05 February 2023



A long long time ago when I was living in paradise, where life was hard and beautiful, hard because money was tight and apart from lots of communal goodwill and a very well stocked public library, there was little in terms of the service and the commodities we, living in consumerism, take for granted, took for granted even back then, and beautiful because of the colours, smells, sights, feels of the rain forest, the Indian ocean, the fruit on the trees around our little tin-roofed house, the slowly meandering tortoises in the yards and the call of the flying foxes in the night,  I found myself on one of these morning digging my bare toes into the fine coral sand of a path coming down from the old wooden house behind me, the sea lapping a short distance in front of me, a tree lined road to my left and a group of massive coco-de-mer palm trees to my right.

I was waiting for a bus and without a timetable this always involved a degree of luck or long stretches of contemplation and discovery. Often, I would take off my shoes and trace complicated patterns into the sand with my toes. Occasionally, people would join me waiting, always impeccably dressed, smiling at my bare feet and greeting me shyly. 

I could hear the birds in the trees to my left, the rooster from the house behind me, a group of children playing in the surf in front of me and the wind swishing through the palm fronds to my right.

A few weeks earlier I had met an Irish nun. I didn't know she was a nun, we met at the hospital where I had been visiting a sick neighbour for a while, she was a nurse. Hearing her Irish accent, we got talking and often shared a cup of tea and stories of fun and grief and loss, as you do when you find yourself in company with a strangely familiar voice or face in a place far from home. And one day she told me about her daily prayer, said she wanted me to say it with her. Now, my inner arrogant voice initially cringed and my smile was forced. But in the end she smiled back and said, that wasn't too difficult, dear, wasn't it?

May it be beautiful below me. May it be beautiful above me. May it be beautiful to the right of me. May it be beautiful to the left of me. May it be beautiful behind me. May it be beautiful in front of me. May it be beautiful around me. I am restored in beauty.

I know now that it's her version of the Navajo prayer but at the time, there was no internet to inform me. I just called it the nun's prayer and I have been whispering it on many occasions ever since, whenever, wherever I have been waiting, for a bus, a train, a medical appointment, a drip to empty itself into my veins, a delayed visitor to arrive, a sleepless night to end, a day to begin. It always brings me back to a place, which is not the exact place of the day, but a conglomeration of places from paradise where at the time, I have often stood and waited.

A few days ago, I was listening to a podcast with psychologist Dacher Keltner speaking about his research on awe and the vagus nerve and how science can show (via cortisol/stress hormone levels, functional MRI imaging etc.) the way experiences of awe influence our emotional state and the first thing that came to mind was this memory, of these places, of the Irish nun's prayer, the heat of that morning, the sounds, the feeling of sand between my toes. 

If I should put into words the feeling that I experience when I remember that exact moment and the way the nun's prayer is connected to it, my first response would always be awe. And this despite the fact that it's neither outstanding scenic beauty, nor drama, nor religious or transformative event, but memories of a fairly ordinary daily experience some 30 years ago.

To listen to the podcast click here. To read about the research in a long interview, click here. If you need to see scientific publications on the subject, click here.

And BTW, you may have heard of the story where a father asked his daughter to stop using two words that drove him mad and before he could proceed, the daughter said, "Awesome Dad, what words, like, do you have in mind?"


TJ Davis said...

Beautiful, thanks for sharing your story. Today I'll visit a very sick friend in the hospital. I'll remember the nun's prayer.


Barbara Rogers said...

Your post came exactly 2 minutes (well according to the post time on my blog feed anyway) after another one, also on AWE. I'm listening, universe! This must be something I should pay attention to! Thanks for links, I'll be listening to podcast a bit later.

NewRobin13 said...

That is such a beautiful moment to remember. I am making a copy of that prayer and adding it to my saved gems folder. I would like to start the day with these words.

Steve Reed said...

Great photos. They make me remember my time in that beautiful country -- also awed!

Linda Sue said...

That is the BEST podcast!! Thank you so much for that! My vagus nerve is very grateful and tingly!

Ms. Moon said...

Religions often claim and use the very human feelings and experiences of awe to make the case that their version of god-belief is true.
I think that one of the very best things about being human is, in fact, our ability to be in awe. To experience that which takes us to a place which is so far from our daily experiences, and yet can be caused by them.

jozien said...

awesome it's, like.... :) Where did you live i wonder? and why were people impeccably dressed?

am said...

"... And that’s what it gave me during this hard time in my life was like, “Wow! You know, what I really care — I have this new sense of the human form and spirit that maybe my brother is always with me in ways I can’t imagine.” And it — going in search of awe gave me that ..."

Listening to the podcast, I was moved to sit down at my drawing table, pick up a pen with my left hand and work on Mandala #76, which I see now is about awe. All my walks throughout my life have been "awe walks," although I'd never thought of it that way. Now I feel as if I have met that Irish nun who connected with the Navajo prayer and with you.

Pixie said...

I love the nun's prayer and I love that she knew you weren't keen on repeating a prayer of her's. I'm guessing she surprised a lot of people with that lovely prayer, so unlike the catholic church.

Roderick Robinson said...

Part of my job as parent was to force-feed vocabulary into my two young daughters. As if they were literary versions of Strasbourg geese. Yes, I know it sounds positively medieval or, even worse, Victorian, but at that stage it was all I had to offer; I had been brought up with two brothers and knew nothing about the needs of girls. Extirpation also played a part in this process. notably ridding them both of an excessive use of the qualifier "really" (pronounced "reelly"). Eg:

Me: How good was the concert?
Either of them: It was reelly good, Dad
Me: How good?
Them: Reelly good.
Me: Was it reelly, reelly good?
Und so weiter...

I can't pretend I won. But these days when these two sexagenarians use that qualifier, there's a slight pause in recognition of the fact that while they refused to be bullied they didn't see me as a Dickensian villain.

37paddington said...

You took me back there, the sand between my toes, the surf and leaf sounds, so much beauty all around. It feels peaceful, imagining it. Thank you.

Colette said...

Nice. Say what we will about the Catholics, but occasionly, when a devout religieuse is sincerely in the moment, the moment lasts forever. And when I say religieuse, I'm not talking about the pastry. Although, that pastry can stop time as well.

ellen abbott said...

I wouldn't call that a prayer exactly but I can see why a nun would. Awe is...awesome. When I was doing the river guide things, days on the river through the canyons, the sights and sounds, awe was the word of the day.