The mystery revealed/16 - The Bible makes you experience the tremendum, and teaches you to address God informally
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 17/07/2022
"The new vision is the development of the blessed night of faith. It is then that the soul, lending its ear and forgetting the walls of the house, will hear the word that was promised to it: you will be my bride forever."
Paul Claudel, Presence and Prophecy (1942)
Daniel has a new encounter that is marked by fear. The dialogues with the angels reveal other aspects of biblical prophecy and the profound meaning of some typical spiritual tests.
In the Bible, people are called by name, not groups. Furthermore, even if the call always has an aspect of collectivity and community, in the beginning there is always a specific person (Abraham, Moses) encountering a meets a voice with whom he or she establishes a dialogue. These you-to-you between YHWH and a single individual are the deepest and most radical foundation of the personalism of biblical, Christian and Western humanism. Of course, even Greek philosophy, a few centuries after the beginning of biblical prophecy, said something similar (Socrates' daimonion for example); but this dialogue between the one and transcendent God and humanity that takes place in conversations with single individuals is a constant, essential, foundational element in the Bible.
These tales of divine words intended for everyone, received during personal encounters, are the great inheritance of the prophets. All this is truly surprising when we think about how small the space of an individual still was within the community back then. The prophets enlarged this space, introducing themselves like plants into the cracks of the community, managing to tear down the walls to give life to homes without doors, windows or roof, where the Spirit could blow in from the heavens and from the assortment of winds on Earth. This alone would be enough to understand the extraordinary gift that the Bible represents for everyone, believers and atheists alike: it has taught us to be informal even with God.
«In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, a revelation was given to Daniel (who was called Belteshazzar). Its message was true and it concerned a great war» (The Book of Daniel 10,1). This further vision that Daniel has placed at the end of the Babylonian exile (i.e. around 535, three years after the Edict of Cyrus of 538 BC). As he was standing on the bank of the Tigris (or Euphrates) «…there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze» (Daniel 10,5-6). Perhaps this is the angel Gabriel of chapter 8 again, or, to some exegetes, it is perhaps the mysterious "Son of man" in chapter 7. We do not know. What matters is the effect that the vision produces on Daniel.
First, however, the text provides us with a detail that enriches the grammar of the prophetic vocation that is taking shape following the Book of Daniel: «I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision» (Daniel 10,7-8). The first episode that comes to mind is the vocation of Saul-Paul narrated by the Acts of the Apostles (9,7), perhaps influenced by chapter 10 in the Book of Daniel, where his companions «stood there speechless». The theophany is perceived by the group of companions, but only Daniel, and only Saul, see and hear the voice. In vocations, the "we" is too narrow a space, only an individual soul is large and deep enough to accommodate an infinite dialogue.
The Book of Daniel is a distillation of the "classic" prophetic vocations, on which its author was nourished. In this chapter 10, once again we encounter, and this time even more intensely, a fundamental element in the great biblical vocations: fear. Daniele tells us: «I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I fell into a deep sleep, my face to the ground» (Daniel 10,8-9). We must never forget that in the ancient world, including the Bible, the main and fundamental aspect of the experience of having an encounter with the divine is that of the tremendum. The living neither see nor hear God. The prophets are great and very rare exceptions to this universal rule, because they have the task of encountering and hearing the divine in order to pass it on to everyone else. In order to meet God, the prophets experience a certain kind of death. When they pierce the veil of the threshold between heaven and earth, and find themselves in another dimension, they do not experience these encounters as something joyful or peaceful. Instead, they experience dismay, insecurity and, sometimes, genuine terror. The idea of joyful and romantic dialogues between God and human souls is a recent commodity, and it is very distant from biblical vocations where God speaks about a stunned humanity - when our dialogues with God leave us too calm and content it is likely that we are speaking, in good faith, with ourselves or, worse, with some idol.
Prophets are «highly esteemed» beings (Daniel 10,11), but this predilection is something expressed in terms of joy. Happiness is not the best word to describe a prophetic calling and biblical humanism in general. The prophets are not happy: they are restless, similar to Martha who is anxious, and the word often reaches them while they are troubled in carrying out their task. They are alone, beggars of words they do not control and do not possess and they live with a continuous and growing feeling of failure and inadequacy. They are never up to the moral level of the words they convey to others, but they do not care because they are interested in the salvation of the people, not their own - they would like heaven to exist, even if they are oftentimes certain that they will go to the hell. False prophets, on the other hand, are men of success, they have serene and joyful faces and they present themselves as the definitive embodiment of the words they announce to others, always perfectly at ease in the exercise of their profession.
