I'm Looking for Awe
Papi, am I going to have to join a church?
¡Hola Papi! is the preeminent deranged advice column from writer and author John Paul Brammer, now living on Substack! If you’ve ever wanted advice from a Twitter-addled gay Mexican with anxiety, here is your chance. Support this column by sharing it and subscribing below. Send Papi a letter at email@example.com
Today, as I was leaving the campus library, I identified a deep yearning within. My uni’s library is in a beautiful restored brick building with a bunch of columns and super high ceilings. I left around nine so the sunset was filtering through the windows, giving the scene an awe-inducing aura.
Anyway, I felt an urge to pray or go to mass or participate in some ritual. I have always been a very atheistic person. I’m very critical of organized religion and I wasn’t raised in a religious environment (I do accept the stained glass doth go off hard AF).
But today I found myself yearning for ritual. I want incense, ancient holy words, choral music, etc. I want a church camp without the homophobia. How can I scratch this itch without going to mass or participating in anything church related?
One of my favorite little language rabbit holes is the origin of the word “glamor.” It comes to us from the Scottish “gramarye,” shifting the English word “grammar” to mean something close to “magic spell” or “enchantment.” This term lives by the French “grimoire,” which you may more immediately associate with rituals, witches, and the arcane.
“Grammatica” once referred to learning in the broadest sense, back when education was strictly for the elite, and the people who held such knowledge might as well have been sorcerers. To this day, “glamor” speaks to that sense of astonishment, the sentiment that wells up when you lay eyes on the something that both befuddles and amazes you: the divine.
I’ll leave the finer points to people who know what they’re talking about, but the origin of the word is fascinating to me. There’s an architecture to holy things, isn’t there? When you enter an elaborate cathedral with its ornate pillars that lead you, an ant, to crane your neck up, up, up to the heavens, past the painted ceilings to a sky we don’t fully understand, heavens teeming with angels and gods and beings that defy logic, that’s glamor at work.
This is the desired effect, meticulously planned by people who knew how to inspire it in you. The same effect, or something similar to it, can be achieved, for example, by a drag queen in a costume that looks like it was made by aliens from outer space. Though there’s a real person beneath the ensemble, the point isn’t to be a real person at all, but a vision, a gleaming spectacle meant to make you feel small in its presence. “Goodness,” one might think, “how strange, how beautiful.”
Returning to your question: rituals are all well and good, but they are not the only route to experiencing the sense of awe you’re seeking. Because what is awe but a sublime sensation of smallness, a brief and exhilarating brush against the vast and the utterly incomprehensible? We build churches on top of mysteries because faith flows from the spring of the unknown. We worship, fear, hate, and tremble before what we don’t understand.
Like glamor, grimoire, and grammatica, fear has many related forms. There’s the awe you describe, thrilling and perhaps downright pleasant, where you embrace your smallness and put yourself in conversation with the unknown, finding a place of reverence and curiosity. But for some, the unknown inspires irritation, anger, and frustration.
The “sorcerers” of old who read books, for example, were often regarded with great suspicion and contempt. This is an ancient impulse, and we see it play out to this day--banning drag shows, for example. These sentiments are all connected. Religiosity is just one of many different responses to those sentiments, one way to organize our thoughts and feelings around a deeply human and enigmatic urge. This can be healthy or dangerous, depending.
This is all to say that in the moment when the sunset filtered gently into the library, and you noticed it, and it made you feel something spectacular and maybe a bit frightening in its grandeur, were you not, for all intents and purposes, in a church?
Awe, glamor, and magic are all around us. We’ve barely scratched the surface of knowable things in this life. There is plenty to genuflect to, things both large and small. Look for wonder, and you will find it. And sometimes, as you well know, it finds you. Either way, when you come across it, I hope you approach it with curiosity and humility. That’s my religion, anyway.
If you’re just lonely, try D&D.
Con mucho amor,