Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Flashback: Experiences of Mystery and Wonder

While I'm involved in another project, I am re-posting some of my favorite essays. A version of the following essay appeared in a series of essays in May of 2010.

“I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”
                      – Harry Emerson Fosdick

A Childhood Encounter

It was not my first experience of mystery, but it makes for a good story. I was eight years old and it was a breezy summer evening. We lived in the country and our closest neighbor owned a horse pasture that lay between our house and his. On this particular evening, I happened to be out in the back yard as dusk was slowly moving to twilight. I looked down below our yard to where our neighbor's pasture ran adjacent to the woods. It was there that I saw the strangest sight. It resembled a white sheet floating in the air and dancing about in the lower corner of the pasture. I was astounded and perplexed. I had heard ghost stories and had seen them portrayed on TV, and I began to wonder if I might actually be seeing a ghost. The sight must have been two or three hundred feet away, so I slowly walked down toward the pasture fence to get a better view.

My heart was pounding, I was breathing deeply, my eyes were unblinking and fixed upon the mysterious object that floated, danced, and changed shape as it moved about in sometimes a circular motion, sometimes an erratic fashion. I felt both fear and fascination as I continued to creep in for a closer look. As I got closer, I heard snorting and footsteps – it was definitely alive. How much closer should I get? Should I bolt and run back to the house? At that critical moment my eyes detected what I had not been able to see further back in the dim twilight. I saw the shape of a brown Shetland pony who had white shoulders and a white back. Our neighbor was temporarily keeping a friend's pony in his pasture. There was a brief moment there when fear and laughter co-mingled. Suddenly the movement, the snorting and the hoof beats all made sense as I realized that from my initial distance I had only been able to see the white markings on the pony.

I ran back to the house in excitement. I had to tell someone what I had just experienced. The first person I saw was my older brother who was watching TV.         

"Richard!" I said, "You gotta hear this – I thought I saw a ghost!" I then began recounting my twilight adventure. My brother, who was four years older than I (in fact, he is still four years older than I am) interrupted my story.

"Did you say you walked down to see it?" he asked.

"Yes!" I answered.

"You didn't think it was a ghost or you would have run away."

"But I did think so at first," I countered.

"No," he said, "you would have run."

*  *  *
Seventeen years later I was in seminary in California. In a Philosophy of Religion class I was reading Rudolf Otto's classic work, Das Heilige. Actually, I was reading the English translation, The Idea of the Holy. Rudolf Otto was writing about encountering mystery and wonder in the context of religious experience. He didn't like to use the word holy because of certain baggage that came along with the word. Instead, he coined the term, numinous to refer to the experience of mystery, and he used the term, mysterium tremendum to refer to the divine mystery itself. He wanted to get back to a more basic primal concept of religious encounter.

At one point Mr. Otto said that when one encounters the vast and indescribable mysterium tremendum one has the feeling of fear and the urge to run, but at the same time one is attracted to the mystery. When I read that, I wanted to go back to my brother and show him, "You see! Here's a German theologian who says you can experience fear and attraction simultaneously – that’s why I didn't run but went to get a closer look, even when I thought it might be a ghost." But I didn't tell him that because he's four years older than I am. Besides, I doubt if my brother even remembers the incident.  

Looking back on that encounter long ago, I realize that all I need to know about experiencing mystery and wonder I had already learned by eight years of age:

      1. I had other-worldly terminology to ascribe to the experience.
      2. I knew the simultaneous feelings of fear and attraction.
      3. I learned that it is difficult to convey to others the impact of a subjective
      4. There will be people who will discount one's experience of mystery.
      5. I learned that truth does not diminish the impact of a subjective experience
          of mystery.

Walking in Mystery

The very existence of life is grounds for mystery and wonder to me. The fact that life arose on this planet and has evolved in such variety and with such tenacity that every square inch of the planet – land, water, and air – is occupied by some life-form. That in itself is a wondrous phenomenon. Even more mysterious and wondrous is the fact that you and I are present to talk about it. We are representative of the arrival of human consciousness. With human awareness, Life became capable of observing and reflecting upon, as well as participating in creation. With over 7 billion people in the world it is safe to say that not a single sunrise or sunset goes unobserved, and on an increasing basis, hardly a sparrow goes unnoticed.

Why do we have those direct experiences of mystery and wonder? We walk in mystery and wonder every day. For practical reasons, perhaps, it is easy to ignore the wonder or to take the mystery for granted. Then on occasion the curtain is torn for a brief moment and we experience the impact of the vast mystery and wonder that is around us, beneath us and within us.

However and for whatever reason we experience mystery, it seems to be human nature to celebrate it. This is why some television audiences have been enthralled to hear the now familiar French horns followed by the voice-over narration, "Space...the final frontier..." It is why many flock to see the latest horror flick on the big screen. For others it is the eager discussion of UFO's or lost civilizations. Still others prefer the symphony, or a spiritual commitment as a means of celebrating mystery.                                     

My own experiences of mystery and wonder led me first to poetry then to theology, then back to poetry. I think poetry is a more primary response. Theology, like philosophy and psychology are secondary responses in that they require categories, definitions, rules and analyses. Music and dance may give us an even more primary response since they can be done without words.

Some would say that the best response to mystery and wonder is a theological one. Others prefer to give psychological and sociological interpretations to experiences of mystery. Carl Jung was one who saw the psychological and religious implications of mystery and greatly elucidated psychological concepts to promote personal and spiritual growth.

There are a thousand and one ways to celebrate the mystery and wonder about us. We humans are naturally adept at making meaning out of our lives, and doing it in a palatable manner. At some point, or at some level there is the realization that all of our activities and celebrations only hint at the Great Mystery that is beyond words, beyond deeds, even beyond silence, but somehow underlies existence itself.

Photo by Michael J. Bennett
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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