Friday, December 16, 2016

Wonderful and Terrifying

"December Dusk" 
- fiercely beautiful -

A few days ago I was sitting alone inside my house at dusk, just as the sun was setting in the desert skies. All of a sudden the entire house became illuminated, radiant with shades of pink and gold. I panicked at first: “Did some some sort of cataclysmic event occur or maybe I was having a stroke?" I rushed outside and noticed that the rays of the setting sun had caught the gathering December clouds in such a way as to flood the entire desert in bold shades of gold and pink and deep dark blue. It was such a stunningly beautiful experience and it was also fierce and quite terrifying.

Back about 100 years ago, Rudolph Otto, the renowned philosopher of religion, wrote his now-famous book: The Idea of the Holy, in which he talked at length about the human experience of ‘transcendence.” When we encounter “transcendence” we are pulled out of our own limited, individualized ego and we are connected with something (or someone) far greater than our tiny, little, separated self. Otto suggested that this encounter cannot be rationalized or explained or even named and the only response to such an experience is “awe.”

In our own day and age the word “awe” is used often and it is usually quite trivialized -people talk abut how “awesome” their new iPhone app is or how “awesome” that that their team won the game; but in a spiritual context, “awe” means something far different than this popular cultural usage.

Otto suggested that our “awesome” response to transcendence is an experience that is “wonderful and terrifying” both at the same time:

An encounter with the “holy” elicits awe,
an experience of an intimate and also a majestic beauty
 that is so intense as to leave you speechless and makes you want to tremble.

As I think about it, that’s exactly how I was feeling as the gold-pink rays of a December dusk flooded the entire desert the other day. I was being pulled out of my tiny, myopic self and connected to something far more cosmic and it elicited a sense of “awe” in me. It was all so beautifully tender and also so majestic and incomprehensible. It left me speechless and it also terrified me.

Nowadays, people talk a lot about a “spiritual journey” with the idea that a spiritual experience should somehow leave one feeling assured and comforted, like sitting in a warm jacuzzi or drinking "chicken soup for the soul.” But as I see it, the spiritual experience is an experience of transcendence and whenever any of us encounters transcendence we are filled with an "awe" that goes way beyond feeling contented - it is wonderful and and it is also terrifying.

In order to encounter transcendence we have to die to who we were so that we can be born to something far greater, so of course that’s fierce and terrifying – death to an old life and birth into new life is always a scary proposition.

The Buddha once described something of his own “enlightenment” and his encounter with transcendence:

I saw stars within me, sunrise and sunset, full moon nights
everything within me not without me.
It was my boundary that had been keeping them out,
Now the boundary is no more.
Now I am the whole.


I think that maybe that this is how I was feeling the other day as I stood in the glowing rays of those fiercely beautiful December skies. For just a brief moment there were no boundaries and I was whole - it was wonderful, it was terrifying, it was awesome.

You don’t have to live in a desert to encounter transcendence. It is available to each and every one of us all the time. But you have to watch and wait for it with an open heart and an uncluttered mind and you have to be willing to die.

The Sufi poet, Rumi, once wrote:


The whole universe exists inside you.
God writes spiritual mysteries on our heart
where they silently wait for discovery.

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