Mysterium Tremendum (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Nave, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave, Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, Albi (Tarn) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

South side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Artonne (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
South side aisle, Église Saint Martin, Artonne (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Capitals, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey
Capitals, Eglise Saint Pierre des Tours, Aulnay-de-Saintonge (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Crypt, Basilique Saint-Eutrope, Saintes (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Crypt, Basilique Saint-Eutrope, Saintes (Charente-Maritime) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.”

Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne)  Photo by PJ McKey
Basilique Saint Remi, Reims (Marne) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales)  Photo by PJ McKey
Crucifix, Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales) Photo by PJ McKey

18 thoughts on “Mysterium Tremendum (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis: I have sensed this on occasion as the wind blows through my hair, sitting on the back of my horse on the top of a mountain. I have never heard it described so beautifully. Thank You.

  2. Just as I was editing the piece I wrote this morning – “Kim Jong Un and the Numinous” – notice of your post arrived in my in-box. This is wonderful, Dennis. I’ll include a link to this blog in my post. The two pieces together offer a great whole. My commentary looks at the consequences of egoistic surrogates and substitutes displacing the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans while yours takes us into the experience itself. Thank you for the piece, and thank you for your kind words.

    1. Gordon, it was an interesting experience diving into those three words while listening to Preisner’s “Requiem for my Friend”. Looking forward to reading your piece on Kim Jong Un. To put that name and Numinous in the same sentence is definitely worth a read!

  3. This is a profound piece and I was also going to say that I get this feeling when I am standing in nature, usually by myself, doing landscape photography. Realizing how alone, small, insignificant and vulnerable I am and yet, what is there to be afraid of, really? Hearing the peace and the power. You say it so much more eloquently.

    1. Thanks, Lisa. Nature is often the only way we have to describe this reflection of the ineffable. It is timeless and possesses power beyond measuring, and yet we are part of it. This is a feeling that we have shared with every child who lies in the grass at night and looks up at the stars.

  4. Thank you for this spiritual insight. The movement of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God blows where it wills… gently, sometimes dramatically, inviting us back to Him.
    Do you have any additional information on the crucifix that PJ snapped an image of from the Cathedrale Sainte Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie, Elne (Pyrénées-Orientales)?

    1. Paul, I don’t have much more information, but it is an amazing piece of work. It is called “Improperia” (outrages to Christ) hung on the wall of the north aisle. I’ll ask PJ to respond if she knows more.

  5. Dennis, Can I pick your mind? I am going to southwest France to give a paper on the Canal du Midi near the end of June. The symposium will be in Navarre and I’d like to take in some churches I have missed on previous visits. One that I will definitely visit is St. Cecile in Albi. I’ll also visit the cathedrals in Navarre and Montpelier (where we are staying). I’ll have a driver (the French engineer who is my co-author on the paper) who has said he will take me anywhere I wish to go (within reason, of course). What I’d really like your advice on is one or two of the really interesting churches in the Pyrenees. I’ve driven through the area on previous trips from Barcelona to Carcassonne and Toulouse and seen the signs indicating historic churches and fortresses,but have never had the time to seek any out. I’ll have some time this time, but not a lot, so I could use some advice on churches that are interesting and not too difficult to reach by car. Abbey churches, cathedrals, or even interesting village churches would all be acceptable for my purposes. You can reply to me at Jay Fredrich

    P.S. Months ago when I first discovered your site I told you that I taught a course called “Cathedrals and Other Great Churches” as a Liberal Arts elective and used that as an excuse to visit Europe eight times to collect photographs, recordings, and books I could use for myself and my students to understand these wonderful structures and their role in the lives of medieval peoples. You asked if there was a site where my photos were available, and I replied that they were not, because, in general, they are not of a quality that would merit perusal. However, in one of your recent posts on a visit you and P. J. made to Vezelay, there was a photo of a shaft of light streaming down on one of the side aisles there and it reminded me that I do have what for me was a wonderful photo of a nun standing at just that location distributing the Eucharist with the shaft of light shining directly on her (taken spontaneously from the pew one Sunday when we attended Mass there). That remained me that I have another photo I really like taken at Amiens cathedral on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul while we waited for the Solemn High Mass of the feast (a Holy Day in France) to conclude. It shows a teacher with six or eight students seated on the cathedral floor in a side aisle with the teacher apparently explaining the vaulting to the students who have their copy books open. It was taken with a film camera and is not as we’ll exposed as I would like for it to be, but it was good enough for me to use to illustrate to my students how cathedrals continue to be places of learning, just as they were in the days of the cathedral schools. I’ll try to resurrect these two photos from my poorly organized archives and send them for you to see. Sent from my iPad

  6. Dennis, I nearly deleted this without reading it: I’m so glad I didn’t! My inbox is chocabloc with notifications I haven’t been able to read because I’ve had my son and his girlfriend staying, and am at the same time trying to do National Poetry Writing Month, so am utterly exhausted.

    Your introduction drew me in, and before you could count to ten I was off in numinous poetic daydreams. Thank you for being my inspiration!

    1. Viv, PJ and I were just talking about you and hoping you are well! Literally ten minutes ago. Glad to hear from you and thanks for your kind words. Hope your numinous daydreams were productive!

  7. Very beautiful and compelling post!! I remember feeling this way in Argentina. After months in Buenos Aires, the biggest city I’ve ever lived in and the longest consecutive time spent in a city, I went to the Andes mountains. And there up on the mountains I felt just how small Buenos Aires really was, and all the worries and daily struggles contained therein were so insignificant compared to something so much greater. Now I have a name for that feeling

    1. Judy, it’s a stunning place, inside and out. Was built as a fortification during time of religious conflict, which is pretty obvious from the outside. Glad you liked the shot.

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