Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 15, 2015
My colleague Meg Riley serves the largest UU congregation of all. She is minister of CLF, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a ‘church by mail” as it used to be known; although nowadays it is mostly an internet community with a great newsletter called Quest that I still receive in the mail. Meg writes a Minister’s Column for this quarterly mailing, and a few years back, on the topic of Transcendence, she shared these poignant slices of humanity:
I am talking to a man whose wife has just told him she loves someone else. “I need to go to the ocean,” says this Midwesterner, “to see something bigger than my pain.”
I am on the phone with a woman whose sister is dying. Her sister’s young child is inconsolable. “Even here,” says the woman on the phone, “there is beauty. There is joy. Even here, there is something beyond the pain.”
I am reading a letter from a prisoner, behind bars for more than half of his 37 years on the planet. “I have to work hard,” he says, “to see things to be grateful for. But they are always there, and my spiritual practice is to notice them.”
Meg lifts these vignettes up as stories of transcendence. They are examples of the way people tap into something larger than themselves. They are about how folks experience a wholeness and a holiness in the midst of difficulty. Not all stories of transcendence are rooted in hardship, but many are. A. Powell Davies says: “We must find our faith, not in the daylight, but in the dark. If we are ever to come to the light of morning, we must carry our own light with us through the night.” And so, stories of transcendence are often tinged with trauma.
Transcendence is one of those numinous words that are a tricky to really grasp, it is a word that points to a reality beyond our words, a reality that many people have experiences of but few talk about. And yet it is a word that appears in various key documents for us. We talk about it in our UUA sources of authority. “The living tradition we share draws from many sources,” we say. And the first source on that list is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”
We have that word Transcendence in our local Mission Statement. Our UUCB Mission Statement, as you can read on the back of the order of service, says: “We offer a spiritual home where we explore, celebrate and cherish our interconnectedness, encourage growth and transcendence, and act with justice and compassion.”
We adopted this statement a few years back, and one point I remember hearing at that time was a question about transcendence and the way we use the word in this statement. “We … encourage growth and transcendence.” How do we ‘encourage’ something that we can’t control?
Back a few years ago, the process we used to develop our current mission statement began as an interesting series of conversations. We didn’t start by asking each other to try to name the purpose of the congregation. We began by asking people to each tell a story of transcendence. Then from those stories we lifted up the values that were evident. From the piles and piles of value words we began to create a shared sense of which values we as a community would name as most important. Later those common value words became the backbone of our Mission Statement. But it all started with people telling stories of transcendence.
I have a story I circle back to again and again in my thoughts, a story of transcendence. When I was in high school, I remember sitting alone in the woods near a friend’s house one afternoon. I was not doing anything in particular or thinking about anything in particular. I was not waiting for something or someone. I just had a free afternoon and nothing better to do, so I sat on the ground in the woods. I was staring at a stone. It was not a distinguished stone in any way: just a regular gray flat-ish one about the size of a melon. I suppose I had recently had science lessons about atomic structures because I started thinking about the small parts of the stone that go into making it a stone. I stared at the stone and thought about how it was made up of smaller parts that are in turn made up of even smaller parts. How far down does it go? What is the smallest part made of?
As I thought of little electrons swirling around a nucleus and tried to think about what might be inside subatomic particles, I remembered the silly philosophical question that asks, “What if our universe is just a swirling atom in the big toe of someone in another universe?” Suddenly my perspective shifted, it telescoped out from the very small to the very large. Atoms became planets. I reeled with the awareness that the subatomic particles and giant big toe of another universe were the same thing. For a brief moment a whole universe swirled inside that stone, my whole universe. Everything was connected. Inside that instant the stone and I and ten thousand universes were the same thing.
And then it was over, in less space than a breath it was finished because I noticed myself. I thought, “Hey, I’m having a really profound thought.” And suddenly it was over, my parietal lobe turned back on, the universe fell back into place, and I was simply sitting alone in the woods staring at a stone. Try as I might I could not get the stone to do that trick again.
Transcendence. “Trans,” meaning: beyond, across, over; and “Scandere,” meaning: to climb, as in ‘ascend.’ The roots of the word call to mind early mythic stories of ascend a pole, climbing Jacob’s ladder, sliding up a shaft of light, or riding a golden chariot into heaven – into the realm of the gods, or some higher plane. In Fred Campbell’s book Religious Integrity for Everyone, the author notes how the word “transcendence” implies “larger than.” He explained that “Communities are larger than individuals [and] God is a word used to point to some inclusive reality much larger [still].”
But a story of transcendence does not need to be a story about God – those are just the easiest ones to recognize. A story of transcendence might be about an experience in nature or an encounter with suffering, it might be a story about connections or creativity or compassion. The story might be about anything in the details. The point, particularly for that exercise we were doing to create our Mission statement, was that the story be personal. The story of transcendence you tell does not need to conform to some set of expectations, all it needs is to be yours.
