Drawn Into the Numinous
1: supernatural, mysterious
2: filled with a sense of the presence of divinity: holy
3: appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense: spiritual
Today I called my oldest friend to wish her a happy birthday. As we went through the “how did we get to be so old?” conversation that increasingly dominates birthday phone calls, my thoughts kept gravitating back toward her birthday evening 49 ago, when being sixty-something was nearly a lifetime away. After snack foods and cake and all kinds of teenage silliness with two other friends who were part of our inseparable group of four, we had walked downtown to a free Wednesday night movie at the VFW Hall. That evening stands out so sharply in my memory for one simple reason: I walked into the movie with no expectations beyond summer evening entertainment. (Well, to be totally candid, we were going primarily because I had an enormous crush on the social studies teacher who was acting as volunteer projectionist.) I walked out with my soul awakened to something that ran so deep within me that I have never been the same since.
The movie was Lost Horizon (the old 1937 black-and-white version) based on James Hilton’s book by the same name. It is the story of a group of British and American travelers whose plane goes down somewhere in the Himalayas. Just when they think they are going to freeze to death, they are found by some sherpas, who take them on a treacherous journey that eventually leads to a crevasse in the snowy mountains. To their wonder, they are led through the crevasse into a paradise river valley called Shangri-la, where not only does nature exist in exquisite harmony, but the best of human progress and culture is flourishing as well.
Most striking of all, in Shangri-la the people live peaceably under the influence of a deep spiritual consciousness engendered by their leader, the High Lama.
Something in the movie stirred me to deep, soul-level tears. Not sad tears, but rather the kind people shed when they are reunited with a long-lost family member or when they finally set foot on their native soil after years of exile. Moreover, the feelings awakened by the movie stayed with me as a palpable force long after the closing credits. I can remember walking home on that hot July night, looking up at the moon and feeling simultaneously the sense of God’s presence and the conviction that I was being called to do something about it. I can only describe it now in terms that I didn’t yet know at that time: I was drawn into a sense of the numinous.
Nor did I know at the time that this was the evening when my life direction was formed. I was filled with a yearning for more of the Presence that drew me toward itself. My hunger was unabated the next day and so I went to the library to get the book, which I quickly devoured, followed by a string of other spiritually potent books. To this day, if I were to trace my spiritual biography I would have to give this event turning point status.
I have wondered many times in years since about those spontaneous experiences that seem to come out of nowhere and reach into our very souls. The magic was not in the movie itself. I have gone back to watch it at different times since, and it holds none of the provocative power it had for me that first time. Rather, the sense of the numinous can take many forms to reach us wherever we are most open to it. The friend whose birthday triggered these ruminations tells of an experience of nature when she was very young that sounds to me like it was imbued with the same numinous quality that I experienced when watching Lost Horizon. Something about the country lane she was on and the way the sunlight
came down through the trees filled her with an indescribable feeling that she has never forgotten. We have spoken of it often, and have even gone off on nature rambles to try to recapture it. Others report such awakenings while listening to music, or watching the birth of a baby, or visiting some astounding historical site. The underlying quality of all these experiences is that we are taken unawares by something that is magical in the best sense of the word. We are drawn into sensibilities beyond the everyday, humdrum train of our regular thoughts and feelings. And, perhaps most importantly, an appetite for something more is kindled.
In my case, I would say that the appetite had something to do with possibilities beyond anything I had ever imagined. Something in me intuited that there is a state beyond belief, a state of realization, where the presence of the divine can transform us and the world we live in. And although I have to confess that I am often disappointed in my own progress toward reaching that realization, there have been repeated reminders throughout the course of my life – some relatively small and others more momentous to me – that growing into this realization is the highest good that I can pursue. My life purpose, you might say.
For those whose experience of the numinous comes in nature, perhaps it is a clue as to how their deepest selves will find nourishment over the course of a lifetime, or maybe it is a call to special custodial care for the natural world. For the one drawn into the numinous while witnessing a birth, a deep care for the wellbeing of future generations may be born at the same time, or perhaps a direct realization of the life principle. A piece of art or music that draws the experiencer into the numinous may point to a life purpose to bring beauty into the world.
The numinous depth of the mystery that seems to have called us out of the animal mind is completely impenetrable to modern analysis. --Terence McKenna
The common denominator of our varied experiences of the numinous seems to be that it elevates us. It draws us into a higher vision and makes us want to do, be, and create more of what we have touched upon in that luminous moment. It’s as if Something More has been hiding in plain sight and every time we step into it, we give it more presence in this world where things too often feel broken, chaotic, or otherwise out of order. Every numinous experience is a reminder that, appearances to the contrary, there is wholeness, purpose, and meaning to life in general, and to our lives in particular. And it is a call to nurture that wholeness and meaning in the ways that best speak to our own souls.
Every being has its own interior, its self, its mystery, its numinous aspect. To deprive any being of this sacred quality is to disrupt the total order of the universe. Reverence will be total or it will not be at all. The universe does not come to us in pieces any more than a human individual stands before us with some part of his/her being. -- Thomas Berry