Encountering The Holy In Hawaii

I had been reading about Rudolf Otto’s concept of the numinous and studying his classic The Idea of the Holy for a few decades, and it all made perfect conceptual sense. But on our recent trip to Hawaii in April of this year (2018), Diane and I actually experienced the Holy, the numinous, on a very raw and visceral level. In The Idea of the Holy, Otto, who coined the term “numinous”, describes it with the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Literally translated, that phrase means “the tremble-inducing [tremendum, the same Latin root as “tremor”] and attractive [fascinans, the same Latin root as "fascinating"] mystery [mysterium]”.  Despite the title of his book, Otto makes it clear that the Holy is not only, or even primarily, something about which one entertains ideas. Rather, the Holy must be experienced on an affective level as a pure and pre-rational confrontation with That which induces awe, and that this awe is rooted in Something that is both terrible and terribly beautiful. Diane and I experienced both on the Big Island of Hawaii when we encountered the terrifying violence of the primal Earth in the awesome volcanic eruption that is still ongoing, and in the tranquil beauty of the stately shower tree that presides over the cemetery where several members of her family – including my late father-in-law – are buried.

You cannot be even a tourist in Hawaii without having an at least subliminal awareness of the power of the ancient Earth. That is true even if your visit is confined to the older Islands, e.g., Kaua’I, O’ahu, Maui. If your visit includes the Big Island, and especially a visit to Volcanoes National Park, even the most insensitive are sure to be gob-smacked by the sheer scale of the Big Island’s geology and its power. When we are on the Big Island, Diane and I always visit the Park on a day-trip. (We did not visit this time, for reasons I describe below.) One of my favorite activities is to drive through the Park and pull over to the side of the road adjoining a lava field several decades old and therefore cool enough to be walkable, but young enough to still consist of bare rock with, at most, only a few sprigs of green plants scattered in a few places on the surface.

I walk away from the car, far enough away that neither the car nor any other works of human beings is visible, and then just … stand there … contemplating the heat of the sun radiating upward from the solid lava, the metallic sheen of the solid rock – it will not be soil for at least another half-million years – and the keening whisper of the wind. It is easy to imagine oneself time-warped back to, say, the late-Cambrian period when the Earth was mostly just bare rock with perhaps a squirming colony of primitive monocellular life here and there. And as I stand there, the realization, oft-repeated on each visit, but ever-new, dawns on me:  the Earth did this. The Earth itself. And by the time I and my sibling hairless apes arrived on the scene, the Earth had been doing it, with no human help, for around 4.5 billion years.  I feel simultaneously at home and also an interloper, an intruder – not necessarily unwelcome, but strictly a foreigner, an existential undocumented immigrant cast by the laws of physics and chemistry upon an ancient shore. I find such a perspective at once exhilarating and starkly terrifying.

But I felt so especially on this last visit in mid-April.  For the last month-plus, the volcano Kilauea has been opening up fissures on the downslope side of the Big Island’s Puna District, and the resulting lava flows have been slowly but inexorably consuming housing developments, businesses, and whole roads, and venting noxious gases – HCl / H2SO4 aerosols, SO2, etc. – and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people from their homes to public shelters, with no prospect yet that their houses will still be there if and when they can return. Volcanoes National Park was closed due to explosions of steam and pent-up volcanic gases powerful enough to hurl boulders the size of SmartCars and kitchen refrigerators hundreds yards out of the caldera and send great plumes of volcanic ash -- rock pulverized into the consistency of powdered sugar -- 3 miles into the sky. Our own beach house near Cape Kumukahi is now being threatened.  The dominant feeling of the entire situation, especially for people who live there year-round, is stark, utter, absolute, and naked helplessness before the implacable visage of the primal Earth. There is no panic, however. Hawaiians are incredibly resilient and stoic about taking all this in stride.

The old Hawaiians personified this experience in terms of Madame Pele, Mistress of the volcanoes of Hawaii.  If you have never experienced the sheer, existential terror of utter impotence before natural forces from 4 billion years ago, you may smile indulgently at the indigenous Hawaiians’ legends about Madame Pele. But watch a curtain of 2,000- or 3,000-, or 4,000-degree lava cut a road and burn through a tract of houses like a blowtorch through a block of soft-serve ice cream, and at the end of that experience, I guarantee you will be in no mood to patronize members of Her cult. I sobered up from such a juvenile attitude a damn long time ago.  Instead, you will be much more likely to condescend and to smile indulgently at Hollywood epics like, e.g., Volcano and Dante’s Peak, where people routinely encounter lava hot enough at 4,000 degrees to flow like thin maple syrup, i.e., material that would give 3rd-degree burns to any unprotected human in less than a second at a range of a hundred yards. (I have faced near-solid lava of perhaps nearly 1,000 degrees – quite cool -- at perhaps 30 yards, moving with tectonic slowness, and was quite happy to quickly walk away.) As a severe Teacher, Madame Pele does not grade on the curve:  you trifle with Her at your mortal peril.

