Monday, June 21, 2010

Temple Guardians

They are called dvarapala. They are the temple guardians that are found - often in pairs - outside temples in the Far East. We see them in the Middle East as griffins or sphinxes in friezes on ancient temple entrances. Even the Jewish temple of Solomon had cherubim that stood on either side of the ark of the covenant. The guardians were also stylized as the two brass pillars that flanked the entrance of the Jerusalem temple. The pillars were given the names Jachin and Boaz, as if they were divine personalities.

In Europe and Great Britain the temple guardians appear in the form of gargoyles and grotesques on cathedrals and other buildings. But nowadays they are more often comic than scary. The guardians are secularized as stone lions or other animals flanking the steps of libraries and museums.

Traditionally temple guardians are ferocious looking creatures. Their origin and purpose are unknown, but theories abound. I have my own theory. I think they represent the fear that humans experience when they approach the divine. Theologian Rudolf Otto called it mysterium tremendum - the mystery that causes us to tremble. The Scriptures call it "the fear of the Lord."

Fear of God is not socially acceptable in the West any longer. Western religion has become a domesticated, rational, and sentimental thing. There is nothing to be afraid of in churches. Even Western forms of Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism have lost the fearsome dvarapala. It has been replaced with political correctness. People are afraid of offending some social group in American society, but no longer afraid of offending God.

"Fear and trembling" is an essential part of the religious experience. Without it, we are playing spiritual games rather than actually encountering the divine.  In my personal experience, there is something in me that fears approaching God. As I approach the holy of holies of my own soul where God resides as Holy Spirit, I instinctively shrink back.

I find excuses not to pray. If I pray, then I shield myself with words and thoughts - anything to silence the Silence that calls me to draw closer. To approach the innermost recesses of God within me is scary. It is like peering over the edge of a cliff into infinity. I tremble.

But when I face my fears and enter the holiest place in the confidence of the blood of Christ, the fear evaporates. Perfect love casts out all fear. The unconscious anxiety that drives so much of my life falls away. The temple guardians become messengers of God ushering me into the presence of the Lord.

In the holy place are love, peace and joy. They are always there in the deepest part of my soul. Only my fears keep me from them. Why are we so reluctant to enter this inner spiritual sanctuary? Because to enter, we must leave our earthly selves behind. That is why the cherubim keep guard. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Only spirit can commune with Spirit. Only through dying to self do we enter the Kingdom of God.
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Image is Temple guardians at the Holy Glory Temple in Tainan County, Taiwan.

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