There is a story of an adventurer who went out to explore uncharted regions. He discovered majestic mountain ranges, rolling hillsides, waterfalls and river systems of unsurpassed beauty. He returned to his home town and told the people of his adventures, he tried to convey the wonder and beauty with his words but eventually felt at a loss to express adequately what he had experienced. And so he implored the people to seek out these sights for themselves. They asked him to draw a map that they might see what he saw. The adventurer complied with their request, hoping to inspire them. They received his map with reverence, framed it and displayed it prominently. Generations of scholars studied the map and the people prided themselves on possessing the key to such beauty and wonder – but never once did anyone else from that town ever set foot on the lands represented in the marvelous chart.
The maps are not bad, they’re just not enough. Leave them behind, go forth and meet your own life, experience the universe for yourself. Ten years ago British singer/songwriter Natasha Bedingfeld’s debut album and title song made a splash on this side of the pond. “Feel the rain on your skin,” she sings, “no one else can feel it for you.” Beliefs, doctrines, and great books like the Bible are but maps describing other people’s stories of transcendence. Go discover your own burning bush. Walk through your own 40 days of desert fasting. See with your own eyes the red wing bird in the shifting light. Go get your own experiences, Natasha exhorts, channeling Emerson a bit. “No one else can speak the words on your lips,” she warns. “Drench yourself in words unspoken. Live your life with arms wide open. Today is where your book begins. The rest is still unwritten.”
And here in Unitarian Universalism we sing that same tune. We have maps like the one the adventurer offered that little town. We also know where to find rain you can feel on your own skin. We offer a great many maps, but we affix a warning label to each one declaring that none are authoritative, yet all are reliable! That’s the point of a transcendent experience – it doesn’t need to be anything other than your experience. We all have them.
Peak experiences, that’s what we’re talking about. Lifted moments, mystical flashes or in some way spiritual experiences! It is in these moments we experience an abandonment of mere self and a connection with that which is larger than the self. It is the moment when wonder breaks through and lifts us into new awareness.
Ah, now follow me down this next line of thought. These moments lift us into a new awareness, but an awareness of what? Popular religion author, Karen Armstrong delivered an address in 2000 entitled “The God of All Faiths.” In her talk she said,
All the major traditions that I have studied teach that one of the essential prerequisites for true religious experience is that we abandon the egotism and selfishness that hold us back from the divine. They all teach in one way or another that we are most fully ourselves when we give ourselves away. It is ego that diminishes us, limits our vision and is utterly incompatible with the sacred. But it is very hard to rid ourselves of egotism. Much of what passes for religion is in fact an endorsement of the selfishness that we are supposed to transcend in the ecstasy of faith. People want their prayers answered; they want to get to heaven. They go to church, synagogue or mosque not to cultivate self-abandonment but to affirm their identities.
Armstrong wants the religious experience, or the transcendence story of a person, to lead to a positive change in behavior. She has spent a considerable amount of study on the ethical side of religion and religious experience. Her work on the Charter of Compassion is one of the reasons I am drawn to her books and her writing. So, following that line of conviction on her part, we might ask the following question. If our personal stories of transcendence are rooted in an experience of selflessness, in the transcendence of mere ego, do we become better people after such experiences? An encounter with the holy ought not make a person more bigoted, self-righteous, or dismissive of others.
This leads me to consider that there might be two levels to the experience of transcendence. There is the experience itself, and then the resulting interpretation and impact. Transcendent experiences takes us out of ourselves, connect us if only for a few moments with something larger than ourselves. I experienced a connection with All That Is through a spontaneous meditation in the woods. Over the subsequent years I have applied various interpretations, layers of meaning to that experience and others like it. It took me decades to articulate a link between the experience and my moral compass. I’m not convinced that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between my wonder-filled moment of transcendence and my personal moral code. I know there is a connection, but I’m not convinced it is as direct a connection as Karen Armstrong suggests.
But I would definitely say the experience made me a better person. Not because I was kinder or more humble. But I was more aware. I began to move about the world with the knowledge that such experiences do happen, so I watched for them and paid more attention to them when I did experience transcendence again.
Our Mission Statement says “We … encourage growth and transcendence.” Can we ‘encourage’ something that we can’t even control or make happen? Perhaps this hinges on what we might mean by the word ‘encourage.’
I can encourage the seed to grow by giving it good sun, soil, and water. I can encourage my spirit to be in balance by giving it practice and attention and discipline. I can encourage myself to be aware of the moments of transcendence when they come. And even if I never experience another moment of transcendence, I will move through the world with a heightened awareness. I will be watching and listening. I would say that counts as ‘encouraging.’
I bid you to be encouraged. We cannot make transcendent moments happen, but we can prepare ourselves to be receptive for when they do happen. I bid you, be encouraged.
In a world without end,
May it be so.