Yet She is Holy. She is the mysterium tremendum half of C. G. Jung’s numinosum. (To be quite fair, she is also the mysterium fascinans, as any visit to the grandeur at the summit of Mauna Kea – itself an inactive volcano -- will instantly demonstrate. But there is not enough space to discuss that.) Contemporary Christian iconography would have us believe that the Holy is always … well … always “nice”:  puppy dogs, newborn kittens, and simpering angels in white nighties. Speaking of the holiness, love, and justice of the Christian God, however, Alan Watts says in Myth and Ritual in Christianity

[Of all the Christian God's attributes, holiness] is quite the hardest to understand because it is connected in the human mind with fear of the unknown. For we are afraid when confronted with something which altogether surpasses our experience and comprehension, so that we have not the slightest idea how to deal with it. … [I]t is the feeling of awe, of strangeness, of “the creeps” … It is said, then, that the holiness of God … [gives us] a shudder which is at the same time a thrill beyond the most ravishing of sensual pleasures. … [I]t is of the essence of this quality [of holiness] that we do not know what it is, but only what it makes us feel.

It only remains, perhaps, to say that the experience of the Holy is to be encountered, not only in God, but also in the Universe – the kind of holiness of which, e.g., Albert Einstein, an atheist, wrote so movingly.

It also need not be associated primarily with fear, with tremendum, though that association is always in the background as a potentiality.  One other way I experienced the Holy – the Holy as mysterium fascinans, this time – was when Diane and I visited the Alae Cemetery just inside the city limits of Hilo, where the ashes of some of her relatives are buried. In the middle of the cemetery, seemingly standing watch over it, is an indescribably graceful shower tree. The very first time I encountered this shower tree was 34 years ago (as of August of 2018) when I visited Hawaii for our wedding. Now, when we return, we always visit that cemetery, and I always return to stand underneath that shower tree, enjoy its shade, and allow myself to be swept along in its ineffable beauty.

Yet I cannot say why. As Watts says "[I] do not know what it is, but only what it makes [me] feel". There is something indescribably alluring in the sheer shape of the tree. (It is called a “shower tree” because every year, the tree blooms in what seems to be mega-zillions of tiny blossoms which live for a few days, perhaps as long as a week, and then break away and “shower” on the ground in a floral snowfall.) There are many shower trees in the vicinity around Hilo. They all share that same stately grace:  the trunk grows perhaps 30 feet, and then the crown or plume of the tree spreads out in a breathtakingly graceful curve, in the shape of a great green umbrella whose curvature is utterly perfect. In the perfection of that shape, that arc, lies the strangely comforting geometry of the tree. Perhaps there is some shower-tree equivalent of the “golden ratio”, given that all shower trees share, not only the shallow-dome-like plume, but seemingly – as I estimate by just “eyeballing” the canopy – the same radius of curvature. The top of the crown may be 30 feet tall, but if you walk along the outermost circumference of a full-grown shower tree, there are many places where you can reach up and touch the ends of the branches. Moreover, if you stand underneath the canopy and look straight up, you will see a bewilderingly complex system of curving branches, a network of wood that beguiles the eye into tracing the shapes of the branches against the sky.

One does not have to believe in a Designer Deity to see in the perfection of a shower tree the product of an intelligence of a sublime order. But it is the intelligence of the Earth, the immanent urge of design-with-a-lower-case-“d”.  Somehow shower trees evolved to be the way they are as the result of an unimaginably vast collaboration of sun, soil, genetics, and organisms both past and present, all of which conspired, over 4.5 billion years. It is misleading to speak of "design" in such a context, for the real paradox is that the design lies precisely in the lack of design, as is the case with the way everything else, every other form of life, past and present, evolved. It is paradoxical, but by no means oxymoronic, to speak of "intelligent un-design". Hence my lack of hesitation in saying that the shower tree – and its siblings life-forms, including humans – is a work of art. In fact, I go one step farther:  the intelligence that un-designed the shower tree, being the intelligence of sun, soil, and time, is intelligence of an infinitely higher order than that possessed by the literal-minded fundamentalists’ God Who tinkers with His own natural laws to produce “one-off” de facto “meat robots”.  

The more I think about it, in fact, the more I find that kind of implacably life-driven immanent intelligence – to speak frankly – rather frightening, as frightening in its way as Madame Pele’s lava.  And for that reason, also, holy.  Albert Camus – also an atheist – understood this:

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman … For a second we cease to understand [the world] because for centuries we have understood in it solely the images and designs that we had attributed to it beforehand, because henceforth we lack the power to make use of that artifice. The world evades us because it becomes itself again.

The shower tree is incomparably beautiful, but it is not, for all that, a human beauty. So again I encounter the Holy – the un-designed and immanent ganz Andere, if you will – but not this time in heat and fire, but in leaf and color and shape.

James R, Cowles

Image credits

Lava fountain ... J. D. Griggs, USGS ... Public domain
Pahoehoe lava flow ... Ekrem Canli ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
Lava flow 2005 ... Photographer unknown ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Shower tree 1 ... Author's image ... Public domain
Shower tree 2 ... Author's image ... Public domain
Shower tree branches 1 ... Author's image ... Public domain
Shower tree branches 2 ... Author's image ... Public domain
Moment of enlightenment ... Kristian Zahrtmann, "Leonora Christina i fængslet", 1875 ... Public domain
Stonehenge ... Photographer unknown ... CC BY 2.0
Celebrating sunrise ... Fyodor Bronnikov, (1827—1902) ... Public domain

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