What is it about a newborn baby that evokes such a gushing, emotional reaction in us? We’ve all seen infants before; it’s not entirely new in the history of the world. There would be no history as such, if there weren’t a continual renewal of mankind down through generations. And yet, we see a newborn child and at least a little part of our reaction is going to be astonishment: there was nothing, and now there is a new human being. We’re struck by a sense of awe. It is astonishing. Newness of life does this to us. We remember again, because we forget during the course of a normal day, how astonishing it is that we have life at all. We seem to only remember when we see new life, like with an infant.
Then the child grows. He becomes self-aware, and mutually aware with us. He looks around to start discovering his world, and we begin to see the world through his eyes. Everything is new. Everything is astonishing. It’s why we like to introduce small children to new things: to see the moment of delight in discovery. We appreciate vicariously the moments of astonishment. A child’s delight is contagious. We forget and we take things as given. Things become ordinary and routine. They’re no longer astonishing. But that’s not how it is for little kids. It’s all new. It’s astonishing.
Consider your earliest memories. They’re likely to be of ordinary things; perhaps a visual tableau of a tree, or a field, which you would instantly recognize, were you to see it again now. They’re memories for a reason. They stick with you because of a sense of astonishment that was part of that first experience. The astonishing newness of it all made those memories indelible.
I remember as a small child waking up one day and immediately noticed that the reflected light on the ceiling of my bedroom was of a blue tint, not the usual orangey-white from the sunrise. I jumped up and there on the big field behind my house was six inches of new, untrammeled snow. I was beside myself with excitement. You’ve had experiences like that too.
Rudolf Otto was a theologian and philosopher who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He coined the word “numinous” to describe a feeling of aliveness and of sensitivity that is not rooted in the self, or in the senses, or in our reasoning. It is something outside ourselves, that we experience, like an energy or a presence or an aura around other living things. Because the thing we perceive is not visual, it is not perfectly accurate to describe this phenomenon as numinous “light,” but this is the closest analogy we have, using the language of the physical senses. So “numinous light” refers to that felt sense of the presence of divinity, that we all have and which we all lose if we don’t cultivate it.
This “numinous light” phenomenon is more readily apparent to us in childhood. We might therefore refer to the “numinous light of childhood;” the idea that there is a special receptivity in children to this numinous sense. Because experiences are new to them, they retain a sense of astonishment at what they encounter. This numinous light is a sense that there is something more significant to the world they encounter, than the brute fact of its existence. We don’t retain that numinous light into adulthood, without effort. We may find we cease to be astonished, as we grow older.
Artists sometimes try to depict this numinous light of childhood and its fading. Helen Lundeberg painted her Double Portrait of the Artist in Time, which visually attempts to grasp this numinous light of childhood. Her younger self is in the foreground, with a subtly-painted aura around her, and a look of delight on her face. She holds the stem of a flower, its buds still tightly closed. It doubles as a pen, hovering over blank white paper. Behind the child is a picture on the wall of the artist as an adult. No aura, here. The flower is fully blossomed. She has a somber, worn look. The sense of astonishment has escaped her.
This is William Wordsworth in his poem Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood:
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
— But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Another of my earliest experiences. I’m standing by myself next to a swing set behind the apartments we lived in. I’m probably two years old. But I remember this because it was exciting to be out there by myself. I was stretching my wings. Independent. Exploring. It was a sunny day and all was right with the world. It was springtime and there were birds and insects. Here was a little yellow and black buzzing thing. I very carefully cupped it into my hands. Kept it safe. Until it stung me. I opened my hands. It fell out. That might have been the beginning of losing that visionary gleam, for me.
You sometimes have to work with unpleasant people. There are people who come into and go out of your life, perhaps because of work, who are needy and exhausting and irritating and arrogant and ignorant and close-minded and mean. But we have to muddle through. One way to do it is to minimize the interaction as much as possible. Get the task done and move on, if you can; endure, with minimal exposure, if you can’t.
Another way to approach it, though, is to imagine them as a little child. An infant, even. There was a time in that irritating person’s life when he or she was a little baby who evoked a feeling of astonishment, and who grew to encounter the world around him as astonishing. Every single person we encounter in life was once a small child. They all had that sense of wonder at one time, astonished at the world they were encountering. What happened? How he got from that point to the irritating adult you’re now trying to avoid is a function of the world’s assault on the numinous light to which we are heir.
Some of the people we encounter, or become aware of, are much worse than merely irritating. Consider someone just charged with a crime, or a person intent on some expression or enterprise of hate. Somewhere along the way their lives went off track. Many people are just hapless. They may have lacked someone to model life 101 for them. They don’t know how to avoid stupid situations because elementary discernment just isn’t in their tool box. It is disheartening. Many of them are so disoriented by life that they’ve completely lost the sense of promise that goes with the numinous light of childhood. They may think they’ll never amount to anything. They don’t grasp, maybe because no one ever told them, that you can regain that sense of promise and excited expectation even after a failure. Even a significant failure. Life isn’t about falling down. It’s about getting back up.
The family dog, Dewey, is pretty smart in some ways, for a dog. There’s one thing he does that is puzzling, however. If I point out something to him, maybe some food dropped on the floor, he never looks at what I’m pointing to. He looks at my finger. The more I emphasize that I’m point AT something, the more interested he is in the finger that’s doing the pointing. There is an old Buddhist saying, that when the wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger. A lot of us do what the fool and Dewey do. We look at the signs all around us and don’t see what it all points to.
What it points to is something beyond the ordinary facts of material existence. It points to spiritual reality. It is difficult to discern, in our everyday life of physical things and human interaction. But it is discernible. It is found in this numinous light. We can reclaim the ability to sense it. It’s not even that hard. It takes awareness. Think about the very next mundane impression you have. From where I sit, I can look out the window at the sky. It is astonishing that I can see. How many times have I awakened in the morning, opened my eyes, looked at the sky, and immediately gone about my business, without thinking about this awesome fact? Tens of thousands of times.
And what’s to see in the sky? It’s just the sky. Kind of gray, at the moment. It’s early in the morning and it’s raining. So what? Well, it’s astonishing what that sky consists of. It’s not a bunch of nothing. It presents as a luminous dome above us but it is packed with physical material subject to the laws of physics. The light makes life possible. There are ineffable mysteries of the universe in space far beyond the luminous dome above me. And the rain! We would die in a matter of days, without water. And right now it’s literally falling out of the sky! Now there are natural explanations for all these phenomena, to be sure. But that makes them no less astonishing. And the first cause is inexplicable. The immediate cause of the rain is water content in the atmosphere, etc. Of course. But there is no natural explanation for the first existence of all these constituents of earth, atmosphere, and space.
The earth and the sky are physical, tangible things, but there are immaterial, intangible things that are no less real, like the orientation to truth and the desire for justice that are hard-wired into us. These are ideals, but they are ideals to which we give our working lives, and they are assuredly real, just as real as the solid ground and the living air. These are signs, all of them, pointing us to something else that is even more significant, beyond. To God Himself.