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What Is the Sacred?

On holy fear.


In the eleventh chapter of the Baghavad Gita, the divine Lord Vishnu reveals himself to the warrior, Arjuna in the form of vishvarupa, that is, his “Universal Form.” In this form, Vishnu has the appearance of one with many faces displaying an infinite range of emotions, many arms wielding an infinite array of weapons, bedecked in a countless variety of majestic garments, blazing with the radiance of more than a thousand suns shining in the sky. Indeed, “there, in the person of the God of gods, Arjuna beheld the whole universe, with its manifold divisions, all gathered into one.”

Arjuna is completely overtaken with fearful awe and reverence before such a terrible theophany. As he beholds the all-encompassing expanse of Vishnu’s universal form, he cannot help but tremble and utter a hymn of worship, in which he several times confesses his fear: “By Thee alone are filled all the space between heaven and earth, and all the quarters of the sky. O Mighty One, the three worlds behold Thy marvelous and appalling form and tremble with fear. . . . Beholding Thy great form, O Mighty Lord, with myriads of mouths and eyes, with myriads of arms and thighs and feet, with myriads of bellies, and with myriads of terrible tusks—the worlds are affrighted, and so am I.”

The scene is meant to be disconcerting and unsettling, and with good reason. The Universal Form of Vishnu is indeed too much to be endured by human eyes, which are accustomed only to the appearances of things in their external form. Arjuna had requested Vishnu to reveal himself this way only if the god deemed him prepared for such a vision. The implication is that this vision is not meant for mortal eyes—and indeed, before revealing himself Vishnu makes sure to bestow upon Arjuna a “divine eye,” that is, the faculty of divine sight, by which alone any mortal could be able to withstand such a terrible vision.

This scene communicates something of the sense of the sacred which is also deeply present in the Bible itself, especially in the Old Testament—although it by no means disappears in the New. Arjuna’s vision of vishvarupa shares something in common with Isaiah’s vision of God, where he beholds God “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.” The Lord is surrounded by the seraphim, terrifying figures with six wings, who utter the thrice-holy hymn of praise in a voice that shakes the foundations of the temple. Isaiah’s response is, like Arjuna’s, one of fear and trembling: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” At this point, one of the great angels comes down and touches the mouth of Isaiah with a burning coal, taking away the uncleanliness of his lips. Isaiah is thereby prepared to be a messenger of the Lord.

Indeed, Isaiah was privileged among God’s prophets. Not even Moses was permitted to see the glory of the Lord, as much as he begged for such a vision. “Moses said, ‘I beg you, show me your glory.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.’” These words are echoed by the Hebrews themselves, when God reveals himself to them in the form of fire and speaks to them out of the flames: “If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die; for who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire, as we have, and has still lived?” Even when concealed in the form of flame, such a revelation comes too close to destroying those who behold it; it is too much to bear. For their own sake, they would rather God remain hidden.

The divine glory is revealed in the face of the sacred in this way too, precisely by being concealed rather than revealed too much. This does not detract from its fearful quality. On the contrary, it remains fearful because it is an unknown presence lurking beneath the surface of things, hidden in dark places where mere mortals should not approach too close, lest in bursting from its hiding it consume those who look upon it. The reticence of the universal God to reveal himself too generously is itself an indication, a reminder, of just how terrifying he would be if he did so reveal himself—and this itself is a terrifying reminder.

There are many other scenes in the Scriptures that reveal the same quality of the sacred, its ability to strike fear into the hearts of its beholders by bringing them into the presence of Something too great for human comprehension. Indeed, the Old Testament is positively brimming with such encounters, where the unspeakable strangeness of God is captured in imagery ranging from the sublime to the grotesque: the heavens proclaim the glory of God; God speaks to Job with a voice thundering out of a whirlwind; the valley of dry bones comes eerily to life under the breath of God. In these and myriad other images, God conceals his utter strangeness, his ineffability and inconceivability, in imagery meant to inspire awe, reverence, and fear.

While it is often observed that the New Testament seems to reveal a different God, a gentler and more loving God, by no means has the terrifying deity of the Old Testament disappeared. One need hardly mention here the Book of Revelation, whose apocalyptic visions reveal a side of God that for the most part seemed to have remained dormant throughout the Gospels. And yet, even in the Gospels, Jesus at one point reveals himself to three of his disciples in a transfigured form, accompanied by the prophetic figures of Moses and Elias: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light . . . Behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.” This is not to be taken as anything less than a terrifying theophany, before which the disciples could only fall upon their faces in holy fear, shielding their eyes from a vision that was too much for them to withstand.

These biblical events, no less than the theophany of Vishnu’s universal form in the Bhagavad Gita, reveal that element of the sacred which Rudolf Otto identified as tremor, indicated in the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum. Tremor connotes the uncanny, the disconcerting, the haunting; it refers to that aspect of the sacred, or the holy, which inspires “daemonic” dread—the darker side of the sacred. To behold a theophany is very much like being spooked by a ghost, but infinitely more tremendous. It is not just any ghost that one encounters behind the face of the sacred, like the ghost that haunts a haunted house; rather, it is the Ghost that haunts the whole cosmos, the Spirit that moved over the waters at the dawn of creation and that moved across the dead bones congregated in the desert of Ezechiel—chilling our own bones as we read of it. The only proper response to such an elemental energy is fear—either a fear that drives us into a mad state of euphoric frenzy or a fear that utterly silences us, much like the vision of a ghost will either drive us out of our wits or turn us stone cold with fright.

