A friend told me he is tempted to believe in God because, if God exists, he fears his power, saying, “If God exists, I know that he can kill me.” This isn’t an exaggeration or offhand comment winking at my faith in God. I believe most people, when cognizant of the world around them, with cursory knowledge of the Bible, believe in a power that moves the world. In the Old Testament most of God’s power is seen through destruction, producing fear in the faithful and non-faithful. In Psalm 29, God’s power is proclaimed to provide a reason to bow to God’s holiness, present in the world, laying bare the chaos while trying to reorder life through the spirit.
When I pray a psalm like this my mind wanders to the immensity and fearfulness of life. As I pray, “God your thunderous words let me know your holiness” I shake in my boots. Fear always runs aside awe. They break their backs on each other, in the hope that once they cross the finish line together, they become equal partners against chaos. Then, those that bow before God can see “the beauty of holiness” emerge from behind the crowd of runners.
This psalm has three movements. First is a declaration ascribing glory to God. The only way to enter the sanctuary is with fear and trembling, regarding God who has the power to calm waters that are raging, like in Genesis 1. Next is a series of statements defining the power of God by using the image of his voice. God’s voice shakes the foundations of creation and our spiritual pride. God has the power to make the mountains tremble in fear as well as every living thing. We have the choice to rebel or to bow down. Finally, the psalmist presses the worshipper to accept that the God of power produces joy and peace. This is the “beautiful image of holiness,” both merciful and terrible, kind and fearful. Those that worship other gods do not have a God like this; they have only a “tiny god” who manipulates and can be manipulated.
This is the state of being of worshippers in the sanctuary. Their understanding of God has the capacity to turn worship into a message of salvation and a witness of the “beauty of holiness.”
When the church in the Middle Ages and Renaissance began to build cathedrals, they were designed to create awe. They were built to make us feel tiny and to lift God’s holiness to new heights. This psalm creates the same feeling. When we experience holiness, we bow down in a humble-celebratory way to show gratitude for something, or someone, magnificent. The psalmist says God is holy and powerful, making the mountains want to skip like young colts. At the same time we stand still in awe, fearful about in the presence of God. His voice breaks the mighty oaks around us and shakes the universe and ourselves to the core. When we arise to the brilliance of this power, we then see the beauty of this holiness.
Those cathedrals built to inspire awe and holiness also divulge beauty. Holiness is not just a fearful experience; it’s a beautiful one. The beauty of God’s holiness comes from what God made. The mountains that skip and the earth that shakes are part of the beauty of the world, reflecting the beauty of God. When I stand in a thunderstorm, there’s something beautiful about it. Even though it’s dangerous, I can’t take my eyes off of it. It awakens something in me that makes me quiver in my boots and draws me into because it has a strange beauty. It’s like a Salvador Dali painting, with all its strange images and surreal suggestions, drawing me into this world that ultimately changes the way I see things. Psalms 29 is the same. It draws me into its holiness and beauty, then arranges my spiritual sight to a new orientation that relaxes and brings me peace.
Several years ago, I spent hours in the Academy Museum in Florence looking at Michelangelo’s David. It was majestic, pure, unforgettable and unmatched of anything I had seen before. I imagined the hammer and chisel that pounded that beautiful image out of a block of marble. The thunderous strokes it took to allow this shape to emerge. In the end it was beautiful, yet terrible. I believe it was the knowledge that there was such a man in the world. It frightened me. Who was this man? What kind of power did he have? It was that way when I stepped into Notre Dame for the first time. Power, majesty, holiness and beauty, all meshed together in one creation, a space for God.
These are the feelings of a worshipper of God: emotions that acknowledge God as holy, peace from the beauty of mercy and grace. It doesn’t take walking into a church building to make your jaw drop with overwhelming feelings of holiness. It happens when we see someone reach out in kindness to another. It happens when the haze blows away and we see the beach or mountains with new clarity. We know what it feels like to be surrounded by awe and beauty. We take a deep breath, relax our shoulders and stand in the presence of holiness, finding peace.