Archives for posts with tag: Rudolph Otto

15

Peacock butterflies on sunflower

Photo: Scott Murray

The shroud picture falls a second time

It was a great shock for both of us when Margaret was diagnosed with stomach cancer on the 28th June, 2012, a month after the shroud image of Jesus had fallen of the table in the hall. We were both worried and stressed about what the diagnosis could mean. On the 5th July Margaret thought she would go and buy a packet of cigarettes – she had once been a smoker and she felt she needed a cigarette. She went to have look to see what the weather was like. As she passed the table in the hall, the picture of Jesus fell to the floor.

Needless to say, she didn’t buy cigarettes and she hasn’t smoked since. Later, when she was getting chemo and she was suffering with her throat, it became clear that if she had been smoking, it would have been the last straw.

Outwith our volition

In thinking about the fall of the stick and then the picture, several thoughts come to mind. These things happened entirely outwith our volition; it was some power outwith our control that made these objects fall. In the case of the picture it was very specific, it was the picture of Jesus. Indeed, it was as if Jesus was speaking to us. Any object in the house could have fallen, but in this case it was the shroud picture of Jesus. I have thought about this ever since and I have thought, how utterly extraordinary!

The extraordinary conclusions

What is equally extraordinary are the following conclusions that could be drawn from what happened: Whatever was moving the picture and the stick appeared to know all about us. It appeared to know what was to happen in the future. It appeared to care for Margaret and what might happen to her, for example, by stopping her smoking. This, of course, all accords with what it says in psalm 139: ‘You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.’ (V3) and Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.’ (V6).

All the things that happened led me to the conclusion that philosophical materialism cannot be true. Rather there is spiritual reality – what Jesus calls the Father – that knows all about us. But it will only help us when we truly trust and seek him. As it say in psalm 50, V15: ‘call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.’ Whether this help comes in this life or the next, who is to say?

The surgeon phones

It was in the evening of the 5th, the day the picture fell, that the surgeon phoned to let Margaret know the result of the scan she had on the previous day. He confirmed that cancer was confined to the stomach with one lymph node affected. In these days a lot of people were praying for Margaret’s recovery. On the 16th the surgeon phoned again and told her she would be getting three doses of chemo over the next few months. On that day the verse I got for her was this: ‘God in the midst of her doth dwell;/ nothing shall her remove:/ The Lord to her an helper will, / and that right early prove.’ In the midst of despair, I knew it meant something.

The reality of the numinous

The decline of Christianity, and indeed religion, in the West is a multi-faceted phenomenon, declining church attendances, young people’s indifference to religion, postmodern claims that there is no absolute truth, a growing secularism. The list could go on and on …

But when we scratch the surface we find something very different. What Otto calls the numen, the appearance of the divine, the wholly other, is still there whether we like it or not. It is not a merely an archaic left-over from ‘primitive’ societies. It makes its appearance from time to time and it is not something that can be willed to happen. Yes, it is the irrational side of religion, the unknowable, but it complements and sustains the rational side, namely, the written word and the dogmas of the church.

For the Christian, it reached its culmination in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The hidden numen appeared fully clothed and made its presence evident by signs and miracles, but also spoke in words that could be understood.

13.

The Christ gate

It was in September 2008, months after the second fall of the stick, that it dawned on me that the dream Margaret had in the mid-nineties, and that led to our marriage, could have had a specific religious meaning. In the dream she had seen me going through a gate and she had followed. Now that I had accepted Christ as my saviour I could see that this gate could be interpreted as the Christ gate. We were entering a new life together and the new life was a spiritual life.

Psalm 37

Other things that happened around this time reinforced the feeling that things weren’t just happening by chance. I was in church and we sang verses 3-4 of psalm 37 ‘Set thou thy trust upon the Lord …’ Many years before, my late father had written these verses on a piece of paper and given them to me. The only time he had ever done such a thing. At the time I didn’t take them to heart. The minister, of course, didn’t know this but, rather unsettling for me, he asked for the same verses to be sung again –  in Gaelic this time – at the end of the service.

Some time after, Margaret remembered that she had a plaque she had been given by friends when she left Surrey in the 1980s. It had words from verse 4, ‘Delight thyself in God; he’ll give thine heart’s desire to thee. Coincidences or an overarching providence? With all that was happening, it seemed more like the latter.

Pilgrim’s Progress

After the first two falls of the stick in July 2008, the process of emptying the loft was proceeding well. By the middle of August I had almost completed the task. We had planned a coach holiday in August in the Cotswolds but at the last minute I cancelled the holiday and Margaret wasn’t all that pleased. The following day she was up early. She had had a vision of John Bunyan and of being in a prison. When she looked up John Bunyan on the computer she discovered that he had written Pilgrim’s Progress – or part of it – in Bedford Jail, something of which she had been unaware.

Later in the morning I was up in the loft. There were one or two boxes still to be cleared at the end of the loft. I looked into one box and there, staring me in the face, was a copy of the Pilgrim’s Progress in Gaelic, which I didn’t know I had. I could see from what was written in it that it had been given to my father by a minister. I came down the ladder and handed it to Margaret, saying ‘This is for you’. Later in the week she was visiting a friend and she told her friend the story. ‘Oh’, said her friend, ‘I was looking through some books in the bookshelves and I came across a copy of the Pilgrim’s Progress in English. You can take it with you.’

The Idea of the Holy

It was about this time that I became more and more intrigued with the idea of the holy or sacred. I realised that modern life had desacralised everything. Capitalism and the profit motive and materialism (of both kinds) meant that nothing was set apart as holy and untouchable. Everything could be used and abused because they didn’t have a divine source. The world had become secular.

A book I was reading at the time The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto paints a very different picture. He talks about the numinous and the feeling of dread human beings experience when faced with the overwhelming nature of the ‘wholly other’. It is the creature meeting the creator. When the numinous breaks through into human experience, it goes beyond fear. It is indeed a peculiar kind of dread which cannot be described in words. The book is not for the faint-hearted but it might change one’s attitude to what the term ‘holy’ means, as it did mine.

The Sacred and the Profane

Another book which influenced my thinking at the time was The Sacred and the Profane by the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade. It was rather strange how I came to read this book. A friend knew of my interest in Rudolph Otto and he introduced me by email to a Romanian scholar and poet who he knew was also interested in Otto. It was her who recommended Eliade’s book to me. Decades before, the name Eliade had come to me in a dream but I didn’t know who he was at the time. I presumed he was a poet and that I would one day come across him.

The other strange thing is that I had also dreamed, decades before, of the face of the poet who recommended the book to me. The image of the face and the name Eliade had stuck with me, although I wouldn’t know for many years what significance they would have in my life.

The religious and the nonreligious

It turned out that Eliade was a famed historian of world religion and an authority on myth, symbol and religion. He had been influenced by Otto. His book was an eye-opener for me. He shows how there are, and always have been, people who are religious and aware of the sacred and the numinous, (because they have experienced it) and how there are others who are nonreligious and completely unaware that this fundamental reality exists. Nowadays, the nonreligious are in the majority and their world is a secular world and completely desacralised.

Hierophany

Eliade speaks a lot of how there can be a religious and sacred space. That is, a space where the numinous or the ‘wholly other’ has broken through and revealed itself. He calls this act of manifestation of the sacred a hierophany, that is, something sacred showing itself. It can manifest itself in ordinary objects, as a stone or a tree. But for the Christian the supreme hierophany is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. He says, ‘In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act – the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural “profane” world.’