Mysterium tremendum et fascinans I

Thursday, 4 March

By now I expect that my reader will appreciate why I made the decision to start writing this blog. My conversations with Leonard have the potential to be extremely interesting indeed and I am curious to discover what my fellow theologians will make of his unconventional theories. But it was one rather disturbing incident that took place on the afternoon of Saturday 14th February that prompted me to begin writing the very next morning. It is difficult for me to comprehend why this was the case, but I will try to explain why the events of that day affected me so profoundly.

Have you ever experienced one of those peculiar episodes in which you feel momentarily detached from reality and solid objects around you appear to be gossamer-thin, your step is lighter on the ground and you feel disconnected from your environment as though witnessing events through a television screen rather than with your own eyes? I have read about this phenomenon in my undergraduate studies, particularly when investigating the esoteric traditions. Both adepts of the mystery arts and the devoutly religious claim to be able to induce this effect at will and many describe it as a comforting and liberating moment of transcendence that provides us with a fleeting glimpse behind the veil of the tangible world and affirms the existence of a spiritual realm that lies beneath. However, I understand that for both religious and non-religious individuals alike a negative effect also holds true and this encounter with the otherworld is not necessarily an entirely pleasant experience. Some subjects claim to have witnessed horrific visions or to have been confronted by terrible creatures during these incidents and suffered bouts of extreme distress and paranoia as a result – after all, who has not, upon hearing a strange noise at night or glimpsing a dark shadow behind them, been terrified by the unsettling sensation of a supernatural presence close by and felt the disorientating effect that this has, even for the briefest second, on the certainty of their immediate reality? I recall reading somewhere that individuals who frequently endure these moments of dislocations from reality can experience intense feelings of isolation and disorientation that cause the subject, upon prolonged exposure, to reject his physical environment and withdraw entirely into his own mind, believing that his own internal thoughts are the only real existence of which he can be certain. In extreme cases, the reality of the subject’s immediate physical environment may fall into doubt and even the threat of death becomes less of a concern; he may well consider himself to be invulnerable and step in front of a speeding train believing that he would survive the impact. 

I have no personal expertise in these matters and as an analytically-minded student of religion I consider myself to be merely a curious tourist, however having staunchly ridiculed religious fanatics for their enthusiasm for this type of mystical encounter with the numinous for some time now, it is embarrassing to admit that my stubborn resolve was radically challenged on 14th February and the events of that day provided the driving catalyst for my decision to start blogging the very next day. 

It all began with a meeting. Amber, a childhood friend of mine, had been calling me on an almost daily basis to arrange a lunch date. Amber and I were inseparable at primary school but we have very little in common as adults and I increasingly suspect that our friendship is based purely on a sense of nostalgia for our playground days and the fact that we share many years of private and mutual secrets. Our characters could not be more contradictory; she is an intense and forthright woman with a cruel tongue and she is often disgracefully rude with strangers and bitingly vicious at times, particularly in her rebuttals to men. She studies fashion design at a local college and she tends to gravitate more towards the unconventional than the mainstream; for instance, she wears the most outrageous shade of red lipstick, she is particularly proud of her long ginger-red curls from which garish, jewelled hairgrips protrude like small insects caught in sticky candyfloss and rather than make the most of her naturally pale skin she takes great pains to use self-tanning products that lend a slightly unwashed look to her face. She likes to think that she does not ‘conform to the norm’, but she simply possesses what our mutual friends call ‘a will to be weird’. 

Although Amber revels in making an impression in public and she likes to appear spontaneous in her decision-making, she is secretly a creature of habit and she can be very set in her ways; for instance, she rarely deviates from her uniform seasonal wardrobe of bright floral-print dresses with handmade beaded necklaces in the summer and long woollen coats with knee high boots and black leather gloves in the winter. Even our lunches are predictably the same each time we meet: chicken caesar salad followed by strawberry cheesecake and washed down with a cold ‘Frisky Bison’ cocktail. Amber’s boyfriend Graham is a professional DJ and her attraction to him extends little beyond his ability to grant her guest-list access to the best parties in town and secure invites to the opening nights of new clubs and bars. She claims to be passionately in love with him, but I know that her eye has a tendency to wander. 

By the way, I can write all this safe in the knowledge that Amber will not read this blog because she avoids the internet like some kind of smallpox, believing it to be full of spammers, viruses and perverts. Unfortunately this means that we communicate exclusively by phone calls and text messages and her snobbery regarding the internet costs me a fortune given that she is inclined to talk for hours non-stop or text the most tedious information to me under the misguided notion that I am interested to learn what time she got to bed on Sunday morning or what she is cooking for dinner.

But for all of Amber’s strange quirks and annoying habits, I must admit that she has been a loyal friend for many years and she is always first to make contact when we haven’t spoken for a while, so I cannot fault her tenacity and dedication when it comes to maintaining our friendship. In fact it was her steadfast determination to keep in regular contact that prompted our meeting that day. I had been avoiding a lunch meeting for some time, partly because I was deeply uninterested in her mindless gossip and partly because I had no interesting gossip to offer in return, but I was rapidly exhausting every credible excuse for being otherwise engaged and it was becoming blatantly obvious that I was avoiding her. My conscience finally got the better of me when she called that morning for a general catch-up chat and I suggested that we met for lunch at midday in the centre of town. It was a Saturday and the busiest day of the week for crowds and heavy traffic, but fighting the multitudes of Saturday shoppers was the least of my concerns in view of the dreary anecdotes of drunken misdemeanours, sexual encounters and the general inane chitchat that Amber would no doubt subject me to. It was also Valentine’s Day and Alex had booked a table at our favourite restaurant for that evening, so I was keen to get back home with enough time to shower, change my clothes and primp myself into oblivion before heading back out.

Amber and I arranged to meet outside the Round Hole pub on the main street in the city centre. It was a bitterly cold afternoon and the street was a noisy hub of activity, just as I had anticipated. I watched from the pub doorway as the bustling masses jostled to escape the drizzling rain and I amused myself by watching the characters in the crowd pass by. An overweight woman with a pushchair bullied her way through a bus queue while shouting impatiently at a disgruntled toddler who was lagging behind and seeking out puddles in which to stamp with both feet first. A group of rowdy young women sheltered under a shop awning and encircled themselves with a protective buffer of shopping bags emblazoned with designer fashion names. A middle-aged couple huddled together beneath an oversized black umbrella and sauntered arm in arm between the shop windows and two groups of adolescent boys wearing black hoodies and with skateboards at their feet stood either side of the entrance to the park, hanging on the railings and eyeing each other suspiciously. 

I had been people-watching for what seemed like hours and I was about to check my watch for the hundredth time when a black cab pulled up outside the pub and out of the cab stepped Amber, resplendent in a full-length brown coat with fake fur hood (the city centre is only a ten minute walk from her apartment but Amber is not averse to taking taxis for even the shortest of journeys). She hurried across the street, taking care to avoid each puddle, then gave me an overly theatrical and artificially affectionate hug and shouted over the noise of the traffic that we should head towards the nearest coffee shop. Although not a coffee drinker, since my hair was damp against my cheeks and my feet were frozen inside my boots I thought that a hot chocolate might help with defrosting, so I nodded in agreement and we headed off into the crowds.