In March of 2019 a friend and I spent three days exploring National Arches Park in Moab, Utah. On our second day we hiked the steep, mile-and-a-half trail up to the iconic Delicate Arch. I will never forget the moment that the long-anticipated arch finally came into view. I was immediately flooded with a strong and visceral sense of being on holy ground. The scale of the 52-foot-high sandstone arch standing precipitously on the edge of a cliff; the wide desert vista stretching behind it, framed by majestic mountains; the sound of breeze scurrying over the high plateau; the cool twilight air; shadows and warm red sunlight playing slow tag on ancient sandstone - all of these elements coalesced into a palpable sense of the numinous, a term coined by German theologian Rudolf Otto that refers to a deeply spiritual, awe-radiating, mysterious apprehension.
Over the three days my friend and I explored many of the park’s famous stone arches, pinnacles, rock fins, and balanced rocks. And while all of them captivated me in different and enjoyable ways, only Delicate Arch triggered this strong compelling sense of the numinous in me. I have often wondered why that may have been the case.
Some Possible Answers
Perhaps I was starstruck with “celebrity excitement” seeing that Delicate Arch is the most famous of the park’s features and its image appears all over the world, even gracing Utah’s license plates. Or perhaps I was simply wowed with the immensity of the arch, finding it much larger and impressive in real life than in its representation in photos and paintings. Or perhaps I was wooed by its unique presentation: the inimitable aesthetic combination of setting, color, size, pattern, shape, background and foreground. Or perhaps I was influenced by imaginative connections to science fiction myths of time-travel portals and gates as can be found in such classics as Dune, Stargate, Dr. Who, as well as in the modern Dr. Strange movies.
All of these hypotheses seem reasonable enough, but each is insufficient to adequately explain the intensity of my experience. Here, then, I tender a larger, more encompassing theory, one that rises out of my Christian worldview: I propose that my sensation of the numinous before Delicate Arch was in fact a direct experience of the joy of Jesus the Creator-Artist emanating through a thin-veil spot in nature. This being admittedly cryptic, let me expound further.
The notion of beauty is notoriously hard to define, as different people find different things beautiful. While it is difficult to agree on the conceptual parameters of beauty, we can find agreement on the universality of the experience of beauty, an experience that we might describe as some combination of wonder, delight, appreciation, longing, and ache. When a person encounters something that triggers this experience of beauty, I suggest that they are actually encountering an objective reality, like a person walking into a cloud of gnats, or a plane flying into a cloud. And that “cloud,” I propose, is the joy of Jesus the Creator-Artist lingering everywhere throughout the created order.
Let me back up a moment. The Jewish Torah teaches that God created all things (Genesis 1). The Christian New Testament identifies that agent of creation as Jesus Himself. Jesus’ friend John writes this about Jesus: “All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). And again the early Christian theologian Paul writes about Jesus: “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16).
Ask any human artist about her or his creative process and one thing you will find in common among artists is that they feel joy in the things that they create. By analog I extend that assumption to Jesus, the Creator-Artist, and can only imagine the depth and intensity of His joy over the billions of masterpieces that constitute the physical world that we live in and enjoy. I believe that joy to be so real, so intense, so pervasive, that it continues to hang around the whole creation, wrapping around it like the atmosphere around the earth. Whenever we are pierced with an apprehension of something we deem beautiful, our experience of wonder and awe and delight and ache is an actual participation in, and tasting of, that ubiquitous Jesus-joy hanging thickly around us.
If this were true, one might ask, would we not continually experience the numinous around us every day in non-stop fashion? Good question. I would respond by saying that this joy of Jesus that lingers around us is heavily veiled by layers of inattention, over-familiarity, distraction, anesthetization of modern technologies, stress, self-absorption, pollution, fear and violence, entropy and break-downs in creation care, community, and spiritual health. All of this interference creates thick barriers to accessing (as clear and strong perceptions of beauty) the lingering joy of Jesus the Creator-Artist.
Back then to Delicate Arch. With this larger idea on the table, I am ready to return to my list of previous suggestions for what might have caused the numinous reaction in me, and can now suggest that all of the factors mentioned above (celebrity, immensity, uniqueness, and imagination) colluded together in a massive thinning of the veil around the reality of Jesus’ joy. And as that veil was sufficiently thinned, my consciousness was able to clearly encounter with minimal interference that joy-beauty of Delicate Arch, and the result in me was a profound experience of the numinous.
I think it is this gift that Delicate Arch and other famous wonders of the world do for us: their powerful uniqueness and exquisite features are able to momentarily overpower the veil of smudge and brokenness and distraction that so often chokes our clear sight of what is actually all around us. In this way, they can remind us of the reality of beauty in the small and ordinary things, tutoring us to try to intentionally pierce the veil as a habit of daily living. We can find beauty in the wildflowers in our backyards and in the dragonflies that pass in front of us as we walk the trail along the lake or through the park. We can let our own joy rise up and dance with the divine joy that is this beauty we are touching, a joy that then may become for us fuel for the long journey of ecological discipleship, seeking out and advocating for the tender care of this nursery of wonders everywhere surrounding us.
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