From the Gospel of Mark:
People came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 5:14b-17 (NRSV) – March 21, 2014.)
The story of the reaction of the people to the curing of the Gerasene demoniac is, I think, unique among the healing stories in the Gospels. Most of the time when people hear of or witness one of Jesus’ healings, he is then swamped by crowds and sometimes has to flee them. Here, we are told that he is begged to go away. As I read the passage, I thought of Isaiah’s reaction to his call: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5) These folks are those who realize they are “a people of unclean lips.” Like Isaiah, they fear being in the presence of holiness.
And yet . . . they were attracted to it initially. It was they who “came to see” what was going on. That is the nature of holiness; it attracts and it repels. Rudolph Otto, a great early 20th Century Lutheran theologian, defined “the holy” by these characteristics. He coined the term “the numinous” (derived from the Latin numen, “divine power”) and described it as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” (The Idea of the Holy, 1917)
Otto used the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans to describe the “object” of this experience. Mysterium (“mystery”) denotes the wholly Other which can be experienced only with blank wonder or stupor. Tremendum (“awe inspiring” or “terrifying”) describes the absolute unapproachability of God in whose presence one appreciates a sense of one’s own nothingness and utter dependence. Fascinans (“fasinating” or “attractive”) signifies the holy’s potent charm which draws us to it despite our fear.
For many, this is the experience of walking into a sacred space, a place where God’s majesty has been revealed before. Places of worship, religious architecture and art, great church music are some of the human attempts to reflect the mystery of God and often form the backdrop for the experience Otto describes. But Otto was quick to point out that more often the experience comes in non-religious settings. The numinous may be and often is experienced in our appreciation of a mountain vista, the changing colors of autumn leaves, the flight of migratory birds, or the awesome majesty of lightening and thunder.
Yesterday at 10 a.m., when the National Weather Service and all the commercial weather forecasters predicted a partially sunny day with ambient temperatures getting above 50F, I looked out my office window and saw snow falling thickly and the ground blanketed in white! I had that “non-rational, non-sensory experience” of which Otto speaks, that sense of the utter unknowability and unpredictability of creation. No matter how much we study and how much we learn (at least so far in human existence) there is still that part of reality that we don’t know and don’t understand. For all of our experimentation and hypothesizing, for all of our theoretical mathematics, there is still that millionth of a billionth of a trillionth of a second at the beginning of time about which we know nothing. For all of our biological and medical and chemical knowledge and experimentation, there is still that glimmer in my lover’s eyes, there is still that lilt in my daughter’s laughter, there is still so much that warms my heart and soul that cannot be explained, that is and can be appreciated only in a non-rational and non-sensory way.
It is fascinating and attractive, and it is, as my kids are wont to say, awesome!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.