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Father Richard Rohr, OFM

EXPERIENCING THE HOLY

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 tremendumand 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.”