16 April 2016

Followup Questions: Aloneness and the Experience of Transcendence

[[Sister Laurel, can you explain what you mean by experiences of transcendence during periods of isolation? Are you talking about mystical experiences in prayer? This makes sense to me but not for everyone and maybe for very few people. It wouldn't happen for younger children or for families (or persons) where there is no religion would it? I don't think you are talking about things used to escape the pain of such isolation so if I am right about that what do you actually mean? Also, when you speak of unchosen periods of isolation could this include solitary confinement in prisons? Could prisoners also have such experiences of transcendence? Could they become hermits? Lastly, if an experience of solitude is healing and inspiring why would a person still need therapy or other help to deal with the harm done to them by being isolated?  Thanks.]]

Yes, an experience of transcendence is one which 'comes from' beyond the person herself,  but ('works') through her and with her, and thus, also draws her beyond herself to some extent.* It may occur when we have reached the end of our own resources to lesser and greater degrees. I tend to identify such experiences with God but we can use the language of beauty, truth, depth, etc., as well. One of the best conversations on such experiences I have ever had was a brief exchange between my violin teacher (Laura Risk) and myself. We were working on the Bach Double and had talked about allowing the notes to be transformed into music; as part of preparing the piece we had gone through various passages and noted the emotions or feelings we wished to communicate and also planned the actual memories we would each access to allow this  to be realized. We were talking about transcending the notes and other instructions on the page by tapping into our own emotional and inner lives. At the same time that our memories and emotions gave a fresh life to the music some of these memories were redeemed (given a new value and meaning) by becoming part of this music. This too was part of the experience of transcendence --- though not the heart of it.

Our conversation morphed into one on what it was like to play and compose music and especially to combine these skills to improvise (because both of us were talented in this and did a lot of "just playing" apart from written parts and scores). In doing so we drew upon our own inner lives in the same way, but we recognized something more as well. Laura commented that for her playing in this way was about "tapping into the music of the universe" --- something that was ever present there beyond and all around us, but also something which could sound within and through us. I commented that in my language (theological or spiritual) I would describe this experience as being in dialogue with the Transcendent or even touching into the Divine and allowing that to work in and through me. I said I might even call this prayer.

Whether we used the language of "music of the universe" or of "God" and "prayer," we were both describing an experience of mediating the Transcendent through our own minds, hearts, spirits, and muscles --- for we, with all our limitations and gifts, were still the ones playing and improvising. Both of us, I think, had a clear sense of something "living", something greater than ourselves sounding and singing itself through us and doing so in ways which challenged and stretched us musically and as persons. We both knew in an intimate way this reality which could sustain us even as it transformed and let us transcend the concrete circumstances of our lives --- even  as it inspired us to create amazing music and in the process empowered us to become more than we were. A somewhat similar experience is associated with art and literature of all kinds. In How Does a Poem Mean? John Ciardi once referred to a piece of this experience of empowerment and transcendence when he wrote that (reading and writing) poetry, like karate, had the power to save us as we wandered some night through a dark alley. The transformation of our lives from those of inarticulate suffering (when that is our experience) and struggle, to amazingly articulate expressions of beauty, truth, and meaning is at the heart of genuine experiences of transcendence.

Mystical Prayer?

While I am not speaking of mystical experiences of prayer per se I am certainly speaking of the dynamics and reality of prayer itself. Although I never really thought of the improvisational violin playing I did through Junior High and High School as prayer, there is no doubt in my mind that it was during these years that I learned something absolutely fundamental about prayer.

Today I speak of that by saying God worked or spoke (or sang!) Godself in and through me --- though in no way did it cease to be my own playing! I was open to that for many reasons --- some having to do with talents and gifts and others with yearning rooted in great need and deficiency. I was disposed toward "obedience" in our Christian language and the result of all that was the prayer God accomplished within me via violin. Of course, I experienced the Transcendent in many ways during those same years --- just as most of us do. Only later did I learn to pray in more explicit ways and only much later did I experience what might be called "mystical prayer". But at bottom, from violin, to lectio divina, to study and writing, to contemplative or mystical prayer, and all the ordinary moments in between, it was the Transcendent experienced mainly in silence and solitude that defined all of these.

While I don't think children (or the majority of adults for that matter) will have mystical experiences per se, I do think every child experiences the Transcendent, knows what it means to transcend their everyday lives, and can understand the mediation of transcendence through experiences of play, storytelling and reading, imagination, art, etc. As children the experience of transcendence is central for us. Everyone who has watched (or tried to deal with!) the incessant "WHY?" of children has been watching little explosions of transcendence and the drive to transcendence. The same is true of watching the rapt face of a child hearing her first Dr Seuss or (later maybe) reading a Harry Potter book, or a small child humming to herself as she colors. Such experiences use the deep resources of our own minds and hearts, the capacity for joy and play and spontaneity we have, as well as our own talents and skills, but they also can come from beyond us just as they lead us beyond ourselves.

As children (and as adults!) we read stories, we imagine ourselves in different worlds and different roles; we see and are inspired to see ourselves as capable of great feats of courage and creativity, of love and generosity. We develop the skills to bridge the gap between the "real world" and the world of our imagination and to create a different future for ourselves and others. We write symphonies and novels, create and test scientific hypotheses, develop new medicines to vanquish old enemies, build cities (starting with the ones we made of dirt and toy cars), and philosophical systems, and homes, and families and in every conceivable way we become witnesses to and mediators of transcendence. It is what we are made for, after all.

