Traces of The Transcendent

C.S. Lewis described it as a “stab of Joy.” A rabbi friend calls it the “burning bush” and a priest colleague speaks about it in terms of a “4-o’clock-in-the-afternoon” moment. For me, it was a song.

In my previous column, I talked about the frequent encounters I’ve had with people who are disillusioned in their faith lives because their conception of God as children wasn’t able to grow up with them and was no longer relevant as adults. When those encounters go deeper, I often find the hurdle to belief has more to do with imagination than information. I believe that all of us have experiences of transcendence during our lives, the challenge is figuring out how to pay attention and make sense of them.

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In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his journey from atheism to Christianity as a growing understanding of the brief glimpses of clarity or “Joy” he’d experienced throughout his life. “Joy was not a deception. Its visitations were rather the moments of clearest consciousness we had, when we became aware of our fragmentary and phantasmal nature and ached for that impossible reunion…”

In John’s Gospel, Andrew and John first encounter Jesus who inquires “What are you looking for?” When they ask where he is staying, Jesus says “Come, and you will see.” The episode ends with the line “It was about four in the afternoon.”

“Why the heck did the Gospel writer include that last, seemingly pointless, detail?” Fr. John Collins, a Paulist mission priest, asked an upstate New York congregation a few years ago. “What happened at four o’clock in the afternoon that was so important?” After several parishioners offered up guesses about Jewish law or cultural norms, a retired state trooper raised his hand. “I know what happened at 4 in the afternoon” he said. “They fell in love.” Nodding to his wife who was sitting next to him, he continued, “I can remember every detail from 35 years ago about meeting my wife. What time it was, what she wore, what the weather was like. The disciples’ first encounter with Jesus was when their lives changed forever. You remember the details of an event like that.”

Rabbi Dan Ain, founder of the Brooklyn-based “Because Jewish,” cites rabbinic commentary on Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. Moses says, “‘I must turn aside to look at this remarkable sight. Why does the bush not burn up?’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called out to him from the bush: Moses! Moses! He answered, ‘Here I am.’” It is only when Moses decides to stop and pay attention that God calls out to him. His openness and awareness enables God to connect with him.

“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God,” Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I., told me, quoting an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. “But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” It is this ability to pay attention and see—not one’s intellect or level of study—that separates the blackberry pickers from those who recognize they are on sacred ground.

The notion that our experiences can be a window into the mind and heart of God has roots that are Gospel deep. “Jesus chided his generation for not ‘reading the signs of the times,’” says Father Rolheiser. “John of the Cross would recast that into this dictum: ‘The language of God is the experience God writes into our lives.’” For Father Rolheiser, meeting God through our experience is what makes belief coherent. “Scriptural and church teachings only have meaning insofar as they relate existentially to our own experience. There is no sense telling people: ‘Here’s an answer, now go find the question!’”

One of my own clarifying questions came as a music-obsessed 15 year old when an English teacher introduced our class to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The power of the singer and the song stunned me and set me on a journey that continues today. It eventually led me to the conviction that, though I was raised Catholic, my first experience of truth came through music. Music was a trace of the transcendent that suggested that truth existed and was real. It was enough to help me see that I too was standing on sacred ground and needed to take my shoes off. 

A slightly different version of this column appeared in the March 7 print magazine. 

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Bruce Snowden
1 year 11 months ago
The language of God,” the transcendental, is written everywhere, even on a sign of a highway Fast Food place. Once listening to a conversion story of a professor struggling with conversion to the Catholic Faith, as he sped along , he passed a Popeyes sign. The Sign said to him, POPE YES! He became Catholic! Truly “everything is Grace” and as God is everywhere, so is his Grace in unexpected ways and places.
William Rydberg
1 year 11 months ago
Good one!
Bill McGarvey
1 year 11 months ago

That's hilarious, Bruce. Thanks for adding it...

Shayne LaBudda
1 year 11 months ago
Plough has a 2001 Advent publication, Watch for the Light. It includes a poem by Sylvia Plath, Black Rook in Rainy Weather, which captures very well for me the transcendent opportunities around us that we often fail to grasp.
Bill McGarvey
1 year 11 months ago

I wasn't aware of the poem, Shayne, so I went and looked it up. Here's a link to Plath reading it herself on YouTube:

https://youtu.be/LioRmN7u2iU

Really beautiful stuff, many thanks for sharing it. B

Barbara Sirovatka
1 year 11 months ago
My favorite lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning - thank you! And thank you for the link to Sylvia Plath. What a beautiful complement to your column.
Bill McGarvey
1 year 10 months ago

Apologies for my late repy Barbara, I was out of the country for a few weeks. Many thanks for your comment. It really is a beautiful quote. Bill

Richard Currie
1 year 10 months ago
Just now catching up, via the print edition, so I don't know if you'll see this, but I have to thank you so much, Bill! Your reflection on experiencing the divine, especially your sharing of Fr. Collins' story of the state trooper, the apostles, falling in love with Jesus touched me in SO many ways at SO many levels! Yes, I too can remember the exact circumstances of meeting my wife (nearly 50 years ago) & falling in love (though it took this wide-eyed teenager years to understand and verbalize that!). But I can also vividly see the sunlit speckles on the river aside the retreat house at which my wife & I were "weekending" (nearly 20 years ago) to discern my vocation to the diaconate. Your reflection is awakening the depths of that experience (we can be wide-eyed teenagers at all ages, can't we!); that afternoon, sitting on the banks of the river, watching the sun-sparkles on the water, I could feel the invitation, I could easily say "yes" to something I would commit to "doing" & "being" -- but in hindsight, that was the day I fell in love with Him (in response to his love of me first)! This insight will be prayer-fodder for many a day to come! Thank you! PS. as a high school graduate in '68, I am right there with you on the power (singer & song) of "Like a Rolling Stone" & other early Dylan classics. :^) Thank you, and Happy Easter!
Bill McGarvey
1 year 10 months ago

Many thanks for sharing your own experiences here, Richard. I'm glad the column resonated so much with you. Jack Collins story about his encounter with that trooper has stayed with me for years. Many thanks again for responding and offering some of your own traces of transcendence.

Bill

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