Mysterium Tremendum, Mysterium Fascinosum
Rudolph Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy says that when someone has an authentic experience of the Holy, they find themselves caught up in two opposite movements at the same time: the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinosum, a scary mystery and a very alluring mystery. We both draw back from and are pulled forward into a kind of liminal space where we are not at home at all and yet totally at home for perhaps the first time.
In the mysterium tremendum, you know God as far and beyond—unreachable and beyond description! Here you experience God as dreadful and fearful, as the one who has all the power, and in whose presence I am utterly powerless. People at that stage tend to become overwhelmed by a sense of separation or alienation. If you stop there, you either become an atheist, an agnostic, or a loyal but distant soldier. The defining of sin and sin management becomes the very nature of religion.
But simultaneously with this dimension is an opposite feeling of fascination, allurement, and seduction, a being pulled and drawn into something very satisfying and inviting. This is the mysterium fascinosum. If you only have the alluring part without the deep reverence for this mystery, you get merely sentimental and emotional religion, usually without any real social consequences (“Sweet Jesus” Christianity, as it is sometimes called). Otto says if you don’t have both, you have not had a true or full experience of “The Holy.”
~Adapted from Richard Rohr, Holding the Tension: The Power of Paradox
The ability to stand back and calmly observe our inner dramas, without rushing to judgment, is foundational for spiritual seeing. It is the primary form of “dying to the self” that Jesus lived personally. The growing consensus is that, whatever you call it, such calm, egoless seeing is invariably characteristic of people at the highest levels of doing and loving in all cultures and religions. They are the ones we call sages or wise women or holy men. They see like the mystics see. Many of us call it the contemplative mind, Paul calls it “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:10-16), but have no doubt it is an alternative consciousness to our ordinary calculating mind.
Now do not let the word “mystic” scare you. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and available to everyone. In fact, Jesus seems to say that this is the whole point! (See, for example, John 10:19-38.)
~Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mytics See
Bernard McGinn says that mysticism is “a consciousness of the presence of God that by definition exceeds description and . . . deeply transforms the subject who has experienced it.” If it does not deeply change the lifestyle of the person—their worldview, their economics, their politics, their ability to form community—you have no reason to believe it is genuine mystical experience. It is often just people with an addiction to religion itself, which is not that uncommon.
Mysticism is not just a change in some religious ideas or affirmations, but it is an encounter of such immensity that everything else shifts in position. Mystics have no need to exclude or eliminate others precisely because they have experienced radical inclusivity of themselves into something much bigger. They do not need to define themselves as enlightened or superior, whereas a mere transfer of religious assertions often makes people even more elitist and more exclusionary.
True mystics are glad to be common, ordinary, servants of all, and “just like everybody else,” because any need for specialness has been met once and for all.
~Adapted from Richard Rohr, Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate (CD)