No Greater Mystery

“For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44)

“Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)

But what exactly is it that makes a person, or a place, or a thing, sacred? What is holiness? The idea of the holy has been with us since time immemorial, but how do we understand holiness in our day, in this time of economic domination and technological triumph, a time in which – in western culture at any rate – so very little is held to be sacred? How do we know when holiness is present – if, in fact, it is present? How do we experience holiness, if in reality we do experience it?

Such questions Rudolf Otto, eminent German Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion, who died tragically on this day in 1937, attempted to answer in his book The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1972), first published in Germany in 1917, first published in English in 1923. “Let us consider,” he writes in the Chapter 4 of that book, “the deepest and most fundamental element in all strong and sincerely felt religious emotion”:

Faith unto salvation, trust, love—all these are there. But over and above these is an element which may also on occasion, quite apart from them, profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a well-nigh bewildering strength. Let us follow it up with every effort of sympathy and imaginative intuition wherever it is to be found, in the lives of those around us, in sudden, strong ebullitions of personal piety and the frames of mind such ebullitions evince, in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches. If we do so we shall find we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum’. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of — whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.

 . . . Conceptually mysterium denotes merely that which is hidden and esoteric, that which is beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar. The term does not define the object more positively in its qualitative character. But though what is enunciated in the word is negative, what is meant is something absolutely and intensely positive. This pure positive we can experience in feelings, feelings which our discussion can help to make clear to us, in so far as it arouses them actually in our hearts.

For this experience Otto borrows a Latin noun from Roman mythology, numen (the holy thing, force or deity) and coins an adjective, numinous. A numinous experience, he says, has the following elements: “awe-fullness”, “overpowering-ness” (or “majesty”) and “energy” (or “urgency”). These elements combined bring to the subject an experience of the “Wholly Other” (Chapter 5), which in turn involves yet another element which he describes in Chapter 6:

The qualitative content of the numinous experience, to which “the mysterious” stands as form, is in one of its aspects the element of daunting “awe-fullness” and “majesty” . . . but it is clear that it has at the same time another aspect, in which it shows itself as something uniquely attractive and fascinating.

These two qualities, the daunting and the fascinating, now combine  in a strange harmony of contrasts, and the resultant dual character of the numinous consciousness, to which the entire religious development bears witness, at any rate from the level of the “daemonic-dread” onwards, is at once the strangest and most noteworthy phenomenon in the whole history of religion. The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay to make it somehow his own. The “mystery” is for him not merely something to be wondered at but something that entrances him with as strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication; it is the Dionysiac-element in the numen.

Following the above characterization of a numenous experience, we could take as a fair example of this a passage found on page 38 of Trevor Ravenscroft’s book The Spear of Destiny (Weiser, 1982)

The air became stifling so that I could barely breathe. The noisy scene of the Treasure House seemed to melt away before my eyes. I stood alone and trembling before a hovering form of the Superman–a Spirit sublime and fearful, a countenance intrepid and cruel. In holy awe, I offered my soul as a vessel of his Will.

These words were purportedly said by Adolf Hitler after he had just such an experience as described above by Rudolf Otto, the noumen being in this case the Übermensch. “Faith unto salvation, trust, love . . . ,” writes Otto, “But over and above these is an element which may also on occasion, quite apart from them, profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a well-nigh bewildering strength.” Ay, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say. An element? Some thing? Some thing over and above, something beyond, love?

And what might that be, that something, that element, that “daemonic-divine object” waiting for us beyond love? Waiting for us beyond death’s door? Ay, there’s the rub —

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Whether Hitler actually spoke those words we have quoted or not, clearly – reading that passage from Ravencroft’s book – we meet with a serious difficultly in Otto’s idea of the holy. For him, holiness belongs to some unknown element beyond love and beyond all personhood, human or divine, in which love would be found, since there can be no love apart from a person that loves. For him, beyond love and beyond any person that loves there must be adaemonic-divine object” – something “Wholly Other”, something that may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread”.  And if we tremble before it, “utterly cowed and cast down”, having “at the same time the impulse to turn to it”, wanting “to make it somehow our own”, why then, according to this point of view, “in speechless humility of the creature in the presence of – whom or what? – in the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures” (and beyond all personhood whatsoever) we are experiencing the deepest religious experience available to any human being.

Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous as a mystery (mysterium), a mystery that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans) at the same time, has influenced many thinkers, among them Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, C.S. Lewis, Max Scheler, Joseph Needham, and Martin Heidigger.

Yet we have the apostle John in a letter (1 John 4:7-19) saying this:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

   God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Taken to heart, these words assure us that there is nothing over and above love – and nothing beyond the Person who loves – to cow us and to cast us down, unless of course it is Love itself that we do not know nor wish to know. Such a condition is powerfully presented in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The mere presence of Christ with his right hand raised sends some souls fleeing in terror. Unlove fears love, and genius reveals this spiritual fact unforgettably. In which case, mysterium tremendum let it be, whether in an encounter with the “Superman” or with some other element “beyond” love and “beyond” any person who loves.

There is a serious question as to the manner of Rudolf Otto’s death, for he died of pneumonia after he suffered serious injuries falling some twenty meters from a tower. Persistent but unconfirmed rumors have identified this fall as a suicide attempt. Suicide or not, his is a tragic story if only for the one, for the deepest mystery he seemed to have no inkling of, nor the greater part of humanity seems to have an inkling of, which is the Mystery of the Sacred Heart. This is a mystery that the Reformation and its subsequent Protestant development over nearly five centuries has sidestepped. This is truly tragic. It is tragic for all humanity, for Protestant and for Catholic alike,  and for everyone else too, since we are all  given a strong impression that there can be a Christianity without a Sacred Heart. In its heights and depths this mystery excels all mysteries, because this mystery reveals to us that God has a human heart. John knew this. John, listening to the beat of that Heart at the Last Supper, knew this beyond all else. He knew this beyond all else in the same way that he knew that Love is a Person, that Love is the Alpha and Omega of all that exists, just as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin knew in the twentieth century that Love is the Alpha and Omega of evolution.

“I believe that the universe is in evolution,” said Teilhard de Chardin. “I believe that the universe proceeds toward the spirit. I believe that in man the spirit is fully realized in persons. I believe that the supremely personal is the universal Christ.”

There is no greater mystery in the universe than the person and the life and death of the personality by which it loves – which is the same as to say there is by far no greater mystery in the universe than the human heart. “The heart is a small vessel,” writes Dimitri of Rostov, in The Inner Closet of the Heart, “but all things are contained in it; God is there, the angels are there, and there also is life and the Kingdom, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace.”

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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