergy happens. They
are playing and almost watching themelves play at the same time. The composition
is simply stunningly beautiful and while they are paying attention to the
technical part of their craft, they are also immersed in the experience of the
music, lost in the moment. And the sound is just…. Perfect. At the end, they
share a moment of mystery and awe that they were actually part of something
that became bigger than the sum total of the parts they each brought to the
moment. That moment, that spiritual dimension of life, is reverence.
Or some of you wrote to me about the
experience of reverence in nature. Someone was describing climbing a mountain
in the Rockies, I believe it was up in Banf in Canada, being tired and looking
out over the vast expanse of undeveloped terrain the west, watching the sun go
down slowly for a couple hours. Looking down below and seeing the still lake,
feeling the cool breeze blow up the mountain side. Just watching the great
cycle of the Sun move… In those moments you can feel your own heart beat and
sense it's place in the wider rhythm of nature around us, watch the soaring
hawks and feel that sense of congruence that we have with the earth and the
world around us. That communicates an important meaning to us, a meaning that
is difficult to put into words because it is so primordial. But that sense,
that spiritual sense of peace, harmony, and congruence, is reverence.
Reverence is very important to
demonstrate and develop in the next generation. It generates compassion,
understanding, respect, a certain sanctity for life- the spiritual qualities
that make us human and keep us humane.
One dimension of this that is
particularly important for our children is the sense of limitation. All of
these rituals of reverence teach us that we have limitations on who we are and
what we are about; we have roles and responsibilities; we have to respect
others by knowing our limits and observing them.
This has to be interiorized,
especially for leaders. And really all of us gathered in this room are leaders
and we are raising the leaders for tomorrow. We have to internalize this sense
of boundaries and limits as leaders because we are creating structure for
others to follow. We can break the rules and get away with it, which is why,
more than others, we cannot.
Aristotle used to say that this is the
nature of virtue. He said that real leaders don't have to have laws to make
them do the right thing. They do the right thing because they have character,
they have internal virtues that guide them.
We need to think about how we develop
this because all around us, the sense of reverence that observes boundaries and
limitations is eroding. For our children, it is happening in things great and
small and that may be significant because I'm not sure that they sense much
What do I mean? Our children inhabit a
sports culture principally, and this where they develop much of their character
and respect. Because of this, I think it is significant that two time honored
boundaries in sports are being eroded in this generation. The first is between
fans and ball players.
When I first started thinking about
this, I had the example of Ron Artest of the Indiana pacers. Anyone who has
seats near the floor at the Garden or at Yankee stadium can attest to this
growing trend of fans increasingly moving beyond partisan heckling to verbal
violence and throwing stuff at players. And Ron Artest, you may recall,
violated the boundary the other way, jumping into the stands and pounding the
Towards the end of the baseball season
another player actually threw a chair into the stands and seriously hurt the
wife of a fan that had apparently gone ballistic.
Of course, two days ago, Gary
Sheffield, almost has another serious incident with a fan. On both sides, the
players and the fans, we are witnessing an increased sense of irreverence. The
sense of self-imposed respect and limitation is breaking down.
Likewise, our children see it modeled
regularly in another dimension of the game, the treatment of referees.
Reverence respects the impartiality and independent judgment of referees as
critical to the order of the game. That is eroding in this generation right
before our eyes. Parents that are zealous fans for their children's teams
regularly grant themselves permission to throw public tantrums that you only
hope are a vent for work and career frustration because if they are this
invested in the outcome of a soccer game for 10 year olds, we have an even
bigger problem. How many times have you seen children that are glaring up at
the parents, silently begging them to stop… please… now.
And I wish it were just a Male
testosterone thing, but some of the most embarrassing displays I've seen in
Summit have come from Mother's. Of course, the most embarrassing come from
parents of either gender who are chewing out the ref over a call because the
parents don't actually have a deep grasp of the rules of soccer or lacrosse
since they didn't grow up playing these sports.
Leave aside the fact that screaming is
ineffective as I've never seen a call overturned because of being attacked,
what are we communicating to our children here? What are we modeling?
These are things small, no question.
What role they play in our children's lives, I'm not sure. No question, the
more important irreverence is communicated to them when they are older. It is
indirect and again it is hard to say what impact it actually has on them.
I think of the regularly recurring
phenomenon we witness in top corporate leaders like Bernie Ebbers at Worldcom,
Richard Scrushy at Healthsouth, Kenneth Lay at Enron, or Dennis Kozlowski at
Tyco. All of them at some point lost an important sense of self-limitation and
started manipulating their companies to spit out inordinate perquisites for
themselves at the expense of the thousands of employees and shareholders that
had a vested stake in their actions. They stopped focusing on the interests of
all and became cynical deceivers because they could. And what disastrous social
implications followed as a result
They are egregious examples, no
question, almost living caricatures. But what is really important is that we
develop a sense of self-limitation among our business leaders and we know that
we have to deal with this regularly recurring lack of reverence that we not
only tolerate but to some extent develop.
Again, I cannot say what role it plays
in their lives or how it effects them, but I know that all of them are being
formed with the back drop of terrorism as the principal definition of their
age. The age of terror is fundamentally irreverent. It draws no distinction
between combatant and civilian. Indeed, it seeks to erase that time honored
line of demarcation.
This generation is growing up with
suicide bombings as normative. I don't think we should underestimate the impact
that actually living through the World Trade Center being attacked will have on
them broadly and indirectly. Though terrorism may be nurtured only on the
periphery of our world, it occasionally gets right in your back yard and it is
I think of "The Second
Coming" by William Butler Yeats, speaking of this spiritual irreverence.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold'
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I cannot say what impact the terrorism will have on
them or the convictionless management. I cannot say what impact the increase of
incivility in sports will have on them. But I do know this, that the importance
of reverence is growing before us. And I do know this, that our world is being
threatened around the edges by irreverence. And I do know this, that
irreverence is fraying very ordinary civility that we should not take for
It is true that we cannot go back to
the Old ways we communicated reverence in the Old country, but we must develop
new rituals to communicate it in this generation. If we don't do it, they will.
 The idea for
this sermon came from a book given to me by Pat Calhoun. The Book is by Paul
Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2001). Professor Woodruff mostly unpacks the virtue of
reverence vis-ŕ-vis Greek and Chinese thought, and goes out of his w
All rights reserved.