“This Unnamed Something:” Loneliness as Holiness

The summer before I went to graduate school, we were told to read Rudolf Otto’s, The Idea of the Holy, a seminal book for the study of religion and an influence on people like Paul Tillich and Joseph Campbell. In it, Otto tries to explain the aspect of religion that is outside the rational and the moral and even psychological but what he describes as “this unnamed something.” I’ve called the same thing, “that just happened,” the sense that God or the universe can show up in a disturbing way or wonderful way; his term for it is the numinous. I have found that my experience of being alone and even being lonely is what Otto is describing.

When I first read The Idea of the Holy, I resonated with the idea of the numinous. It reminded me of Kant’s formulation of the noumenon, things that might be outside of our experience or senses (the phenomenal) but exist nonetheless. What Otto was getting at, I thought then and now, was the moments when those things or “this unnamed something,” connects with us in the phenomenal world. I also thought of it as an unraveling, the thing at the edge of orderly, rational existence that defies easy explanation, that undoes our best made plans.

Otto writes,

The daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own. The mystery is for him not merely something to be wondered at but something that entrances him; and beside that in it which bewilders and confounds, he feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment, rising often enough to the pitch of dizzy intoxication; it is the Dionysiac- element in the numen.

The Idea of the Holy, Page 31

The numinous is scary, perhaps even something like seeing a ghost, Otto suggests. Of course, something from beyond experience would cause fear since we have structured our conceptual framework around controlling our world with reason or the implements of reason. We have trained the awe out of our experience of the world and replaced it with knowing – or what we believe is knowing.

I find myself reacting in just this way to being alone, both terrified by it but also seeking isolation. Over the last several years, with more and more time alone, with no steady live-in partner and no job with employees and an organization chart, I find myself alone more and more. This means that the rational mind becomes cannibalistic, exercising its function on itself; the simple term is anxiety. It’s easy to explain. Being alone with one’s own mind without distraction becomes alternating moments of boredom and fear, seemingly endless hours that still fly by.

However, I concluded a couple years ago, that when I am alone, I am with God – or the Universe for those who bridle at the term. Being alone, truly alone, means everything, including one’s own self surrounds one, embraces one, devours one. It is why, I decided, that monasticism and mysticism include solitude. But I have resisted this, turning to as many distractions as I could find, even intoxication, ironically, to avoid the intoxication of the numinous aspects of solitude.

But I’ve decided I must find and embrace this “something.” Another term, far more friendly (and Otto uses it above), is charm. Today I really heard the words of a Robert Burns poem called Song, Composed in August,

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer

Burns goes on to explain how “ev’ry kind their pleasure find/The savage and the tender/Some social join, and leagues combine;/Some solitary wander.”

The song is a love song for the protagonist and narrator’s “charmer,” Peggy, who he embraces at the end.

I’ll grasp thy waist, and, fondly prest,
Swear how I love thee dearly:
Not vernal show’rs to budding flow’rs,
Not Autumn to the farmer,
So dear can be as thou to me,
My fair, my lovely charmer!

My dear, my fair, my lovely charmer, my holy, my unnamed something is that solitude, frightening for the sense of doom it brings, the moments of dread, and the profound and uninterrupted sadness in it and around it. It is deeply distressing to embrace a moment of creativity, to find some pleasure in the world and have nobody to quietly share that with; yet, when one fully embraces solitude, even loneliness, maybe one shares that moment of pleasure and beauty with the moment itself. I’m going to try to find that out. I have no other choice. I hear it calling me.