In our last post, we began expounding on the Second Pole of the Numen. For James and Otto, many individuals from virtually every major religion and culture have “heightened experiences of the numen,” another term for what many people, including C. S. Lewis, call “experiencing joy.”
Embedded in that experience is an awareness that our propulsion toward it (being swept into it) is not caused by ourselves, but induced by the Divine “wholly Other” present to us.
As we are swept into it, we become aware at once of its supremeness and goodness (including elements of both the first and second poles), and when this happens we are transformed – we no longer think that we are merely physical or material, but that we are transcendent, having a soul which can only be satisfied by supreme goodness itself.
This puts all material things into perspective – as merely partial, temporary satisfactions of our sensuous and psychical nature.
Though these heightened experiences are important, it should not be thought that incisive encounters with the numen are limited only to people who have experienced them. The “average person” can be experiencing joy through sparks of divine love-goodness-beauty-joy, but it might occur so gently, subtly, and quickly that they fail to recognize what is happening to them until they encounter a book or a conversation which describes the numinous experience.
After hearing these descriptions, they might say, “Well, I’ve never had a heightened experience of the numen, but I think I have had an experience of connecting with God that has His distinctive signature in it – some sense of supremeness, specialness, holiness, and goodness which is different from other interior experiences.”
Sometimes the average person can be praying an ordinary prayer like the “Our Father” or a well-known Psalm, and sometimes a few of the words will, as it were, leap off the page – leaving in its wake a feeling of supremeness-holiness-goodness-peace.
Sometimes the average person can look at the simplest religious object – a little picture or statue – and it will incite the same special interior experience.
Sometimes these same stimuli can cause us to recall a hazy experience of something that happened to us as children or young adults. Frequently young people do not reflect on the specialness of their experience, and therefore have no rational memory of them.
Nevertheless, they have a pre-rational memory of them, and when the numen presents itself in a gentle way (say, looking at a picture), it brings to mind the feeling embedded in their pre-rational memory, causing them to say, “That was really strange – I feel like I remembered something profound and good from my past.”
We should not underestimate our proclivity to put pre-rational memories into the recesses of our mind. When we don’t reflect on the specialness of an experience, we don’t remember it as special. It simply gets remembered as a set of intense feelings that can be reawakened when it happens to us again.
When C.S. Lewis was a child, he had heightened experiences of the numen, but because he did not reflect on them as special, he simply put this peculiar set of feelings into the recesses of his mind, which he only remembered after having religious conversations and subtler experiences of the same feelings as an adult.
Experiencing joy in these strange and subtle ways should not be discounted, for even though the experience can be gentle, subtle, and brief, it will retain traces of the distinctive signature of the numen (supremeness, mystery, and holiness combined with some sense of goodness, love, and/or joy).
The most subtle of these experiences communicates a sense of our true home in the supreme and holy goodness which elicits a sense of peace (absence of alienation) and unity with everything in which time stands still.
Though it seems like a contradiction to suggest that the numinous experience can be subtle or gentle, the numen can relieve alienation gently, can reveal its superior power and incomprehensibility softly, and can overwhelm us with deep beauty and goodness like Elijah’s “gentle breeze:”
[The Lord said to Elijah] ‘Go out and stand on the mountain, I want you to see me when I pass by.’ All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the LORD was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
Then there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat (1Kings 19:11-13).
As noted above, when the numen presents itself in a gentle or subtle way, and we do not reflect upon the specialness of the experience, we put the experience in the recesses of our mind. We might say that it becomes subconscious or unconscious. Sometimes we will have stronger experiences of the numen later in our lives and then we frequently bring our subconscious or recessed memory to our conscious mind, enabling us to see a pattern of interaction with the Divine One throughout life.
However, if we don’t have a strong experience later in life, does that mean that the gentle presence of the numen is completely ineffective in our lives? Absolutely not.
As will be seen with respect to Mircea Eliade’s analysis of sacred symbols and the transconscious, multiple, subtle, unreflective experiences of the numen create a strong unconscious impression which becomes part of our general frame of mind, causing us to desire, seek, and value sacred and religious symbols, community, worship, and revelation.
The numen’s subtle and persistent appearance causes us to be naturally spiritual and religious, inciting us to find outward communal expressions of what we interiorly sense and desire.
This may explain why the vast majority of people throughout history have had a sense of the spiritual and transcendent, have sought religious communities, were moved by sacred symbols, liturgy, and music, and found their highest sense of fulfillment through these outward expressions and connections to the transcendent and spiritual domain.