I should let everyone know right now that they can hold Gordon Stewart accountable for this post. The blame is entirely his because he should know by now the fascination certain phrases have for me and how they lead me down arcane and convoluted passes. On a recent post he wrote “As I read your comment about what we have lost, I thought immediately of the Numinous, our stance before the Mysterium Tremendum.” These words created a whole other context in which to think of the overwhelming spiritual dimension of these churches.
This is a post, inevitably, on the work of Rudolf Otto and his book “The Idea of the Holy.” Gordon admires Otto’s work greatly and has referred to it several times, which led me to the text last year. Otto uses the term “Numinous” to express the holy or the sacred. He defines the Numinous as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” He uses the phrase Mysterium tremendum et fascinans to describe the Numinous.
Mysterium – the Numinous – is experienced as “wholly other.” It is something truly amazing, as being totally outside our normal experience, but there is also the element of fascination, which causes one who experiences the Numinous to be caught up, to be enraptured.
Tremendum refers to awe, terror, and dread. When combined with mysterium, the meaning suggests “awe-inspiring mystery” and the sense of our own nothingness in contrast to the power and majesty of the ineffable.
Finally, fascinans describes a compelling and potent charm, attraction in spite of fear or terror.
When all three words are combined, the phrase Mysterium tremendum et fascinans creates a concept of deeper meaning, that of compelling attraction in spite of fear and terror. So the phrase is a potent combination of three ideas that create a distinct fourth thing – a fearful and fascinating mystery that expresses the presence of the sacred.
That mystery has been sensed by humans throughout history. They have seen its traces in lightning, the crashing of waters on a rocky shore, the uncountable stars, and even the rising of the sun. They have acknowledged it with great circles of stone on the plains of Salisbury, sacred oaks in the groves of Germany, or deep in caves as close to the center of the earth as they could get.
Any contact with the spiritual has by definition its non-rational face. Otto’s idea of the Numinous appeals to me because it describes the divine without recourse to rational or moral context. It is a distillation, the holy presence at the deepest heart of any religious experience. I have felt this presence in the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay and the caverns of Lascaux. I have sensed its echo in the music of Gustav Mahler, the words of Jorge Luis Borges, and the performance of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc.”
The Numinous is never where I look, nor do I find it when searching for it. The sensation is like something that can only be seen in the corner of your eye, but when you turn to look, there is nothing there except the certainty that the air has been disturbed by something passing.
I find myself returning to the churches like a thief returning to the scene of his crime, drawn by the traces of this Something Great. Our churches whisper to us of this mysterium tremendum.