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By Msgr. Charles Pope, July 17, 2019
Balanced spiritualties seek to find a middle ground between fascination and holy fear, a kind of reverent bowing before the Holy One Who draws me close. We saw it in yesterday’s reading in which Moses was fascinated by the burning bush and went nearer to investigate it. He was cautioned to revere this mystery:
An angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight and see why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:2-6).
In Latin the words fascinosum and tremendum were often used to evoke this needed balance between attraction and holy fear:
Fascinosum is the source of the word “fascinating.” It refers to something that calls to me, draws me, piques my interest; it is something that strongly attracts and is deeply satisfying.
Tremendum is the source of the word “tremendous.” It refers to something awesome, too big to comprehend or grasp. In response, we draw back in a kind of reverential fear mixed with bewilderment. We feel small before the tremendous.
The human person before God is drawn by His inexorable beauty yet compelled to fall prostrate before His awesome majesty. Scripture speaks of this experience in many places. Here are but a few:
I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook, and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me. I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (Isaiah 6:1-5).
And Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid” (Matt 17:1-6).
I [John] saw seven gold lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, wearing an ankle-length robe, with a gold sash around his chest. The hair of his head was as white as white wool or as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished brass refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars. A sharp two-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face shone like the sun at its brightest. When I caught sight of him, I fell down at his feet as though dead. He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives” (Rev 1:15-17).
Note the pattern of these theophanies: They are drawn by God and behold His beauty (fascinosum), and yet they instinctively fall prostrate and need to be reassured by Him (tremendum).
It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31). The most interesting passage to me is the third one, involving John the Beloved. This is the same John who, at the Last Supper, felt perfectly comfortable leaning back on the Lord’s shoulder and asking Him a question. Yet now as he beholds the full glory of Christ in the heavenly realm, John falls prostrate before Him. The Lord’s glory is fully unveiled here, and John, who appreciates the beauty and describes it to us, is ultimately compelled to fall down.
We are living in an era in which God has been trivialized in many ways. Perhaps it was an overcorrection to a more severe time when any misstep could result in a quick trip to Hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately. Fear was a strong motivator for many people in those days.
By the 1970s the common feeling was that God didn’t seem to care what we did; His main purpose seemed to be to affirm us. As for Jesus, gone was the unrelenting and uncompromising prophet of the Scriptures, only to be replaced by a kind of “Mr. Rogers” or “Buddy Jesus” who just went around saying nice things. The Jesus who cleansed the Temple, rebuked unbelief, demanded primacy in our life, insisted on the cross, warned of coming judgment and the possibility of Hell, and spoke with such authority that even the guards sent to arrest Him came back empty handed saying “No one has ever spoken like that man”—this Jesus was nowhere to be found.
We need a return to the balance of fascinosum and tremendum. We all sense a deep desire for God. We are drawn to Him in all His beauty and glory, but we are mere creatures and it is appropriate for us to have a reverential fear of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It may well be that God will reassure us, but our instinct to tremendum is a proper and biblical one. The biblical saints knew both fascinosum and tremendum, and they show us what a true encounter with God includes.
This does not mean that our liturgies need be somber, for reverence and joy can occupy the same heart. In the end, it is God whom we worship, and falling to our knees is wholly fitting. Seeking the necessary purification and striving for the holiness without which no one will see God (Heb 12:14) is appropriate. I wish you plenty of fascinosum and equal doses of tremendum!
May fascinosum and tremendum be yours!