A few weeks ago I stood at the edge of a deep chasm. Far below me a river frothed in a violent maelstrom, thundering over a rocky precipice and plunging into a deep pit carved ten thousand years ago. A fine mist rose in a rainbow of pastels, coating my face in a cool sheen as I peered into the abyss.
I’ve been coming to this sublime spot on the north shore of Lake Superior nearly every summer for the last twenty years, and this particular river never fails to make my heart beat fast.
The gorge is beautiful and magnificent, but it’s also a place to be respected and feared. People have died in this river, swept away by the powerful water in the blink of an eye. In fact, two days after I was there this June, a young man drowned while swimming near the mouth of the river, pinned under the rapids by the tumultuous current.
Nowadays we tend to use the word “sublime” as a synonym for “amazing” or “awesome.” We declare a slice of flourless chocolate cake in a fancy restaurant or an oil painting on a gallery wall “sublime,” but in doing so, we misuse the word as it was originally intended.
Back in the late eighteenth century, “sublime” meant something vastly different. Most often used to describe an aspect of the natural world, the sublime encompassed an element of terror melded with beauty, a sense of bigness and mystery that prompted awe tinged with dread and fear.
I think it’s important to experience the sublime in its original sense from time to time. This might entail standing next to a roaring river like I did recently, or at the edge of a vast prairie as a thunderstorm rolls in, or at the base of a looming, snow-capped mountain, or any place in the natural world that reminds us of our smallness.
Every once in a while, we need to stand in the presence of that furious, awesome power and remember our place in the world, which isn’t nearly as important as we like to think it is.
Most of us walk through our days assuming we are in control. We’ve orchestrated our everyday lives so that, for the most part, they are predictable and manageable. We like to steer our own ship, and we’ve defined God in a way that makes sense and fits neatly into our comfortable, clockwork daily existence.
The hard truth, though, is that this control we work so hard to maintain is an illusion. Perched on the edge of that roiling river, confronted with the fact that my life could be extinguished with one slip of my hiking boot on the crumbly, uneven trail, I felt small, powerless, and more than a little afraid. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but an important and even a necessary one.
The sublime not only forces us to acknowledge our own impermanence head on, it also insists we reconsider how we understand and define God.
The same God who created the serene brook burbling through the sunlit glade also created the water that roils through the gorge that makes my heart race with fear. If we are really honest, this might make us uneasy, because it means we don’t understand God and can’t control him, in spite of our best efforts. God’s ways are not our ways, and to experience the sublime in person is a powerful and necessary reminder of that.