I am coming to the end of my house project: repairing the wood damage to the front porch, glazing windows and painting the whole structure. For me there is an element of numinosity about working with my hands. I grew up in a family of men who worked with their hands. Both of my grandfathers were miners, one dug the clay for making bricks, the other mined the coal that fired the steel industry in western Pennsylvania. My father was a machinist in a steel mill. He designed and built replacement parts that kept the steel mill working. At the age of nineteen I joined the Peace Corps to build schools in the Dominican Republic. The summer before I left home for Peace Corps training, my father asked me to build a garage for the family. I designed and built a two car garage that summer of 1962. I remember the feeling, the energy I felt when I finished the project. It was the special energy you feel when you step back and admire something you have created with your own hands. It was for me a numinous experience.
Energy is the subject that I want to explore in this perspective on numinosity, but not the kind of energy I have described above. It is also not the kind of energy emanating from an experience in the natural world as I have shared in earlier essays. The kind of energy we will explore in this interview on numinosity is more personal, the kind of energy that is displayed in the lives of certain individuals. You could call these individuals psychic. I like think of them as simply intuitive, more attuned to non-rational communication that comes to us in dreams and spiritual experiences.
I have a friend who is a professional musician. In a recent telephone conversation we discovered that we share a common experience. We both cared for our mothers at the end of life and were present at the moment of death. It was evident from our conversation that we had similar stories to tell, but we told them very differently, and perhaps experienced them very differently. My friend is a devout Christian. The story of her mother’s death is shared through the lens of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is also shared with a belief in her own psychic powers, and her ability to intuit information and energy that most of us do not recognize in our lives.
(audio interview about her mother and her death)
A couple of observations about this interview: first, it is a good example of “experiencing life with our eyes and ears half-closed” as Carl Jung suggests that we do to allow for a more subjective responses to life. My friend honors the Judeo-Christian tradition to describe the experience of her mother’s death. She speaks of the “ruach or ruach hakodesh”(this is a reference to the Hebrew word for the spirit of the divine in the lives of humans). She beautifully describes the spirit leaving her mother: some energy enters her own body and some rises to take on the life of the spirit. I do not know how orthodox this description is theologically, but it fits the understanding of her mother’s death and life after death.
A second observation: Like the characters of Mole and Rat in Wind In The Willows, that we shared earlier, my friend encounters the numinous when she is living life to the fullest, as in giving herself to helping her mother. As she again says so beautifully, she acted as “midwife” for her mother being born again, born into the life of the spirit. Her mother’s life in the spirit continues to communicate with her, to support her in her own struggles with health issues. I am reminded of Joseph Campbell’s definition of a living myth, “it may be talked about and taught, but talk and teaching cannot produce it. Nor can authority enforce it. Only the accident of experience…can elicit and support it.”
I admire, perhaps even envy, my musical friend’s relationship to her living myth. I have been talked to and taught, but the talk and teaching have not produced the energy of a living myth in my life. I do not think of myself as unique in this struggle for spiritual authenticity. I take some solace when I experience the energy present in the creative process, like admiring the things I have built with my own hands. Still I wait, I wait for the living myth to come into my life. Some years ago I developed a love for the story of the Annunciation as told in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. I imagine that I live my life waiting for the angel of God to speak to me, to communicate my purpose in life. It may be that mine is a life of waiting, and the numinosity, the energy, is in the waiting, in being patient for what is still to be revealed.