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Mysterium Tremendum


“ . . . Above and beyond our rational being lies hidden the ultimate and highest part of our nature, which can find no satisfaction in the mere allaying of the needs of our sensuous, psychical, or intellectual impulses and cravings. The mystics called it the basis or ground of the soul.” — Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy 

When it comes to the history of religion, this element of the non-rational, the awe-ful, the mysterious, is bound into the DNA of the whole experience. Rudolf Otto laid down the premise that religion starts with the apprehension of the "mysterium tremendum." He describes the experience:

“The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship . . . . 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.”

I would venture to say that for most of us who worship on a regular basis the mystery’s gone. We are familiar with the rhythm of the worship service, at times comforting, at other times almost nauseating in its repetition and dullness. Mainstream religious groups, noting the absence of youth and young adults, inject informality into the service, along with music that can get people on their feet, clapping, and swaying. What they may lack in depth, they make up for in enthusiasm and communal spirit. You are never alone at such a service.

And yet . . . and yet . . . My mysterium tremendum moments, experiences which Otto says mark real religion through the millennia, are rare enough that I can remember most of them. These are moments that pierce, in remembrance, with feelings and impressions that are almost painful, the sort of pain that makes you grateful to be alive. Without exception, they occurred unexpectedly, without preparation or forethought, usually when I was alone, but occasionally in the presence of a few intimate friends. They produced what Otto calls "a beatitude beyond compare." Almost inexpressible, they gave, as he says, “The Peace that passes understanding, and of which the tongue can only stammer brokenly.”

One took place when I was 17, camping with friends in Yosemite, high above the valley floor and within sight of North Dome. Early in the morning, before the others awoke, I clambered up on a rock the size of a house to watch the dawning. While I felt horizontally alone—my friends were asleep a hundred yards downslope—I seemed vertically caught up to the heavens and enveloped in the vast and gentle acceptance of Nature. My eyes were drawn to the rim of the mountains opposite where the first light of morning would break. I waited, and as I did, I thought I saw motion in the air far below me, but it could only be perceived indirectly, in a sidelong glance at the edge of vision. Gradually, it took form so that in a few moments it could be seen as a vast cloud of black birds, shifting and swooping, moving together soundlessly. It drew nearer, and I could hear a rustle that grew to a sound like the wind. I could make out individual birds among the hundreds, and as I got to my feet, they rushed overhead, around me and over me, just as the sun burst up and over the mountains and lit them and me with a fiery flame. In a moment, they were gone, and I let out my breath and brushed away the tears as I whooped. 

A second experience was in Winchester Cathedral. I had hitchhiked down from the college I was attending and arrived before noon. The cathedral, wreathed in mist, seemed almost to float. It was larger than I had imagined and yet more delicate somehow. I pulled open a side door and slipped in. I found myself in a vast, open space under a soaring ceiling, everything dominated by the enormous stained-glass window of the West facade. Something about a cathedral raises the spirit and lowers the voice; footsteps echoed and I could hear voices somewhere, but no one was in sight. I walked quietly up the center aisle and knelt in a row of seats below the altar. While prayer with words has always been difficult for me, I have found peace in simply listening with an open heart. The heavens did not open nor did I see angels ascending and descending, but I was on holy ground nevertheless. Cathedrals were designed to impress, instruct, and uplift the thousands who crowded into them for worship and on festival days. Alone within that cool, echoing space, I could give myself over to the stone beneath my knees, the fine, close grain of the wood of the chair against which I leaned, the light pouring in from windows high overhead. 

I knelt there as long as I needed to, finally standing only when it seemed there was no more that could be expressed or received. It was a cessation, not a parting. 

A more recent experience took place within a small circle of friends I have known for over twenty years. We gather weekly to study, to pray, to discuss, and to argue over matters of the spirit and the state of the world. There is nothing we cannot say to each other. Still, it came as a shock when, near the end of our discussion, one of our group leaned forward and said with a smile on her face, “I just want you to know I have cancer.”

In the silence that followed for a few heartbeats, my first thought, incongruously, was of thankfulness. “Now it’s out there,” I thought. “We can talk about it. We can go through this with her. This is a beginning we will not regret.” We did not know what the outcome would be. But it’s fair to say that act of courage freed us all to bear whatever burdens we could together. 

These moments rise above the norm. They are what Otto calls the "overplus" of experience. When we have them, they remind us of forces beyond our control and of our smallness in this universe. They will not fit neatly into a rational schema nor can they be fully understood. But they can be accepted when offered.

Experience is a kind of knowing that reveals as we retell.


Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.

Image Credit: / Marly van Putten


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