The Age of Anxiety is the title of WH Auden’s final long poem. Born in York in 1907, Auden published the work in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the following year. Its theme is human isolation, a condition indicated to be more frequent with the loss of traditions, and established forms of religious belief. Seventy-five years after its publication the presence of anxiety, isolation and purposelessness shows little sign of diminishing. Despite the rapid advances of technology and scientific understanding during the last eight decades, we appear to have arrived at a point of heightened anxiety. Within three years we have encountered unprecedented isolation due to a once-in-a-century pandemic; endured weather conditions never known before (e.g. over 40°C in the UK); and, with war in Europe, now have a global energy crisis that shows no immediate sign of abating. If there were need to add to this dismal catalogue, in the UK a new government has added to our woes with an economic policy favouring the wealthy.
Like the breakers of a storm, the past 30 months has seen a rapid succession of events largely outside the experience of most people in the West. Anxiety has undoubtedly increased during this time, with serious and debilitating consequences. Following a research report, linking anxiety-induced dreams in middle age to the eventual development of dementia, it would appear that we even have reason to be anxious about our anxiety.
Intriguingly, some researchers have identified ‘awe’ as one antidote to anxiety. While academics have divided awe into ways that are either positive or negative, it is likely that even some of the negative implications (feeling ‘smaller’) might not be detrimental to overall wellbeing. Sometimes that experience of proportionality is only a corrective to an over-estimate of our place in the universe. As we are reminded in the Book of Job: “my days are a breath”. Seeing our significance more accurately might lessen a deceptive sense that the world around us relies on us. In that correction we may feel our anxiety diminish, although – understandably – for others this truth may feel very threatening.
“Awe seems to be a complex emotion or emotional construct characterized by a mix of positive (contentment, happiness), and negative affective components (fear and a sense of being smaller, humbler or insignificant).”
Arcangeli, M., Sperduti, M., Jacquot, A., Piolino, P., & Dokic, J. (2020). Awe and the experience of the sublime: A complex relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1340.
From a religious perspective awe is tied to a sense of transcendence: ‘Ultimately wonder and awe are significant aspects of the religious experience‘. This is both something about a sense of perspective linked to a divine being, as well as finding in that perspective a sense of purpose. Time and again studies have found this sense of purpose plays a major part in our wellbeing and contentment. Religions usually promote a sense of purpose across the life-cycle, and continue to anticipate purpose even in advanced age (Simion/Anna). While many activities linked with personal worth and value may disappear with age (such as employment) even in the advanced years of retirement prayer and worship often remain active elements of life. For people living with dementia, especially if they have a deep background in religious belonging and participation, familiar patterns in the year (e.g. Easter/Christmas) as well as songs, liturgy and texts, locate someone in a broad narrative of transcendence.
Holding the narrative and space for religious awe has long been a role for the Church. Yet awe is not a word used often in discussions about contemporary developments in worship. This misses a primary purpose of the Church’s life in a local community. There are occasions, including State occasions in the UK, when the Church holds a particular kind of space for people in relation to a much larger story.
A church is a sacred space carved out of nature to represent the indwelling of grace and to impart an orientation. They are pointers to transcendence. When we enter a church, we cross a threshold pointing to a communion table of shared goods… Within this comprehensive orientation there are nodes or lodes of experience that open up the space of transcendence: the sense of unworthiness and rebuke in the presence of the holy, the trustful assurance of acceptance requiring nothing beyond openness to the pure gift of grace, the awareness of a calling to spiritual and moral order and a potential for transfiguration..Martin, D. (2021). Pointing to Transcendence: Reflections from an Anglican Context. NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion, 75(3/4), 310-336.
In his poem Auden suggests that human beings prefer to hang on to their fears, rather than risk change and risk: ‘We would rather be ruined than changed’. The experience of ‘awe’ is perhaps one of the few things that might encourage us to abandon our illusions and contemplate a greater reality. To realise that often our anxiety is generated by these self-same illusions, and are in reality shadows we need not flee. It has been the case that not only cathedrals, but even remote and seemingly insignificant churches, hold such a space – whether for RS Thomas in Aberdaron, or TS Eliot in Little Gidding. It is unclear in today’s church where the emphasis on transcendence now lies, or how people will be able to encounter ‘the bright field’, whose treasure transforms our living.