After a long hike in the Andes we flagged down a bus to the nearest town where we sought rest and lunch. While waiting for our food, I peered around and settled my attention on the typical small-town Andean soccer field and community center across from the restaurant. There I noticed a legless boy of about 13 years old enter the soccer field,. He transported himself with rag-wrapped hands and by the momentum of swinging the trunk of his body. With his anterior pelvis he repeatedly bunted the soccer ball up against the bleachers so it would return to him. Occasionally, various people crossed the playing field, courteously greeting him. Some volleyed the ball back and forth a few times with him before going on their way. His skill with the ball was impressive, considering his physical limitation. After a while I became aware that my whole attention had been captured by this soccer field scene of a legless boy and a ball; caught in the mystery of our human capacity to meet challenges of all kinds and remain joyful and energetic. Witnessing him was a numinous experience, that filled me with gratitude and wonder. Once again, I found myself pondering how the numinous unexpectedly appears in our living and is always more or less transforming.
In his most notable work The Idea of the Holy (1917)[i] Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) suggested that the experience of the numinous is greater than the religious idea of the holy, which is concerned solely with states of moral perfection. Otto postulated that we all, regardless of the state of our ethical perfection, experience the holy when we encounter those non-rational and non-sensory experiences of there being something greater than ourselves – something outside of our egoic expectation, judgment, or intellectualization – something that confounds the ego’s stance and transports it beyond thought and the concrete minutiae of corporeal reality—something we may call “God”. After such an experience, we may describe it, for example, as joy, wonder, love, mystery, or hope, but in truth we know that a description of the numinous is only approximated by word or art.
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 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. (Otto, pp 12-13)[i]
Commonly, experiences of the numinous alter our view of the world. What matters to us changes. We develop or renew our interest in taking action toward moral perfection, which is no more grand than aligning ourselves more closely to the universal principles of truth, love, joy, faith, courage, soulfulness, humility, hope, or the universal intelligence or our own imagination of god. The numinous experience initiated by witnessing a legless boy playing soccer deepened my knowing that no matter what trials I may have in this corporeal reality, I can transcend suffering by engaging in living with joy and faithful perseverance in the belief that love prevails and heals all.[ii]
I imagine that our first experience of the numinous is when we first experience love at our mother’s breast (if we were fortunate enough); perhaps even at the wonder of our own birth and being. Have you ever witnessed an infant caught in fascination with its own fingers or toes? As we, rightly, develop our corporeal being and an egoic stance capable of allowing us to survive, we often lose our connection to the numinous—to love (god or whatever we may call it). When we feel that loss, we try to recapitulate the good enough breast experience in a multitude of ways, mostly through materialism, but sometimes we stretch into spiritual or artistic pursuits to touch the divine. Our salvation from becoming too rigidly bound to the world of things and egoic machinations comes through experiences of the numinous, which allow us to reconnect with love and a meaningful existence. In Delivery Delayed Stan Rogers (1979) [iii] poetically describes that process of reconnection:
How early is ‘beginning’?, from when is there a soul?
Do we discover living, or, somehow, are we told?
In sudden pain, in empty cold, in blinding light of day
We’re given breath, and it takes our breath away
How cruel to be unformed fancy, the way in which we come
Over-whelmed by feeling and sudden loss of love
And what price dark confining pain, the hardest to forgive
When all at once, we’re called upon to live
By a giant hand we’re taken from the shelter of the womb
That dreaded first horizon, the endless empty room
Where communion is lost forever, when a heart first beats alone
Still, it remembers, no matter how its grown
We grow, but grow apart
We live, but more alone
The more to see, the more to see
To cry aloud that we are free
To hide our ancient fear of being alone
And how we live in darkness, embracing spiteful cold
Refusing any answers, for no man can be told
That delivery is delayed until at last we’re made aware
And first reach for love, to find ’twas always there
The more we experience the numinous, consciously or not, the more we desire it. Our yearning manifests viscerally as a hunger that seeks satisfaction outside ourselves. We may know satisfaction in the arms of our lover, in comfort food, in our children, in a new pair of red shoes or a sports car, in drugs or alcohol, in dance or athleticism, in creative activity, in nature, in knowledge, or in seeking the perfection of something. Whatever gratification we find in these things eventually dissipates, and then we want more.
Typically, we are unaware that our primary occupation is mining for the numinous in the materia of human living. It seems that we are striving for success, recognition, wealth, connection with others, or relief from working and doing, but really what we want is more of that profound experience of the numinous—of something greater than ourselves that gives meaningfulness to the daily grind. In non-material ways we seek an experience of the numinous through engaging with universal spiritual principles; honesty, hope, faith, courage, integrity, willingness to act toward good, humility, service for the benefit of all, and of course love. I know I always want more of the numinous and so I continue to “reach for love to find ‘twas always there”.
When I have no legs to stand on, when my lack of wholeness makes the task before me seem impossible, my free will allows me the chance to choose creative ways to address the task. If I am able to act from love, to think with love, and believe that love is available to me the task is possible. If I am able to act from love then my dwelling place is the numinous, and then this corporeal experience starting from my birth is a gift worth engaging with graciously and joyously.
“Be drunk with love, for love is all that exists.” – Rumi
[i] Otto. Rudolph. 1917. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. Trans J.W. Harvey, Oxford Press; London, 1923; 2nd ed 1950, reprint 1958, 1970 [originally published 1917]. ISBN 0-19-500210-5. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Otto Accessed June 17, 2019.
[ii] See also Matus, G. (2014) World’s Geography of Love. https://www.academia.edu/23239183/WORLDS_GEOGRAPHY_OF_LOVE_AN_ALCHEMICAL_HERMENEUTIC_INQUIRY_INTO_THE_HEROIC_MASCULINES_REBIRTH_AS_INFLUENCED_BY_LOVE_AS_THE_GLUTINUM_MUNDI_AND_THE_FEMININE_INCORPORATIO
[iii] Rogers, Stan (1979). Delivery Delayed. In Between the Breaks . . . Live! Art; media music; lyrics and music by Stan Rogers. Fogarty’s Cove Music. Producer Paul Mills. Accessed June 17, 2019 http://stanrogers.net/the-music/song-archive/delivery-delayed/ Youtube recording with lyrics Accessed June 17, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iLT-nhibIQ