19th Sunday of the Year

Dear Friends in Christ,

Numinous. This is not a word one hears in casual conversation, but it is an English word that entered our language in the 17th century from the Latin word numen which means divine presence. Numinous is an adjective that includes a field of meanings, including concepts like spiritual, holy, religious, transcendent, mysterious, divine, sacred, other worldly. Numinous is a good word to describe any religious experience which lifts one out of oneself and makes one aware that the visible world points beyond itself to the source of all being. The idea of the numinous is not a uniquely Christian concept, and people of all religions and no religion have experiences that can be described as numinous.

Nevertheless, Christians can profit from understanding that our worship and prayer should be characterized by a numinous quality, and this is one of the many reasons why our churches should not look like auditoriums or theaters. If the building has a numinous quality, then the liturgy which is celebrated inside that building stands a greater chance of having a numinous quality than prayer which takes place in a utilitarian structure. No one would mistake a Gothic cathedral or a Romanesque basilica for a lecture hall or a meeting room, but too many of our churches built in the last generation have just that secular quality and such spaces make a numinous experience of prayer much more difficult to attain.

But if truly sacred buildings are essential to a numinous experience of prayer, the same can be said for the style of music, the design of furnishings, vestments and vessels, the quality of ritual form, and the congregational participation which together constitute the warp and woof of public prayer. People who are present in the congregation but who refuse to worship can impede a numinous experience of prayer as much as an irreverent priest or inappropriate music, and therefore learning how to worship is an essential task for every Christian.

Learning how to worship? Doesn’t that come naturally to anyone in church? No, not in the least, and just because someone is in church does not mean he is worshiping. We must be taught how to pray. And more than that, we must be shown how to worship in spirit and truth. No one can worship if anger, resentment, and pride make it impossible for him to kneel in supplication for mercy and restoration. No one can worship who will not lift up his heart in sorrow for sin, adoration of God, and praise for the divine glory revealed in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But once we learn to worship, then the experience of praying can be, well, numinous. A heart full of love yields both the peace of sacred silence and joy of sacred song. A heart full of love responds to the invitation to pray and seeks the Face of God in the numinous experience of a holy people gathered in a holy place to do a holy thing simply for the sake of praising the One who is holy. Praised by Jesus Christ. Now and forever!

Father Newman