Winter Waxing Moon
Took Kate to Bailey yesterday, the social hall of St. Mary’s of the Rockies. She stayed several hours for a meeting of the Bailey Patchworkers. It was the first time she’d been back since August, a session when she piled up the good eats for a quilt documentation day. That was also the day I backed into her friend’s car. With said friend in it. Sigh. Kate’s stamina has improved markedly. So good to see.
After Bailey, I drove not home, but to Evergreen where I had lunch with Tara and Alan. Murphy’s sits right on Bear Creek, a lovely place in the spring, summer, and fall for an outside lunch. Tara and Alan and I talked CBE religious school. Alan returned Saturday from a couple of weeks in Argentina. In Patagonia, at a national park, he was told, no, you can’t walk on the glacier. You’re over 65. Didn’t know glaciers took notice of such brief lifespans; but, it was Argentina.
I’m responsible for the next lesson, tomorrow, as I was last week, but with Alan as back up this time. Last week we worked with the middah, character trait in the Jewish ethical discipline of mussar, chesed, or loving-kindness. This week we stay in mussar, but focus on yirah. Yirah often translates as fear in the Torah, as in “the fear of the Lord.” I prefer awe as a translation, but it does mean both and we’ll use that in the class.
Rudolf Otto, a famous theologian of the early 20th century, wrote a book called, The Idea of the Holy. I mentioned his thinking from this work in a post a couple of days ago. It’s one of a handful of theological texts that have had a radical effect on my thinking. Another is Moses and Monotheism by H. Richard Niebuhr. In both cases the authors try to dig behind religious concepts often simply accepted to find their phenomenal roots. Otto wants to understand the strange nature of the sacred. Niebuhr was after the psychic meaning of monotheism.
Otto’s work has a lot to do with yirah. His idea of the numinous, a distinctive feeling we often equate with the holy or the sacred, has two components: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. When we encounter the numinous, we encounter mystery, a mystery that both attracts us, we want to move toward the experience (awe, yirah, fascinans), and repels us, (fear, yirah, tremendum).
I have had many encounters of this kind and they vary in which characteristic of the Holy they emphasize. I’ve written before about my mystical experience on the quad at Ball State. Fascinans dominated. I wanted to be there, in a state of total linkage with all. I wanted to stay. In high school I attended a summer church camp at Epworth Forest in Indiana. We learned a lot about communion and in particular I took to the heart the idea that if we didn’t reconcile with others, we might “eat and drink our own damnation.” OK. I was an impressionable guy in that moment. But the fear occasioned by that idea made me find a young woman whom I’d teased and ask for her forgiveness. Stepping into the Sistine Chapel. Awe. Driving to Bailey and seeing the Continental Divide capped with snow. Awe. Contemplating my own death. Fear moving toward awe.
Another. In Ely, Minnesota at the International Wolf Center, during a week long wolf studies immersion, we did a necroposy on a collared wolf that had been hit by a car. When we opened his rib cage, a space opened up in front of me where the mystery of life and death vibrated, took me in, absorbed me. This was both fascinans and tremendum. I wanted to look away, to be elsewhere. Right now. I wanted to dive in, swim in the galaxy revealed by this too intimate experience.
How about you? Got any experiences of the holy or the sacred? I especially encourage considering Otto’s point that an experience of the Holy is without moral freight. It simply is. We apply the morality later, much later.
*”In his most famous book, Das Heilige, Otto turned from a critical philosophical account of the possibility of religious experience to a descriptive psychology of the content of that experience and its relationship to the “rational,” symbolic dimension of religion. To designate religious feelings at their most distinctive he coined the word numinous, which referred, he said, to the Holy or Sacred minus the moral dimension. But he soon encountered a methodological limitation. Conscious experience is only available to the person who has it; therefore, it is possible to formulate a descriptive account of religious feelings only on the basis of introspection, informed by apparent similarities in what others have said. In other words, in order to study the experience that is the ultimate source of religion, a scholar must have a sensus numinis, an ability to experience numinous feelings—just as the description of color in painting or pitch in music requires certain kinds of perceptual abilities. Those who have such abilities, Otto suggested, experience the numinous as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As a mysterium, it is completely other, beyond the realm of ordinary existence, apprehensible but not comprehensible, evoking in human beings the feeling of stupor and stunned silence. People find this mysterium both attractive (fascinans ) and repulsive (tremendum ). On the one hand, it arouses the sense of grace, love, and mercy. On the other, it arouses feelings of terror and awe and the conviction that human beings are in reality nothing—feelings to which Otto, countering tendencies to equate genuine religion with love, gave a great deal of attention.” encyclopedia.com