by Chet Raymo
"I first wrote about Jan Vermeer's "The Milkmaid" back in the late-summer of 2009, when the painting was the star of a show at New York's Met. I was so enchanted with the painting that I made it the desktop on one of my laptops, where it has remained ever since. (Click image to enlarge.)
Well, here I go again. The Milkmaid is still on my desktop, and for the last day or so I have been fixated on two tiny details - a nail and a nail hole in the plaster wall. Click image to enlarge. And here is the full painting.
Our first reaction might be surprise that the artist would register such homely details, but that is the charm of the painting - the re-enchantment of the everyday. And that, after all, is the challenge of religious naturalism: to experience the mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum - the fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery - in every aspect of the natural world. I am, of course, borrowing these terms from Rudolf Otto, the German Lutheran theologian of the first half of the last century. Otto sought to ground the religious experience in the ordinary physical experience of things, a numinous grasp of something awesome and exhilarating behind the surface. For Otto, that something was "wholly other," a glimpse of the transcendent divine.
Mircea Eliade took up where Otto let off, and spoke of the sacred and profane. He too emphasized the experience of the transcendent in the ordinary, "the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world."
Both Otto and Eliade had a huge influence on my generation of seekers, especially in their insistence that religion be grounded in the experience of natural things. All of this meshed well with the Roman Catholic sacramental tradition in which I was raised. But Otto, Eliade and Catholicism saw the numinous experience pointing beyond nature. Eliade wrote: "We cannot speak of naturalism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is 'supernature' that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world."
For the religious naturalist, the intuition of a "wholly other" is a step too far, not just beyond the physiological and psychological experience, but into a kind of anthropomorphic idolatry. What then is it that gives the experience its numinous quality, what I called in one of those earlier posts "metanatural," as opposed to "supernatural"? Tomorrow I will try to answer this question - by reference to that iron nail in the milkmaid's wall.
"It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch in The Voice of the Desert.
The nail. The iron nail. Vermeer is committed to exact observation and description of the natural world, no detail too small to be overlooked. There is no obvious metaphorical meaning here. The painting does not direct our attention to another reality. It celebrates this reality, the one in which we live and breathe and have our being. Vermeer's life overlapped Galileo's and Newton's. He may have known Leeuwenhoek. He is immersed in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution.
But the nail. How can the experience of a nail be - dare I say it? - numinous? Not numinous in the sense of the dictionary's first definition - of or relating to the supernatural - but of the second - spiritually elevating, sublime. Experience is not passive. It is a conflation of an external object and the experiencer's knowledge and imagination. A numinous experience is one that ignites a firestorm in the brain, a thrill, a rush of pleasure, a sense of the mysterious, of beauty, of overflowing fullness.
I hold an iron nail in my hand, cold and hard. There is first of all the tactile pleasure, purely sensual. But there is more, much more, that knowledge brings to the experience. What I hold in my hand is both a human artifact, rich in history - an object that pierces wood and plaster - and an element that is unusually common in the universe for a reason that points us to the deepest mystery of what is. The Earth's core is mostly iron. There is iron in the crust, too, but iron has a propensity to form alliances with other elements and therefore hides in combination. The solar system swarms with iron meteorites. Iron drops onto the Earth from the sky. All of which takes us into the cores of stars, where the heavy elements are forged from the primeval hydrogen and helium of the big bang.
The key to numinosity is to perceive the commonplace as part of a cosmic drama we only faintly understand, churning with powers that are perhaps beyond our capacity to know, to feel that drama unfolding in every jot and tittle of the ordinary, to be aware of being swept along on a unfolding tide of being, stars seeding the universe with the elements of life and mind - bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin.
A nail. A hole in plaster. As Krutch said, it is not easy to live with a continuous awareness of things. We are grateful for the all too infrequent moments of numinous insight.”