As Father passed Jill’s room, he overheard Jill and her friends playing. He peeked through the door. The two friends were seated stiffly with arms folded tightly, eyes pinched shut, feet flat on the floor. Their faces were frowning; their mouths looked as if they had just eaten sour lemons. Jill was standing on a small chair in front of her friends. “Shush!” she said. “Shush!” The friends pulled their arms in tighter and lowered their heads farther.
“What are you playing?” Father whispered.
Jill looked up. “Oh, we’re playing church. We already had a song and a talk. Now we’re playing reverent.”
Our children are sometimes taught that reverence is the way we look, rather than the way we are. Sometimes we parents get caught in the same trap. We stare at a speaker with a benevolent look of understanding while our minds wander far off. What is reverence, really?
President David O. McKay taught that reverence is “the highest of human feelings” (Instructor, Apr. 1962, p. 145), that it is a “sign of nobility and strength” (Instructor, Jan. 1966, p. 2). He said that reverence is “profound respect mingled with love.” (Improvement Era, July 1962, p. 508.)
Can this lofty attribute be attained by tightened faces and stiff bodies? Said Elder Richard L. Evans:
“I do not believe in the constrained, artificial, and even fearful kind of long-faced attitude which really is not reverence, but is more a kind of fixation—an artificial piety rather than a naturalness which includes happiness.” (Instructor, Nov. 1963, p. 388.)
Reverence is not found in bodily attitudes alone. Something more is required. Here are four basic principles that can help us make reverence a vibrant characteristic of our personalities:
1. That Which We Value Inspires Reverence
People generally feel reverent toward those things they particularly value or consider important. The gift of life, for example, is almost universally valued, and we feel reverence for it. This reverent feeling is often felt at the birth of a child. Parents feel closer and love each other more deeply through this experience.
Even little children sense this love, this awe for a tiny baby. They beg to hold the baby. They touch its fingers and cheeks, delighted and amazed at its smallness. The idea of a new life, a truly valued gift, inspires reverence, love, and joy.
President Spencer W. Kimball suggests that we should be “the happiest people on earth,” and “the most reverent.” He says this is so because we are so “richly blessed.” (We Should Be a Reverent People, booklet, 1976.) Indeed, we not only enjoy all the temporal blessings of this good earth, but, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we possess a gift that should be valued above all else—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as life inspires feelings of reverence, so can the gospel. Could it be that the reverent feelings and behavior we sometimes lack at our church meetings result from our inability to appreciate the true value of this gift?
2. Understanding Increases Our Reverence
Sometimes we don’t feel reverence because our understanding is limited. A small child visiting a cemetery will probably not feel particularly reverent. Instead, he may see it as a unique playground with hiding places to explore and pretty flowers to collect for Mommy.
To adults who understand death and its place in the plan of salvation, this same visit can be one of quiet respect and shared joy. With this understanding, we may spend our time reliving happy memories of our loved one, smiling as we recall the past and anticipate the future. Because we understand more, we feel more reverent.
This growth of gospel understanding is a gradual process. Children learn of specific gospel principles through their parents. And because they love their parents, they learn to value the things their parents value—going to church, having family home evening, praying. Parents can use these experiences to help their children understand the principles of the gospel and appreciate the Savior.
During this time of growth, parents can teach children appropriate ways to express reverence. Parents who talk quietly and reverently in the chapel, who support their church leaders, and who feel joy in meeting with the Saints, show children that church is a quiet and happy place to be.
As children continue to grow through adolescence into adulthood, they develop their own testimonies through prayer, study, and personal revelation. At that point, reverent behavior is not outward conformity but a reflection of those things they have come to value within themselves. Their actions become respectful and appreciative—in other words, reverent. Understanding leads to value, and value leads to reverence.
3. Reverence Is Prompted by the Spirit
The more abundantly we feel the Spirit and the closer we feel to our Heavenly Father, the more reverent we naturally feel. For example, we feel the Spirit strongly in our temples. As we enter the doors, we sense the presence of God’s Spirit. The actions of those who work in the temple—their warmth as they greet us, their quiet voices, their unhurried movements—remind us of the peace and spirituality in the Lord’s house. In response, we also tone down our voices, clear our minds of concerns about home or work, and seek to partake of the fulfilling, joyful, and revitalizing peace that comes through temple service.
Although children do not generally go to the temple, they too can understand how it feels to be in tune with the Spirit. These feelings can be fostered in the home during regular activities such as family home evening, family prayer, and family study periods. The Spirit can also be nurtured through specific spiritual experiences that they can understand: baptisms, births, deaths, family Christmas programs, and fathers’ blessings.
Parents can tell when their children are feeling close to their Heavenly Father: their eyes light up, their bodies relax, their attention grows keen, and their interest becomes high. What better time is there to explain the feeling of reverence? In this teaching moment, a father might ask, “What are you feeling right now?”
“I feel all good and warm inside,” the child responds.
“That feeling is reverence. Being close to Heavenly Father helps you feel that way.” Children thus learn the joy of reverence, remembering it as a desirable feeling. And as they learn and cultivate reverence, their behavior reflects that feeling.
4. Reverence Is Involvement
It is not enough to understand the gospel and value it. Reverence is an active, not a passive, feeling. It is not a mere “Shush!” It requires that we become thoughtfully and spiritually involved in our worship services, recognizing the importance of the Savior’s sacrifice in our behalf. Reverence requires us to become more tolerant and patient with those who are speaking, teaching, and presiding—to love them as our Father’s children and realize they too are learning. We make the services meaningful by listening to their messages with receptive hearts and by building on their ideas with thoughts and insights of our own. We use our new discoveries to better our personal lives.
This active involvement is not always easy for either adults or children. Church leaders can do much to help. People who conduct various Church services can encourage the Lord’s Spirit to be present in all meetings through the reverent way they conduct meetings and through their prayers, planning, preparation meetings, and personal worthiness. Such well-prepared meetings keep the members’ attention and invite the Spirit.
Parents, too, can help by preparing themselves and their children. They are more apt to feel reverent if they leave home with the proper attitude. Scolding Suzy for her messy hair as you slide into your seat during the opening announcements easily stifles a reverent feeling. On the other hand, scripture reading, family prayer, singing hymns, and gospel discussions can promote a feeling of reverence in the home. Arriving early enough to listen to the prelude music helps carry that feeling into the church meetings.
As we apply these principles in our homes and wards, reverence will become a more active part of our lives. It will become something we feel, not just something we do. It will become a part of who we are. And in the process we will grow closer to the Lord, the ultimate object of our reverence.
Owen W. Cahoon, a professor of Child Development and Early Childhood Education at Brigham Young University and the father of five children, is bishop of the Edgemont Utah Seventeenth Ward.