You may say, “This title is Greek to me.” Actually it is a Latin and it refers to an important balance in our spiritual life. It is phrase that speaks of trembling before the Holy that draws me close.
Fascinosum is where we get the word fascinating. It refers to something that calls to me, draws me, peaks my interest, something that strongly attracts.
Tremendum is where we get the word tremendous. It refers to something awesome. Something too big to comprehend or grasp. Hence we draw back in a kind of reverential fear mixed with a kind of bewilderment. And we feel small before the tremendous.
Many ancient authors used these words to describe the human person before God: drawn by God’s 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), they instinctively fall prostrate and need to be reassured by God (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, was perfectly capable of leaning back on the Lord’s shoulder to ask him a question. Yet now, as he beholds the full glory of Christ in the heavenly realm, he falls to his face. 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 have come through an era that has trivialized God in many ways. Perhaps it was an over correction to a more severe time of the 1950s when any misstep of ours could result in a quick trip to hell if we didn’t get to confession immediately. Mortal sin was understood only objectively by many in those days and by God, even if there were two feet of snow on the ground and you missed Church, your were in sin and had to get to confession asap. Fear was a strong motivator for many in those days.
But we over corrected and by the 1970s the usual notion was that God didn’t seem to care what we did. He was rendered quite harmless actually and it seemed that his main purpose was to affirm us. As for Jesus, gone was the unrelenting and uncompromising prophet of the Scriptures, only to replaced by a kind of “Mr Rogers,” or “Buddy Jesus” version who just went about blessing the poor, healing the sick and asking us to love each other. The Jesus who cleansed the Temple, rebuked unbelief, demanded first place in our life, insisted on the cross, warned of coming judgement and 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 no where to be found by the 1970s
And thus we have needed a return to the balance that fascinosum et tremendum offers. Surely we sense a deep desire for God, we are drawn to him in all his beauty and glory. But we are encountering God here and we are but creatures. A reverential fear is appropriate for 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. But in the end, it is God whom we worship and falling to our knees is wholly appropriate. 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!