The Virtue of ReverenceDONALD DEMARCO
A plane carrying the Cincinnati Reds baseball team flew into severe turbulence. One of its passengers, the irrepressible Pete Rose, turned to a teammate and said: "We're going down.
Pete Rose may get into heaven, but it will not be on the basis of his career batting average or the fact that he surpassed Ty Cobb in total lifetime hits. Rose’s present tragedy is that, despite his impressive baseball accomplishments, he is barred from Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame. “I was raised,” Rose once confessed, “but I never grew up.” When his autobiography was published, the ecstatic author exclaimed that it was the best book he had ever read. He quickly qualified the praise he seemingly conferred upon his own handiwork by pointing out that Pete Rose: My Story, which he “co-wrote” with Roger Kahn, was the only book he had ever read.
Another man from the world of baseball, umpire Tom Gorman, was far less accomplished on the baseball field than Pete Rose. He faced the hereafter with stoic suspense. When he passed away in 1986, he was buried in his umpire’s uniform. Placed in his hand was a ball-and-strike indicator. The count read three balls and two strikes.
Baseball, like anything else, can be absorbing to the point that nothing else matters. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that the difference between the poet and the lunatic is that the former is content to get his head inside of heaven, while the latter wants to get all of heaven inside of his head.
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People are self-absorbed or outgoing, poetic or lunatic, saintly or devilish. The main difference between these two groups is the presence or absence of the virtue of reverence. The ruling attitude of the reverent person is that there is something more important, more beautiful, more wondrous in the universe than himself.
Reverence, in this sense, is indispensable for religion. “The soul of the Christian religion is reverence,” wrote Goethe. The opening sentences of St. Augustine’s Confessions offer us an excellent example of the reverent man who is emerging from his cocoon of self-absorption, folly, and sinfulness:
Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, — man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin . . . for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee. How Great Thou Art
Reverence and humility are kindred virtues. The humble man, because he is not inflated by his own accomplishments, possesses a certain realism that disposes him to have reverence for the things of God. Humility flows from a realistic appraisal of himself; reverence flows from a realistic appraisal of God and His Creation. If one is not humble, he is not likely to be reverent.
Philosopher Blaise Pascal once remarked that “the greatness of man is great insofar as he realizes that he is wretched.” The virtue of reverence allows us to appreciate great things that originate from sources wholly outside ourselves. Paradoxically, reverence, which centers, not on the greatness of ourselves, but on something other than ourselves, is the truest sign of our own greatness. There can be no realization or appreciation of greatness, within or beyond the self, apart from the combination of reverence and humility. This combination allows man to know his greatness without succumbing to pride while, at the same time, to accept his humanity without falling into despair.
The secular world finds virtue in irreverence — it’s commonly viewed as proof of one’s independence — largely because it doesn’t find humility particularly attractive. “The real drawback to marriage,” Oscar Wilde has acidly opined, “is that it makes one unselfish. Unselfish people are colorless.” The pressure to be “colorful” has been a boon to the cosmetic industry. Vanna White, whose most notable accomplishment in life is turning letters for TV’s “Wheel of Fortune,” would seem to be an unlikely candidate for being solicited to offer us sound philosophical advice. Nonetheless, when asked about her philosophy of life, she urged her public to: “Be happy. Stay healthy. Feel good. Stay in shape. Treat others like you want them to treat you. Keep moisturizer on your face.” Media advice is usually thin on humility and scant on reverence, but predictably rich in appearance and luxurious in trendiness.
Our secular world holds the virtue of “open-mindedness” in high esteem. But this may be spoken more from the lips than from the heart. An excessive preoccupation with such small and stifling enterprises as batting averages and face moisturizer does not make for an expansive life. Reverence, on the other hand, not only opens our minds, it also opens our hearts. By uniting us with the cosmos, it enlarges our life and opens it to innumerable enjoyments and satisfactions.
Helen Keller was once asked, “Is there anything worse than not having sight?” “Oh yes,” she hastened to explain, “it would be much worse to have your sight but not have vision.” Reverence is the virtue that allows us to have vision. There are things that are more important than our ego. Reverence gives us the vision to see what they are and, in the spirit of St. Augustine, the heart to find peace in what they convey.
“The world will never starve for want of wonders,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “but only for want of wonder.” The reverent person will never run out of wondrous experiences, because he is in tune with the cosmos. But the irreverent person, who lacks the cultivated capacity to appreciate how wondrous the world really is, will find life empty. His lack of reverence will, in effect, banish all wonder from his life.
DeMarco, Donald “The Virtue of Reverence.” Lay Witness (July/August 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
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