You wind around switchbacks, tree-covered mountainsides, and ravines and then eventually through a long tunnel. Without warning, you are looking at this!
Yosemite Valley is over the top, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Instantly, people are in church, held in silent reverence. I had seen the Ansel Adams masterpieces in college, but I was still not prepared. The park planners remarkably found a way to keep all of the myriads of buildings, hotels, and lodges hidden away from view. Amazingly enough, there are probably several thousand people under that blanket of trees in this photograph. They were worried about views like this getting cluttered and spoiled and out of reverence for this beauty, preserved this view of Yosemite.
The overwhelming beauty still evokes reverence in the religious and non-religious alike. It is an instantaneous reaction like finding oneself too close to the edge of a cliff. Wow. Your heart stops. Your breath ceases. You are in the presence of something remarkable, something bigger than your regularly perceived world. You have come out of your tunnel of what you thought life was like and now see Yosemite Valley. It is Plato’s cave and you glimpse for a split second the greatness of the universe and the sacred miracle of perceiving something so undeniably gorgeous. Your body reacts even if your mind does not comprehend. This is a momentary “wow”.
There are places to explore in and above Yosemite Valley to experience every different angle. Past the art gallery full of all the iconic Ansel Adams photographs and behind the Yosemite Museum is the “Indian Village of the Ahwahnee.” Hidden from the main walkway, is a worn concrete path meandering through the information stations marked by sun-worn and almost unreadable signs. In the center of the village is the Ceremonial Roundhouse. This hidden ancient heart of Yosemite remains a neglected memorial to a sense of the sacredness of the world and reverence as a way of life. Only recently have humans forgotten this most basic posture towards the world. Why does it matter?
Elaine Scarry’s book, On Beauty and Being Just, connects this primal human awe in the face of beauty with justice. When you stand in awe, you willingly cede space. You do so joyfully like making way for a small child chasing a butterfly. What if we cultivated this reverence not just for the jaw-dropping view in national parks, but for every creek and waterway, every hill and mountain, and every family member and any other person we encounter. What if we devoted ourselves to learning reverence as a way of life as the Ahwahnee? Religious and non-religious alike stand gaping at this park and make a silent wish for it to last forever. Awe makes us want to do justice to the beauty we encounter. Reverence is making awe a conscious habit.
Art and religion have been places we learn to see the beauty in everything and everybody. Artists and priests have played the role of visionaries unveiling the radiance we are too numb or busy to see. The roundhouse in Yosemite is a reminder that reverence is part of our human DNA that is just hidden away. The heart of scientific exploration shares this same kind of reverence,
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed” . Albert Einstein
Genocide, war, and injustice would be unlikely if not impossible if we could exit our dark tunnels, and be overcome with the beauty all around us. Plant the seeds of community, peace, and justice by building on the moments of “wow” and letting them grow into reverence as a way of life.
“To encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deepest center of human existence. Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth; they stand for the earth immediately and forever; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places. At Devil’s Tower or Canyon de Chelly or the Cahokia Mounds, you touch the pulse of the living planet; you feel its breath upon you. You become one with a spirit that pervades geologic time and space.” N. Scott Momaday (from Indian Country Today)
“We must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.” Wendell Berry (The Long-Legged House)
“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.” Thich Nhat Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation)
Joel Klepac finds joy and wonder exploring the world through the practices of hiking, providing therapy, drawing, fiddling, encaustic painting, writing, and spirituality. You can find his art and musings at joelklepac.com and https://joelklepac.medium.com.