I remember my first experience of going to an art museum. Looking at the paintings gave me such a wondrous feeling. I felt a sense of awe at how an object or image could stir strong imagination in me. It was a feeling of warmth and closeness.
I almost felt embarrassed to be in public, surrounded by other people looking at the same art I was. Secretly, I wanted to take all the artwork and sneak away somewhere alone. I wanted to hide away and cherish the tenderness of it. It was as if God descended into my being, into my heart, and touched a very vulnerable part of me. It was a transcendent moment.
But a sense of transcendence is kind of hard to define. What was it that I experienced in that art museum? Why was it so powerful? And it was powerful, I couldn’t argue with that. I felt like it had changed me somehow. The only words I can put to it was that it was a singular intimate moment of euphoria and intimacy. That even though I was standing there in front of a painting, I also located outside the created order, into a realm of possibility, creation, and the unknown. This I suspect is what it’s like for the scientist when discovering a new gene, or for the astronomer observing a new constellation, an athlete accomplishing a personal goal, or an opera singer performing her best in a crowded opera house. I realized that that transcendent experience opened my eyes to meaning and purpose. It convinced me that my actions mattered. That my life could serve a purpose. That change in another person’s life due to my effort was possible. That goodness was real.
Sadly, for many, transcendent experiences these days are in short supply. This is true because we generally don’t like things that are elusive, that have some mystery. And if we can’t fully understand it, then we can’t control it. Lacking control scares us. So we stick to what we know. To what is easy.
We reduce things to bite-size versions that are simple to understand and easy to control. But in so doing, What have we lost? This nagging question haunts the rafters of the mind like an apparition seeking release. I ask again:
What do we lose when we reduce?
What is lost when the need to control takes over?
Could reduction and control be the answer as to why a sense of transcendence has gone missing?
Maybe for you, you can honestly say you’ve lost the feeling of transcendence in your life. Even as Christmas rolls around, the Holiday season for you is one of to-do lists, shopping, and busyness. You may very well do this for several reasons. Its normal for people in our culture to be really busy this time of year. Having a full schedule is not out of the ordinary.
Or… maybe for you there is something deeper going on. Maybe the busyness and overwhelming schedule has more to do with busyness for the sake of avoidance. The Holiday season for you could mean loss, loneliness, and feelings of emptiness despite the way your “suppose” to feel. But I would challenge you to consider something that may seem at first glance counter-intuitive. What if those feelings, which you would rather avoid, hold the key to transcendence?
You try to control those feelings of hurt or loss. You try to put your feelings in a tidy simple box with a nice little explanation. But I think this is a mistake and here’s why.
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic Priest and prolific spiritual writer, wrote a great book called The Wounded Healer. Nouwen explained in the book that he viewed loneliness not as something to be avoided, but as an invitation from God for deeper relationship. For some, the idea of pain and struggle means abandonment from God. As Nouwen pointed out, that they could actually mean the opposite. Loneliness is really an invitation from God for deeper relationship. But sometimes we are deaf to those invitations so God has to break through with any means possible.
C.S. Lewis explains how God breaks through our deafness: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Take this Christmas season and try 3 things as an experiment:
1. Consider an overly busy schedule as missing the point. Busyness is the enemy of reflection. There is a greater purpose to the season that great sales and clearance. And by only focusing on the material aspect you are the poorer for it. It is a missed opportunity to discover transcendence.
2. Instead of avoiding feelings of loss, sadness or despair; consciously allow yourself to experience those feelings. Try listening. Pay attention to what your feeling and why. Ask yourself, What am I avoiding? Why am I not allowing myself to feel this?
3. Walking through pain, as opposed to around it or away from it, allows for you to experience a transcendent moment. Don’t fall into the avoidance trap and miss the opportunity of hearing from God in your hurt. For God is inviting you to deeper relationship in your hurt, in your sadness, in your despair. This involves a change in how you view hurt, pain and suffering. Allow for the possibility that they aren’t merely bad things, but they could be an instrument for an enriched and meaningful life.
4. Look to the needs of others. Humility is not about think lesser of yourself, but think less of yourself (in terms of quantity and not quality) . Consider that someone else may need you. The pain, sorrow and loss you experience is also being felt by another. And just as much as you need someone to show you love, someone else may need it from you.