One day, years ago now, a very important insight came to me as I sat on a bus making its way down State Street in downtown Chicago, IL. I was seated next to a window and as I looked out on the street crowded with cars, taxis and buses all packed in between the rows of tall buildings that hid the sky, something prompted me to throw out a silent question: “How did our world get into the mess we are in?” I followed this with another: “What have we lost that we need so desperately to get back if we are going to provide a future for coming generations?”
I wasn’t really expecting to get an answer to my silent questions—not on the bus, anyway. I was just doing something I do often: pondering. So, for a quiet moment, I just sat there, leaving the questions hanging in the space between the window and the world. Then, quite unexpectedly and from deep within the stillness of my mind, came a surprising reply in a single word: reverence. In the moment, I realized I wasn’t sure what the word meant—or, more precisely, what was being called for within the sense of the word.
Shortly thereafter, as these things sometimes go for me, I was in the library using an encyclopedia to look up some information I needed. As I paged through the book, I stumbled on a photograph of Albert Schweitzer. It was a name I had heard, but I knew very little about him at the time except that he had been a doctor and founded a hospital in Africa. I started to read the caption beneath his photograph and was stunned to learn that in the early part of the twentieth century, Schweitzer formulated his own philosophy, which he called “Reverence for Life.” Seeing again that word reverence brought me right back to my own experience on the bus a few days earlier. I paused my research to read the full article on Schweitzer.
I learned that Schweitzer had formulated his philosophy after an experience he had on a small steamer moving slowly up a river in Africa. As he stood at the rail of the steamer, looking out over the river, the boat passed a herd of hippopotamuses lounging in the water. Drawn in by the beauty and tranquility of the scene, Schweitzer pondered a question that had puzzled him for years: “What is the most valid basis for ethics?” As he stood there, a reply to his question emerged. He later wrote:
“There flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, ‘Reverence for Life.’”
After reading this description, I closed the book, marveling at the resonance of our reflective experiences. I thought, “Is this just Albert and me, or is there something more going on here?”
In the months that followed, as I moved into reading more articles and books on the relationship between spirituality and the ecological crisis, I discovered that many more people have come to the same conclusion about reclaiming reverence. Yet the question remains, how do we do this?
Cultivating reverence is an inner journey of growth. It involves a growing awareness that who you are as a human being is a story of relationships. It involves recognizing and accepting that you are interdependent and, from within that realization, learning to develop within yourself an attitude of reverence.
Reverence, to my mind, includes a respect for the limitations and gifts that each living being, each plant, each rock—even each mosquito—has to offer through its own unique miracle of existence.
Reverence begins with the growing awareness that all life is interconnected. In other words, it demands a dramatic shift in worldview from individualism to community.
Cultivating reverence continues with an in-the-moment conviction that each and every creature has an inherent right to existence. That awareness leads me to pause to observe my own behaviors as I interact with other beings—whether it be an insect or another human. I can act now with an awareness that each one of us, no matter how humble or grand, is somehow held within the unity of the whole.