[In two days, I have used contemporary music to name a blog post. Yesterday it was a song by War, “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and today it is U2’s turn, though just as yesterday’s post was not about War, neither is today’s about U2.]
After finishing The Interior Castle, I was left a little perplexed. I was eleven again. That was the year I saw Mary on the mountaintop, an intensely personal encounter, some of you know of. I took up Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy to come to some terms with what I had read and this perplexity with which I now had a certain stake in. Based on what I am going to say, there will be a strong irony that I would choose to read anything to give explanation to St. Teresa, but I did nonetheless.
Otto’s work, in brief, is about the non-rational and how this is the way we experience that which is holy. It is a heady piece written for those who will teach or preach and the language is often difficult, but the concept is not, unless it is one not experienced, in which case no amount of intellect and study will help.
Anyone who has studied Otto (or perhaps Carl Jung or CS Lewis who borrowed heavily from his thought on this matter) knows of the numenous, that encounter with the divine, that can only be grasped by the experience of the mind rather than the outward senses. For Otto, it is in this encounter we come to a place of utter fascination and utter dread. And it is an encounter that can only be understood rooted in the experience of the thing.
Related and more earthly concepts can help us grasp the meaning of this non-rational experience. Music is often cited as an example when it comes to the nature of beauty. We all know what beauty means, but we only understand it in the best way with the experience of it. Music, when heard, produces an auditory beauty that can easily be recognized if the piece is good, but to the listener it can also invoke a greater feeling which can only be expressed as an encounter with the beautiful. Otto uses the example of a woman who says of her lover, “I love him.” The words are identical to what a child says of his or her father, but the experience differs not only in quantity, but also in a certain type of quality that includes a greater type of impulse that the child cannot have. Here love can only be grasped by experience just as beauty was understood in the example of music.
The analogies Otto uses help explain what is holy. Here too we can know the rituals and language, but knowing these in a rational way does not get at the whole of the thing. To understand this we must enter the realm of the non-rational. Otto is very careful here and we must be too. Even using the word non-rational is intentional. Otto’s German is often translated as “irrational,” but he is quick to point out that is not what is meant here. The non-rational does not negate the rational, but it is above it. His idea is more in keeping with the thought of Blaise Pascal, who did not deny his science when he had his mystical encounter or more controversially, Martin Luther who called reason, “the whore of the devil” meaning not that we should abandon reason in all aspects of life, but that it cannot be that which alone defines our encounter with the divine.
Because we operate in the realm of the rational, and more so today than ever, we can allow our encounters to be only about this. This will never lead to that which is outside the rational or natural. It can never be the way with which we come to have an experience with the supernatural. That encounter resides not in reason alone, but in what Christianity calls revelation. The encounter does not negate reason, but it possesses a quality that is above it.
I have made my way to the midpoint of the Otto book. He is at the point where he seeks to explain the non-rational as an a priori category and offer some rehabilitation to Kant. On that matter I have little to offer for I have only gleaned The Critique of Pure Reason. It is also not the reason I picked up Otto to begin with. St. Teresa’s encounter and not the learned explanation of Immanuel Kant was the reason for this.
But it was difficult to come to terms with St. Teresa. To take up her encounter was one of both fascination and dread. As I sought a more adequate language to understand this, I turned to Otto only to find language is a rational tool that cannot always come to terms with that which is above the rational. I found myself seeking to understand the encounter and feeling much like the German mystic Henry Suso, who told of spending his days seeking with earnest longing that which he could not apprehend and yet the impulse to do this very thing remained within him. I thought of Lewis and his longing for “that which we do not know.” I thought of those who have had the experience, the Saints of which my Catholic friends tell me I can call to for help, but where the demand to imitate them is not required. It is as Tillich has said, a thing will happen or will not happen. Imitation is good practice, but it is not the means to force a destination.
Yet I have faith the journey is not futile and the destination is there. I have glimpsed the place. I think all of us have within us is that impulse of which Otto speaks. At eleven I could know the thing on the side of a mountain in the presence of Mother Mary and I can know it in sacred food. And the encounters are beautiful and sometimes unnerving, but they are not the place that can be always had. This is the best revelation most can hope of the eternal….to be permitted to glimpse it knowing that it is rare for such a thing to take permanence in this life, that is if it can happen at all.
Certainly Teresa’s union with God was above the rational even if it did not seek to dispel of it. Her work mentions natural law as that which can help guide the one who has no knowledge of Christ to a certain understanding of Him. The point is well taken, for if the life of prayer and the sacraments which can bring us to a place above the rational were the only place to attain Christ, then many would have no part of salivation history and that is not the will of God. And there are many others, who in earnest striving, cannot come to the place of the divine encounter. That too is not the will of God. It must then be true there resides within us that greater impulse which is natural to us to lead us to the place above the rational.
But what must the impulse do to us? What of the place it drives us to? This encounter, it is paradoxical….altogether joyous and altogether uncomfortable. The discomfort must only fade in the reality of the eternal, but on the frail earth, we must come to terms with it and know that it is rare a person can always live in it. It is why I chose for the title of this post, a song about such encounter.
Otto refers to the divine frenzy. How appropriate he should reference Suso, who has been called a troubadour, those for whom manic poetry was about frenzy. (If “Dominican troubadour” is not paradoxical, I don’t know what is.) Otto, who was also a scholar of comparative religion, could find the frenzy everywhere even if he saw its perfection only in the Christian proclamation.
And Christianity is the place to ultimately find the definition of the frenzied encounter. It is born in the redemption of the altogether fallen and altogether beautiful creation. Its great act of redemption for this world is born in the ultimate paradoxical story of the scandal of the cross….at once utterly disdainful and utterly loving. No wonder the divine encounter can be at once a lovely and dreadful thing. If we do not appropriate the encounter well, then it becomes that which drives us to apathy choosing to ignore its impulse rather than immerse ourselves in it.
The primitive person was much better equipped for the thing. They understood the anime of a thing. An analogy works well here. Go to the top of a mountain or stand on the coast. Here you will know animation. You know the thing not to be alive, though here you encounter liveliness. But here too you could fall and be dashed to pieces or be swept away by the torrent. And yet there remains the impulse to be in these places where you are never more alive or never more in danger. How much greater when the place you come to be in is a living encounter. In The Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis, who had a great appreciation for the noumen, put it in terms that were accessible to his young audience, when he says an encounter with the gentle and loving Aslan was not entirely safe.
It is no wonder that the encounter with the divine could compel one to want to turn back. How much Teresa must have had conflicts about going deeper into the castle. And Moses surly grew to have increasing levels of fascination and dread as he ascended to the top of Mount Sinai. For those who have treaded this beautiful and dreadful holy ground, they must know what is called awe and the paradox of coming into contact with the wholly other (that beyond the rational) knowing even as they do, they also participate in the story.
And it is fascinating and dreadful. How can the finite stand in the presence of the infinite? How can the ordinary encounter the extraordinary? It is certainly not the most comfortable of places, but it is a place of love, for why else would we be invited into the place whatsoever? Why else would the story also come to us in the very cruel and human act of crucifixion that is at the same time so loving?
The impulse is strong. Once had, can we not seek to make the journey? But it is fraught with a certain peril and the place is not comfortable. But love never is. We can readily say I don’t know if I have it in me to be with you and yet I can’t be without you. Besides there is no other place to go. So we make the journey and glimpse the greater thing with the faith that even when we put this down, we are not put down and we know that in a time that is eternal, we will be brought to that encounter again. This time, it will be absent of the dread. Our journey will be at its end and we will be in that place with Him and His great company knowing now we are never to depart.