Sunday 9 August 2015

Numinous by Caroline Lawrence

(adj) having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.
e.g. “the strange, numinous beauty of this ancient landmark”
Sunset at Lake Tahoe, California
I am fascinated by the numinous, that is to say by places or incidents where people have had a positive experience of something spiritual or supernatural without looking for it. 

The word numen is Latin. It means a nodding of the head. Later it came to mean a nodding of Jupiter’s head in approval and thus: divine will. Today we use the adjective numinous to mean a positive sense of god’s presence in a place or situation. 

I have been surprised by the numinous twice in my life. (I’m not counting church or church-related events where my whole being is focused on the spiritual.)
Sacre Coeur at Night
The first time was when I was 19, backpacking around Europe on my gap year. My friend and I went into Sacre Coeur Church in Montmartre one night. It was candlelit and there might have been people singing. I can’t recall. But what I do remember is being surprised by something I couldn’t identify. I felt a presence: a kind, loving, benevolent presence. At that point in my life I considered myself an atheist but I’d been inside many churches and never felt anything like this in any of them. I was actually surprised to sense something beautiful, enlightened, spiritual. 

The next time I was surprised by the numinous was about ten years after I had converted to Christianity. But I wasn’t in church and I wasn’t looking for it. I had been travelling around Turkey with my ten-year-old son, a fellow scholar and two female grad students. One afternoon the grad students and my son and I took a taxi up into the hills near Ephesus on the spur of the moment. They wanted to see the a place called Meryem Ana where Mary the mother of Jesus was supposed to have spent the last years of her life. The site was reputed to be very scenic so my son and I tagged along.
Mary's House near Ephesus in Turkey
I wasn’t expecting anything, but as I stepped out of the taxi into the late afternoon light I felt something envelop me. The word that springs to mind is bittersweet. It was like being bathed in a strong yet subtle poignancy. Tears sprang to my eyes and everything seemed intensely beautiful. It was so unexpected that I said to the others, ‘Do you feel that?’ That sad, tender presence stayed with me strongly the whole time we were there. 

I returned to Mary’s House near Ephesus a few years ago. It was still beautiful and peaceful, but this time I didn’t feel a presence as intensely as I did that afternoon two decades previously. 

Was my first experience at Maryem Ana shrine just the result of a chance combination of afternoon light, jet lag and whatever hormones were present in my body at that time? Maybe. Maybe not. 

I often ask people if they have ever experienced the sense of something other, something divine, without looking for it. 

Some people say they have never felt anything like that. But many others have. They tell me about a place – often a place of beauty – where they have sensed God’s presence, or the presence of something beyond this world.

path through a forest
Once the wife of the head teacher at a school in Herefordshire was driving me back to the train station after an author event. I asked her if she had ever experienced the numinous and she told me about just such an experience. She was walking her two dogs on a country footpath when she felt a sort of power surge up from the grassy earth into her feet. The sensation was so unexpected, so strange, that she froze where she was. She felt connected to everything, not just the earth but the trees and shrubs. She lost sense of time. She might have stood there for seconds, minutes or even hours before she came to herself. ‘Did the dogs sense it, too?’ I asked. She laughed. ‘Oh, no. They were bounding around, oblivious.’

Story told in a night time taxi...
Another time I was being taken back from a library sleepover event and I raised this topic with the taxi driver. He told me about the most amazing mind-out-of-body experience he experienced one night. In a dream, his uncle came to him and took him flying around the world, showing him the places from his (the uncle’s) life. ‘It was unlike any dream I have ever had before,’ he said. ‘It seemed to go on for days and days,’ he said. ‘Everything about it seemed so real.’ 

‘It reminds me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ I said. ‘Captain Picard gets zapped by a beam and lives a whole life on another planet, but when they bring him back only a few minutes have passed on the Enterprise. He remembers everything, including how to play a flute.’ 

‘I know that episode,’ he said. ‘My experience was very much like that. I told my wife about my dream as soon as I woke up, but she scoffed. Later that day,’ he added, ‘my mother phoned to say my uncle had passed away the previous night.’

Camilla in the numinous woods of Laurentum
There is a line from Jane Eyre that I love: Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits: that world is round us, for it is everywhere... 
One of the best parts of being a writer is that I have a good excuse to ask people about their experiences of the numinous. If you have had any, please share them in the comments section below. 

Caroline Lawrence is author of historical fiction for middle grade students: The Roman Mysteries, The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries and The Night Raid. Her next project is a Barrington Stoke book about Virgil's Warrior Queen, Camilla, followed by a new series called The Roman Quests, set in Roman Britain. It will probably include Druids. 


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Fascinating post Caroline and I love the word! I work with it as a constant resource in my writing, and I know exactly what you mean. It's come to be an accepted part of my life. I work with a gifted friend who can tune into the beyond as a matter of course and I use he skills for my historical research. Sometimes she will say 'Did you feel that?' and if my awareness is good at tht session, I will. We sometimes do get a feeling of all encompassing, overflowing love when working, sometimes vicariously via the experiences of the people we 'meet' while doing this research. I wrote about the practical use of Alison's skill for my writing some months ago on The History Girls.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for sharing your story (via the link) Elizabeth! It's all fascinating stuff. I will tweet.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating. Your stories, and the taxi-driver's, are really interesting. I think I'm still waiting for my experience, though!