On Prisoners and Solitary Confinement:

I have written about solitude and prisoners once before a number of years ago now in Notes From Stillsong: Prisoners as Hermits. I did not write specifically about solitary confinement and am ambivalent about the possibilities of experiences of transcendence within solitary confinement or in regard to some there becoming hermits. While I do not want to limit God and either his will or power to bring life out of death, meaning out of the absurd, or, in this case, solitude out of isolation, it remains true that the person requires certain resources to help this process. Transcendence  implies not just being open to the Transcendent but also having some means to express this and to develop our openness further. Access to books and Bibles, paper, writing implements, a musical instrument, art materials, etc, are just some of the tools (resources) I have in mind here. Ordinarily God works in and through such things.

Prayer is a privileged way to the Transcendent but usually this develops in stages. We see this when we move from meditation to contemplative prayer. It is usually a mediated reality. Entering the biblical story frees our minds and hearts to some extent and opens us to the Word of God. It provides characters, values, relationships, and situations we can imaginatively interact with --- interactions which both encourage the growth of the light and help check the darkness in our own hearts. Drawing, Writing, and Reading all do something similar. Occasional conversations with others is also usually an important and even indispensable resource here as well --- especially when that someone has the capacity to help us negotiate the trap of living in our own heads and hearts, and thus too, of believing everything we think or experience is the voice of God.

Solitary confinement of itself is certainly an example of an enforced and unchosen isolation, and God can certainly move through the walls and bars of this cell as through any other. Some few may well need little else and be gifted with relatively unmediated or direct experiences of God. Generally, however, such confinement must also have some minimal resources which allow for both the mediation of the Transcendent and for our own  experience of transcendence. When this is true, when there is both physical solitude and sufficient even if minimal resources allowing for mediated reception, response, and expression, then yes, it is entirely possible for the prisoner to find him or herself transfigured into a hermit or someone with the heart of a hermit.

The Continuing Need for Healing and Therapy:

One of the indisputable truths of physical solitude, especially as isolation, is that it tears down before it builds up. When that isolation is forced on us then it becomes doubly damaging. Consider what happens when someone's family shuns them, especially if that is an extended event. Not only are they cut off from the ordinary source of formation and education as a person capable of real intimacy, but they have been rejected and hurt by those who, more than any other (except God) are meant and assured to love them. Even when one discovers and experiences the Transcendent in a way which redeems the experience of shunning, the hurt and pain are real and will need to be dealt with. Often, it will take serious healing before one can even understand the extent and import of the experience of transcendence that was also involved. The pain and loss is simply too great.

Moreover, genuine experiences of the Transcendent take time to bear recognizable fruit. Unless healing occurs, this fruit may never be fully realized or realizable. One may survive the immediate experience and have been transformed by it, but whether that is more ultimately for the better or worse will ordinarily take time to really manifest --- not least because the capacity for good and bad, creativity and destruction, are both contained in the experience of physical solitude or isolation. Still, I can speak of developing the "heart of a hermit" in some essential or fundamental sense during (for instance) a period of enforced and extended isolation whenever transcendence is experienced in ways that overshadow the destructive dimension of the isolation. Such a heart is ultimately necessary for any genuine hermit.

But whether that heart (which has been shaped both for ill and for good, so to speak) will lead to the life of a self-deceived and self-deceiving individualist, that of a misanthrope, or a narcissist with room for no one but herself, or whether it will mature into the edifying heart of a true hermit who responds to God's call and chooses the silence of solitude because she loves God, herself, and others --- the heart of one who (appropriately) persists in that response with courage and fidelity --- is a question only time and real healing will answer. As with the parable of the weeds and wheat or better maybe, the parable of the soils, we simply can't see or know what the tender green shoots of that heart will grow into; we do not know whether they will be truly nourishing to others or merely weeds, whether they will prove to be rootless or deeply rooted in God. We must let (and assist) them grow to maturity and for that to happen care of all sorts, often including therapy, is necessary.

Meanwhile some will eschew healing (including therapy and spiritual direction) and play at being hermits while their woundedness keeps them psychologically and personally crippled. The "witness" they give to the Transcendent is superficial at best and entirely unconvincing. Others will avoid such pretense but, no less crippled, act out their loss, anger, and pain on the world around them in other ways. And some will seek healing in all the ways it is necessary so that their own witness to the God who transfigures a disedifying and barren isolation into an edifying and fruitful solitude is profoundly convincing and helpful to others.

* One of the most profound and cogent analyses of "the transcendent function" in the human person is Karl Jung's. I am not unaware of this analysis but my focus here is a specifically theistic model or notion of transcendence and experiences of "the Transcendent". In fact, I think the two models, especially with their similar notions of dialogue and teleology are profoundly complementary. Jung's analysis certainly explains the above example of the "music of the universe." Jung himself, while speaking of the unconscious used the words numinous or holy to describe dimensions of the experience of transcendence and "the transcendent function" to describe the dimension of the human person that mediates between conscious and unconscious; I do so in a deliberately and explicitly theological sense to describe the dialogical nature of the "communion with God" whom we know as the authentically human being.