It’s not like I was not prepared for the experience. Like any student of religious history, I read Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, and many philosophers like them who have tried to study the phenomenon which we refer to broadly as “religion.”
I was taught the intellectual version of the divine as a pre-programmed natural niche in the human psyche. It’s observable regardless of acculturation and regardless of personal beliefs. It’s a scientific fact. It can be explained in any number of ways, including “explained away,” but it occurs universally – and yes, even among atheists.
In that case they may call it wonderment, or a sense of something greater than oneself. But it all boils down the same thing: An instinctive awareness of a universal mystery, both terrifying and alluring at once, which Otto termed the Numinous and claimed was hardwired into us all. A sense of awe. A location below. An appreciation for interconnectivities that extend beyond our own immediate perceptions. A sense of the holy.
That numinous encounter with what earlier generations had no trouble referring to neatly as “The Divine” can look like nearly anything – like saving an ancestor’s photograph or pouring honey over a yoni-lingam, humming a hymn on Easter morning, contemplating a flower, taking your kid to see your first home as a boy, or doing a good deed in anonymity.
But these events can be studied as manifestations of a single impulse that locates us in a larger cosmogony which, even if we don’t fully understand it, we accept as somehow true beyond proof – even atheists, who may believe in empirical fact as the underlying interlocking principle, and behave accordingly toward their own version of “holy.”
Everyone carries a cosmogony. It’s not voluntary in our species. And by its very nature the human cosmogony contains an “up,” an ideal of exaltation and integration at once.
In my own life I’ve variously seen the religious impulse as an unfortunate side-effect of evolution, as a virus-like social meme, as a welcomed psychological anesthetic, and as an involuntary connection to a very real Higher Power and boundless eternity outside my own volition and often even beyond my own perception.
That latter is familiar to many as the locus of simple pleasure in experiencing a religious moment, an epiphany, a sense of connection and wellbeing in our lucky place under the stars. Just letting it be, and letting ourselves be, in it and through it, is innocently joyous.
Lately, however hard my rationalizing education fights to restrain those feelings in some more methodical and meta-conscious way, that experience of naive and urgent awe has been happening with regularity.
I can think of a few reasons: I am emotionally tense. I feel both fear and hope simultaneously in several different arenas. I have been left alone more than usual. But probably most pertinently, it’s spring, with the change in light, the many blooms, the evident miracle of new life, eggs in the incubator on the kitchen counter, the pleasantness finally of being outside for extended periods, in the sun, walking on fresh green grass beneath budding arbors filled with birdsong.
Any and all of these factors can trigger humility and awe and sudden sensations of a larger invisible joy. There is of course the possibility that it’s not just me and mine, but something from the outside reaching toward me in return. Take your pick.
Into the rosemary
I had to park oddly coming home a couple of days ago because the electrician was blocking the driveway. I pulled into a corner, and thinking about nothing more than the mud I would get on my shoes in this part of the yard, I slung open the door, reached for my bags, and turned to get out.
And in that instant I was arrested by… I don’t know what. The surprising warmth of the sun? The light glinting off the glabrous rosemary? The weaving of that rosemary into the rest of the garden? The smell of sap? The uninterrupted low buzzing of downy gold bees in the silver-blue flowers? The sense of larger plenitude in all that we’ve found success in lately, or that feeling of being safe and cared for of after much instability, at last? Being in love?
Maybe all of it together.
What was sure for me was that it was yet another peek behind the veil of physical realities into Rudolf Otto’s Numinous super-reality. The Divine was making an impromptu guest appearance in the mundane world for me, right there in the rosemary patch.
I was overbowled. I waited for a while, still turned sideways in the seat of the car, not wanting to upset anything in that moment, just drinking it in, contemplating my good fortune to witness such holy mystery, as one would revere the dense and silent moments after communion at church, or when watching a sunset, or hearing of the birth or death of a relative.
It was big, and it was right there outside the dirty black door of our hatchback, hovering over the mud, and rising from the soil in the garden like a pillar of fire filled with bees.
After a while, I took a photo. It does not look like much, and certainly does not convey the moment to others. But it is enough to jog my own memory. I can see through it like a window, and I know what it really was.
I will always be able to revisit that awing moment of recognition whenever I look at it, although I’m really more excited about the next experience than the last.
Maybe that won’t take long, because it’s been happening alot lately. I don’t know why, but I’m certainly glad.