I learned about Paul Woodruff’s wonderful book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue,
a few years ago when Bill Moyers interviewed Woodruff, a professor of
humanities at the University of Texas. Reverence
is the wisest book I’ve read—way ahead of scriptures from any religion.
Woodruff quotes poets more frequently than prophets and defines
reverence as, “the capacity to feel respect in the right way toward the right
people, and to feel awe towards an object that transcends particular human
interests.” His models for reverent and non-reverent behavior are from ancient
Chinese and Greek as well as contemporary American culture.
Being considered irreverent by some of my devoutly Mormon
friends and family, I am gratified that Woodruff considers mockery—at the right
target—a form of reverence. The trick, I suspect, is aiming at the right
target. And that’s a fine line. George believes I should wear a skirt on the
occasions I attend church out of respect for the other members. I, on the other
hand, think the dress rule is a senseless tradition that should be changed—and will
only be changed by women showing up in contemporary attire. Obviously, we must avoid
sacrament meeting in order to reduce family conflict.
Woodruff says it’s easiest to show respect to equals, but
true reverence requires us to feel respect for those of lesser power. He urges
teachers, parents, and other leaders to listen to children, students, and
others who know less than ourselves. Now, I don’t mind listening to children.
Their earnestness and innocence charms me. But I do have a problem extending
the same courtesy to relatives who get their historical “facts” and political
insights from Glen Beck and his ilk.
I suspect our home and visiting teachers feel that way about
George and me. Because our active Mormon lives were lived in a different ward,
our current ward members assume we do not understand the gospel and expend great
effort to instruct us. They read messages from Church leaders and bear
testimony of their truthfulness but have no interest in our philosophical
views. I understand that. Bible bashing is not a game worth playing. Still, I
I thought I was being reverent when I listened to my
visiting teacher, Sister Prim, relate the spiritual experience of her sister which
resulted in the baptism of her non-member husband. I followed with the
spiritual experience that my sister, who is fighting cancer, received at the
Zen Center. Sister Prim listened politely, but I could
tell she was uncomfortable.
In retrospect neither of us was treating the other with
reverence. Sister P considers me a project rather than a person. That’s her
problem. My problem was insisting on sharing a spiritual experience knowing it
wouldn’t fit her paradigm. That’s the
kind of payback our oldest son gives me—force-feeding me passages from Romans
to prove Calvinism is the true path—the way I inflicted my Mormon beliefs on
Learning to feel respect the right way to the right
people is tough—even humbling.