It’s a pretty big claim to say that reverence is the “mother of all virtues”. If you were to ask me an hour ago what virtue was the “mother” of all the rest, I’d think about it for a moment and then probably tell you that it’s ‘humility’ or ‘patience. But after reading a section from Dietrich von Hildebrand on reverence, I've been convinced that reverence is indeed the “mother of all virtues”, and I hope to show you why.
Reverence is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for some time now, because I don’t think many of us understand the term in its fullness. Too often we equate it with “seriousness” or “piety”. As a kid I remember the phrase “show some reverence” had pretty much the same meaning as “shut up”. But if we look at the definition of reverence, we see that what it really means is “deep respect for something or someone.” In other words, we can’t reduce it to a moment of silence held at the side of Uncle Billy’s coffin . True, this moment is a very reverent one, as long as it is directed towards the respect of Uncle Billy in some way. Later on, drinking a couple beers with the cousins and sharing “glory stories” of the adventures of Uncle Billy takes place. Has it ever crossed our minds that this too, is a form of reverence towards beloved Uncle Billy? I think that if we’re sticking with the definition laid out for us by the good ole Google dictionary, it is. Reverence does not need to be somber. There is something to be said about those moments of intimacy where that special, silent, kind of reverence needs to take place, but our reverent attitude is something that we can carry with us into every moment of our lives, including the crazy moments which seem so far away from the tender and intimate ones which we so often equate it with.
It’s for this reason that reverence can even be considered a “mother” of other virtues in the first place. It’s an attitude, and one that we can change almost at will. What it takes is a conscious choice in looking at the world in a certain way. It is by our attitudes that we grow in virtue. Virtue is not something freely given; it must be worked for. Here’s what Dietrich von Hildebrand, one of my favorite philosophers, has to say about it: “Reverence is the attitude which can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world which opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values.” (1) How often do we limit reverence to God and the deceased? At every moment beauty is screaming at us through all of creation. How many sunsets have we missed because we were too focused on getting through traffic? And how many people have we failed to give the time of day to because we simply don’t care or we have our nose buried in our phones? The reverent man takes the time to “stop and smell the flowers” so to speak.He is in touch with the depths of reality and aware of what is going on around him under the surface.
Well and dandy, you may say, but how does this translate to virtue? Reverence, simply put, is the first step. You can’t be virtuous if you can’t see or understand what a virtue is, and it is reverence towards the world of virtues which allows one to do so. The beautiful thing about reverence is that you don’t even have to be aware of it for it to be there. For some it comes more naturally than for others. A young child who seems to be naturally virtuous may not know the definition of ‘reverence’ or find a suitable definition of patience (one that doesn’t use the word ‘patient’), but he sure can tell you what it means to be a good person and tell you he wants to be one. That attitude is one of reverence towards the world of virtues.
The other beautiful thing about reverence is that in those who struggle with certain virtues, it is the beginning of our journey to acquiring them. It is the first step, and the one which we have the most control over. An intemperate or impatient temperament may be hard to overcome, but by choosing to see our flaws and taking a stand of respect towards the virtues we want to attain we can gain much strength in the battle for virtue. You hear coaches, parents, and teachers say all the time “what you need is a change in attitude”. Reverence is the very definition of that attitude we need to mold ours into.
Of course, like any good thing, there are dangers lurking around the corner ready to snatch it away at a moment’s notice. There are two vices which will kill any sense of reverence towards the world of values quickly. Von Hildebrand lists these two great obstacles: pride and concupiscence. On one hand, we have a man who thinks he knows all there is to know. He fails to see the mystery in creation, in virtue, in goodness. He “believes that he penetrates everything at first sight and knows all things right from the start.”(2) If you believe nothing is outside of your reach, you’re never going to actually be able to grab anything outside of your reach. The other great vice which keeps us from reverence, and consequently the other virtues, is only being able to see what is in his or her immediate interest. One who approaches life seeking the next big thrill, or seeking happiness for its own sake will fail to find it. One such as this approaches the world around him closed off to the intrinsic value it contains, outside of just what it contains for his or her person. A man who does this will only experience a fraction of the goodness in the world.
“To whom will will the sublime beauty of a sunset or the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven reveal itself, but to him who approaches it reverently and unlocks his heart to it?”
-Von Hildebrand, The Art of Living p. 9
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living p. 4
- Ibid. p. 5