Yet to reduce the idea of sacred to this element of tremor would be as unfair as it would be untrue to the human experience of it. Indeed, the same traditions of Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity, not to mention a great many other religions of the ancient world, attest to another essential element—what Otto calls the element of fascination. When Vishnu reveals himself as vishvarupa, he does not merely terrify Arjuna but attracts and fascinates him. Arjuna is not deterred by this vision from his earlier desire to know Vishnu more intimately; on the contrary, he is inspired to adore him, worship him, and delight in doing so. The paradoxical nature of sacred manifestations is that they simultaneously induce fear and desire: the desire to possess, or be possessed by, that which one fears—the desire to be mystically united to it.

The Bible likewise speaks everywhere of God as the greatest object of human desire, the only thing that can fill the infinite well of the heart—and the only good which can rightfully claim the love of man’s whole heart and whole soul. The mystic desire for God is nowhere expressed more passionately than in the Psalms, where the soul longs for God “as a deer longs for flowing streams.” This mystic longing is often expressed as a desire to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Lord’s own house: “One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” The Psalmist here expressly desires to have the vision of Isaiah—a vision which is, at the same time, too much for human eyes to bear.

Beyond the Scriptures, mystics and philosophers of all traditions have likewise spoken of God, or the One, or the Transcendent, not only as something to be greatly feared but also as something maximally desirable. Even in its haunting awfulness, it is also irresistibly seductive—enchanting. To be a mystic, or even a philosopher, is to be caught under its magical spell. The image of a lover, in the Symposium and the Phaedrus of Plato, is meant to describe one enthralled by the eternal beauty of the infinite, unable to resist its attraction from beyond the dark veil of the perceptible world. In the Republic, the prisoner who escapes from the cave is drawn by the inexorable attraction of the Good, which is likened to the Sun; and in the Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus, the intensity of this imagery is heightened to the point of ecstasy: “Then the soul, receiving into itself an ‘outflow’ from [the Good], is moved and dances like a bacchant and is all stung with longing and becomes love.”

The Dionysian madness of the soul stung with longing overlaps with the madness of one spooked by the appearance of a ghost. Indeed, the tremor which the soul experiences in the presence of the tremendous mystery of the sacred, and the rapturous madness which she experiences as an overflow of love—these are but two expressions of the same dynamic which is essential mysticism itself: the effacement of the self, and its dissolution in the abyss of God’s infinite Being. Initially, this is experienced as something “too much,” and therefore something both frightening in its mysterious otherness and tantalizing in desirability. The soul becomes as one possessed, unable to contain the overabundance of divine energy with which she has just been penetrated. Eventually, this madness gives way to the ecstatic silence of a soul totally absorbed into God’s transcendence.

In the Christian mystical tradition, the madness of one loved by God is a dominant theme. Saint Augustine’s restless heart is the heart of one enthralled by love, carried away by a mystery as elusive as it is enchanting. Saint Philip Neri is famous for having cried out in a moment of ecstatic contemplation, totally overwhelmed by love, “I cannot bear so much, my God, I cannot bear so much, for see, I am dying of it!” Similarly, the poetry and prose of Saint John of the Cross is deeply infused with a sense of the overbearing “too-much-ness” of divine love: “Why, after wounding / This heart, have You not healed it? / And why, after stealing it, / Have You thus abandoned it, / And not carried away the stolen prey?”

Where do the inhabitants of a secularized society go to encounter the sacred in this way? There are a few vestiges of the sacred left, although traditional Catholics are well aware that even these last vestiges seem to be under attack by their own Church. The haunting rituals of the ancient Catholic liturgies, whether of the West or the East, are among the few remaining sacred forms still persisting visibly in an age of relentless desacralization and secularization. A minority of faithful Catholics still flock to old Gothic churches (or to makeshift and forbidden chapels) in order to behold a theophany. They go to be struck dumb by the supra-cosmic energies that congregate in such places to reveal the terrible yet loving face of God, mercifully concealed beneath the forms of bread and wine and wrapped in a cloud of incense smoke.

It is impossible to deny that, in a society where “all that is sacred is profaned,” such an experience is almost totally unfamiliar to the masses. A variety of social and material causes can be blamed for this death of the sacred, e.g., a culture of rampant consumerism, which plunges the masses into just those dispositions that preclude the vision of something radically Other. It is a culture that turns the individual ego in upon himself, making him a veritable narcissus, concerned only with the satisfaction of his least desires or the fulfillment of his most basic necessities. Security and comfort become the only goals worth seeking. The goal of transcendence, to which we are beckoned by every encounter with the sacred, certainly cannot be sought without transgressing the boundaries of our ordinary psychic comfort zones. Indeed, to those trapped within the comforts of what is ordinary and familiar, the daemonic dread that is aroused by a theophany is profoundly disturbing.

There can be little doubt that the fear of the sacred is linked to the fear of love itself, and all its attendant obligations and vulnerabilities, which also afflicts contemporary civilization. What is romantic love but an invitation into a sacred experience, something intimate and set apart, and thus meant to be shared exclusively and until death by two people alone? In such a relationship, the lover and beloved are totally exposed to each other; they are forced to be open to the radical transformation of love, a transformation that is fearfully avoided in an age marked more by egoism and individualism than by any desire for transcendence. The same age is witness to an altogether dumbed-down and individualistic kind of love, reinvented to allow for the avoidance of any semblance of worshipful commitment to the Other—hence the apparently dwindling possibility of committed, lasting marriages in our society. We would rather be safe and secure in our egocentric bubbles than be swept away by love, just as we would rather be safe and secure than be swept away by a theophany.

When the angels appear throughout the Scriptures to utter the consoling words “Be not afraid,” they do not thereby downplay the inherently fearful aspect of the sacred. To fallen men, the revelation of God will always have something of the element of terror about it. We are beckoned, therefore, to face this fearful element with courage—to be not afraid to fear. After all, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Jonathan Culbreath’s work has appeared in America, Catholic World Report, the American Conservative, the Bellows, and many other publications.

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