On Fascinosum et Tremendum

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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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!

10 Replies to “On Fascinosum et Tremendum”

  1. Like the Pope says, we need to cultivate love, ask God for more love. A reflection on sacramental matrimony gives the soul a great understanding of her betrothal to the Lord Jesus Christ.

  2. Monsignor,
    Again I’ll throw in my two cents. I certainly agree with you that we as creatures appropriately feel awe and reverence in the face of God our creator. Examples of theophanies like Jeremiah’s and Elijah’s tend more toward a quiet, gentle, internal awe rather than the thunder and smoke and clouds, so there is diversity in the biblical experience of God. I don’t disagree with having a balanced Christology, but a couple of your statements seem to lean a bit in one direction, sounding almost tongue-in-cheek:
    When you refer to the shift from a more “severe time” to a movement wherein “…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 inference seems to be that this shift was inappropriate somehow, yet the Scriptures seem to make clear that blessing the poor, healing the sick, and loving are precisely the unrelenting and uncompromising message of the prophets of Israel as well as of Jesus. (Mt 25:31ff) If you disagree with the style of liturgy from the 1970s (de gustibus…) that’s one thing, but it’s hard to argue with the message of love…
    To say the Jesus “was rendered quite harmless actually and it seemed that his main purpose was to affirm us” also seems a bit cynical, since that would seem to me to be exactly what the Incarnation was all about–God lowering Himself to save us from the harm of our own sinfulness and to affirm us as His beloved creatures. To emphasize the awe and quaking at the expense of these other parts of the experience of the Divine might imply that God is somehow harmful and threatening–which doesn’t seem consistent with the conclusion to each of the theophanies described above:
    “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”
    “Rise, and do not be afraid.”
    “He touched me with his right hand and said, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives.”

    1. Your points are well stated. In the end what I am calling for is balance. I personally think we lost that in the 70s until now, though it is beginning to correct. I may myself have over-corrected in my comments or perhaps lean (as you say) in one direction but my ultimate goal is balance. One of my methodologies in terms of blogging is to agiatate a bit, to tweek, or be a bit edgy since this encourages discussion and allows the participants in the conversation to do just what you have done: supply the sed contra, include balancing statements and the like. In the end, the goal is conversation and the thoughtfulness that underlies that. I have often thought that something very similar was the backdrop for the Summas produced by Thomas. THere was a vigorous dicussion in the university setting, followed by a setting forth of the varaious positions (the objections), then the sed contra, then his own personal response to the question (Respondeo) followed by reply to each objection. In the blogosphere we are mostly less disciplined and surely less articulate, but the discussion is exciting as long as it remains reasonably civil.

      At any rate, all this to say, I appreciate the the balancing points you have made which help articulate the what was underdeveloped in my article. Together in the we all make the team. I may call the play but together we advance the ball.

  3. Dear Monsignor Pope & readers,
    I’ve beat this (dead?) horse in other sites, but here goes it again. Having grown up in those 50s, what I see missing in many places is just that. The awe, the wonder about God, especially in all HIS glory in the Blessed Sacrament. I was about 4 years old at Mass and we were all standing up. I couldn’t see anything, being too short amongst adults, so I asked my mother, ” Is that God talking?” She of course said yes to shut me up. That sense of awe has never left me, and without that sense of awe and wonder whenever we are in a church that has God there in the tabernacle, our body language says loudly to the whole world, ” HE AIN’T THERE! “

    1. God’s Presence is in the consecrated elements, not in the box of the tabernacle. Once we eat the consecrated elements they become literally a part of us. The awe and wonder must therefore extend to our interaction s with one another who “house” the Blessed Sacrament in our bodies. It seems to me there is a danger of removing the mystery if we try to contain God in a box (theologically).

      1. This maybe explains it! People don’t realize God IS present in the tabernacle! That’s why the red candle is lit!
        The mystery was removed when people stopped believing He is there!

  4. There’s a wonderful choir anthem that uses this text “In the Year King Uzziah Died” but I wasn’t able to find an online recording of it. It is very moving.

  5. Thank you Mons. Pope for today’s blog. Something was missing for many years indeed, it is only now that I have figured out it was the 70s. You are right, things are getting better, slowly. We will get through this.

  6. The balance between clearing the temple and eating with the prostitutes is a tricky one. It is even hard to articulate, because both sides are of infinite importance. Just because of how we communicate, any attempt to extol the virtues of one side can be misunderstood to be diminishing the other. (Rather like trying to convince a protestant that Scripture alone is not sufficient while still saying that it is infinitely important to know and follow it.)

    Further complicating the issue is that a person can devote his entire life to one side or the other and have a life well spent. We need nurses and social workers, as well as police officers. The world cannot have too many Mother Teresas, but God calls the occasional Rottweiler as well.

    Perfect balance is the goal, but this balance is not likely to occur in any single human (the only Person I know about who did this perfectly is not incarnate at the moment). It’s probably best, then, to push for balance in Church teaching and the Church as a whole, but if any particular person seems called to one side or the other, to let them serve as they can.

    (So if a person has a leaning one way or another, so long as they know that both sides are required, that is not a problem. This is one of the few case where the phrase “two sides of the same coin” actually applies and makes sense – the tough and the soft parts of love are both just different faces of love.)

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