Standing on numinous ground
As something of a wordsmith, I delight to discover a new word, at least one new to me. This one emerged from a movie I watched on PBS titled “The Gardener,” which is about award-winning gardener Frank Cabot, founder of the Garden Conservancy, and his garden nestled among the rolling hills of Charlevoix County in Quebec. Cabot said about his garden, “There’s a wonderful word called numinous . . . you sense a numinous spirit in the garden. You sense the fact that somebody’s done this, the fact that somebody’s particular psychological peculiarities for realities are expressed in this place. And if you’re sensitive and open as you go through it and expose yourself to what the garden has to tell you, you get a lot more out of it. So, I’m happiest when I see someone sitting quietly on a bench and just drinking in the sights and sounds around them. Gardeners, I suppose, are all trying to recreate the garden of Eden.”
That was all I needed to dig deeper into the meaning of numinous. The definition of the word is “filled with a sense of the presence of divinity. Holy.” In the garden or by the sea, atop the mountain or surrounded by woods, you might have that sense that the ground upon which you stand is filled with a sense of the presence of divinity. You are standing on numinous ground.
Moses atop the mountain did not need to wonder if he was standing on holy ground, for God told him so (Exodus 3:5): “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (NRSV). I was visiting a powwow where Native Americans danced to singing and throbbing of the drum. I noticed something about the way they touched the earth when they danced, so I asked one of the dancers what it meant. He told me that when the Native American dances, each step of each foot means something. The Native American first touches the earth very gently—just taps it—to signify a recognition that the earth is sacred. Then he puts his whole foot down. Each step begins with a touch. Touch. Step. Touch. Step. Touch the earth twice. That is a beautiful recognition that the earth is sacred because all things are connected and created by the Creator. Each step of the dance is a celebration that the earth is sacred and therefore holy. The Native American finds a numinous spirit to the dance.
What makes a place numinous or sacred? If one place is sacred, are others not? Isn’t it all sacred? It seems to me that a place becomes holy because someone has made it so. Ground becomes holy because that place was treated as holy by another or a group of others or by God.
Seeing photographically is not a natural gift the photographer is born with. It comes by practice and concentration, and by training the mind to notice lighting, juxtaposition, angles, contrast, irony, humor, emotion, and beauty. In a similar way, people of faith can train their senses for seeing spiritually, noticing the numinous spirit to where they step—not just in a garden, on a mountaintop, or in nature, but in common life.
One person’s step on the earth feels like standing on holy ground. To another, it is nothing more than lowering the foot. I suppose it all depends on how you see things. Seasoned photographers speak of “seeing photographically.” While you or I might walk down the street and not see anything unusual or beautiful, a photographer on that same walk spots a hundred possible photographs. Seeing photographically is not a natural gift the photographer is born with. It comes by practice and concentration, and by training the mind to notice lighting, juxtaposition, angles, contrast, irony, humor, emotion, and beauty. In a similar way, people of faith can train their senses for seeing spiritually, noticing the numinous spirit to where they step—not just in a garden, on a mountaintop, or in nature, but in common life.
Since Micah (6:8) captures so well and simply the core of religious faith, consider how we might seek a numinous spirit to his three things which the Lord requires of us.
To do justice. A person can do justice or love kindness without giving priority to or even having interest in walking humbly with God. However, for a person who chooses the life goal of walking humbly with God, doing justice and loving kindness spring forth as natural partners. A walk with God is filled with a sense of the presence of divinity. Numinous. So, too, is doing justice, when a walk with God means linking arms to stand with or speak for those on the margins of society. Doing justice becomes not just advocacy for a cause but a holy act that is seen as a form of worship. Doing justice can be secular or sacred, but the one who chooses to see spiritually senses that he or she does this for God and with God. Numinous.
To love kindness. The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness.” We might suspect there is more to his religion than one word, but we get what he means. When a kindness is offered, it is possible to sense a numinous spirit to it. Kindness is the outward radiance of the inner light that glows within us. But when a person is not kind, who cares what their religion is? It doesn’t seem to be doing them any good. Loving-kindness is one of the ten perfections of Buddhism. The Talmud proclaims that deeds of loving-kindness are equal in weight to all the commandments (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1) Kindness is one of the nine fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). When the numinous spirit of walking humbly with God causes a person to choose deeds or words of kindness, her or his kindness is a fruit of God’s Spirit dwelling within. Kindness becomes holy.
To walk humbly with your God. Walking humbly with your God seems the very definition of numinous. When we are in nature, it is natural to feel closer to God. When the writer of the Psalms wanted to feel close to God, he went outside and lifted up his eyes to the hills, and then he knew from where his help would come (Psalm 121:1–2). Those who train their minds for seeing spiritually feel led to sing out “How Great Thou Art” when beholding the beauty, mystery, and majesty of God’s creation. It is interesting to consider if a numinous spirit is sensed in houses of worship. I like to define worship as seeking an encounter with the Divine. You would think that churches would be filled with a sense of the presence of divinity—holiness. Gardener Frank Cabot sensed a numinous spirit in the garden. Do we sense a numinous spirit in our churches? I have sensed it in many, but I have also observed the absence of a numinous spirit in others. My guess would be that those that possess the spirit are the ones most likely to make their highest priority the leading of worshipers into an encounter with the Divine. Wherever and whenever we choose to walk humbly with our God, that place and time become holy ground.
So how do we sense a numinous spirit in doing justice, in loving kindness, or in walking humbly with our God? It all seems to boil down to how we see things. When we see spiritually, we stand on numinous ground, which makes the place we stand so holy that we just about want to take off our shoes and touch the earth twice.
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.