Daniel, however, is not abandoned at the mercy of his own fears, he has a strange and different kind of company. While he is stunned, lying face down «A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees» (Daniel 10,10). A hand touched me: it is the hand of an angel, perhaps Gabriel. God's touch returns to the prophets through his angels. Like Elijah, who while he was depressed under the broom was touched by the angel of God and managed to get up (I Kings 19,4-8), Daniel is also awakened by a touch, by physical contact. To get out of certain fears and spiritual depressions, words are not enough; you need to feel a touch in the flesh. The word, which is almost everything in the Bible, is sometimes not enough to wake up the prophets. They need to be awakened by a hand, to be touched in their entire humanity; by the hand of God, but also by the hand of a friend, who instead of saying edifying words speaks to them with the silent words of a gesture of the body: a hot cup of tea, a walk together, an ironed shirt. With this touch, Daniel gets up from the ground on all fours: on his knees, resting on his hands. Then the angel speaks to him saying: «“(...) stand up, for I have now been sent to you” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling» (Daniel 10,11).
After this touch, "now" is a word that allows Daniel to make a second movement and finally stand up. We follow him in this "getting up in stages" of the body, but his fear is not gone yet. The angel then delivers a speech to him, where a new angel, beloved by Christians and protector of the people of Israel, appears in the Bible: «(...) Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me» (Daniel 10,13). Michael had helped him to defeat the protector angel of Persia in heaven. The angel the says to Daniel: «“Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding (...) your words were heard, and I have come in response to them» (Daniel 10,12). Daniel, however, continues to be afraid, those consoling words of the angel are not enough to defeat his fear: «While he was saying this to me, I bowed with my face toward the ground and was speechless» (Daniel 10,15). Now silence is added to the fear, just like Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3,26), when encountering the divine, Daniel loses the power of speech as well. And here comes a second touch from the angel: «Then one who looked like a man touched my lips, and I opened my mouth and began to speak» (Daniel 10,16).
Now it is the mouth that is touched, a typical gesture of prophetic tradition (Isaiah 6,6; Jeremiah 1,9). After this touch, Daniels resumes speaking, and immediately says to the angel: «I am overcome with anguish because of the vision, my lord, and I feel very weak (...) my Lord» (Daniel 10,16). Daniele is still exhausted. Two caresses and many words of blessing were not enough. The angel is saying wonderful words to Daniel - «you are highly esteemed», «your words were heard», «I have come in response to them» - yet those good words fail to console him. The prophets, by vocation, renounce their consolations to make ours true; they act like a concert pianist who, in order to excite us with his music, does not to consume his own emotions for himself. They are great comforters, but not even God is able to console a prophet, because his desolation is the wound where the blessings come through for us, it is the pupil-slit through which God sees us and we see God.
Whoever happens to observe the prophets fighting within their nights full of incredible and terrible dreams hardly ever really understands, instead sometimes they run away to hide, constantly worrying, because they cannot conceive that an encounter with God and the angels can hurt so much. Instead, a little friendship with the Bible would be enough to understand that anguish, fear, light and love are all different faces of the same prophetic polyhedron.
To get him out of his state of prostration, now a third touch reaches Daniel and a second word: «Again the one who looked like a man touched me and gave me strength. “Do not be afraid, you who are highly esteemed,” he said. “Peace! Be strong now; be strong"» (Daniel 10,18-19). Elijah needed two touches of the angel to start living again, Daniel needs three to regain strength and peace. Certain tests and spiritual fears - ours and those around us - are not overcome, or they pass in vain, just because we stop at the first touch. The prophetic word is all heaven and all earth, it is all spirit and all flesh. It is therefore time, it is history.
Elijah needed two touches of the angel in order to start living again; Daniel needs three to regain his strength and peace. Certain tests and spiritual fears - ours and of those around us - are not overcome, or they pass in vain, just because we stop at the first touch. The prophetic word is all heaven and all earth, it is all spirit and all flesh. Thus, it is time; it is history.
When, after a real encounter with the voice that reveals your task and your place in the world, you find yourself stunned, without energy and with your face on the ground, do not get back on your feet immediately. Take your time, and then unhurriedly try to get on your knees and palms: it is the posture of prayer. There, on your knees, wait for more touches from heaven. However, while you wait, do not forget that you are already talking to angels of breathtaking beauty.