The Problem with Transcendence

I’ve been to the mountaintop.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The Mountaintop is an Illusion

Joy is an experience of connection, communion, presence, and grace within the ordinariness of our daily experience. Yet, paradoxically, joy is also found in moments of great suffering. Meg Wheatley, a spiritual writer and change consultant with an acute eye to the paradoxical nature of our contemporary experience notes that it is in pursuit of happiness that we estrange ourselves from joy.

She speaks of joy being the same as sadness for both states embrace us with an energy that is beyond the physical. Laughing or crying – it doesn’t matter. This strikes us as paradoxical. We might doubt the truth of the statement until we realize that joy and sadness are both states of self-transcendence. Both open us to a level of experience that takes us beyond the tyranny of the preoccupied self – the self that is preoccupied with itself, confined within a state of profound disenchantment.

Faced with a birth, a wedding, an anniversary – we are captivated by joy. In the face of sickness, a death, a disaster, a tragedy of personal or epic proportions, sorrow and sadness capture us as we suffer with, console, and love one another.

We have two stories of mountaintop experience in the readings for the last Sunday before Lent. These are stories of transcendent – or to use Maslow’s term, peak experience. Peak experience is problematic. The spatial image of the mountain summit works in some ways for us, yet, it feeds an assumption that it’s only there that self-transcendent experiences such as joy can be found. Under this illusion we will miss the more ordinary and everyday places where true joy is – by chance – encountered.

The image of the mountain top is an image of an encounter with God that ordinarily feels so out of our reach. However, it’s not altitude that separates us from a life-enhancing encounter with the living God, but a dogged refusal to let go of the self’s preoccupation with itself. Transcendent experiences are not found by climbing mountains but in experiences like joy and sadness – ordinary everyday experiences that take us beyond our disillusioned or disenchanted selves into here and now experiences of self-transcendence.

The Mountaintop is a place of concealment

The image of the mountaintop is a place concealed in thick cloud. What comes to be known there cannot be spoken about. On the mountaintop Peter, James, and John experience an epiphany of Jesus clothed in his divinity as the Christ. This is a fleeting experience, no sooner glimpsed than it is gone – forever eluding their desire to capture and contain it. Then the disciples must negotiate the even more perilous path down the mountain carrying the experience. They must carry the remembrance of what they have seen and yet, at the same time, practice a kind of forgetting. We can’t pursue self-transcendence. We need to forget about it and only then, through experiences like joy and suffering, self-transcendence finds us.

The Mountaintop and the contemporary imagination

Events on the mount of the Transfiguration are only at a midpoint in the gospel narrative. After the Transfiguration, Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem and the hard road to his Passion. It seems that in the spiritual life peak experience is only a means to, and not an end in itself.

As they were coming down the mountain Jesus ordered them, “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”.

Today we do not look for God in material space-time. The acceptance by past generations, whose enchantment shaped expectations of encountering God in material objects and places is now firmly rejected by most of us as superstition. Nevertheless, the question is not does a separate spiritual dimension still exist for the modern imagination, but where and how does it exist for the modern mind, mired in a state of disenchantment?

Spatial references to up and down don’t work in the same way for us. For us, God no longer inhabits the mountaintop. Heaven is no longer imagined as up there, or not-heaven down below. Yet, the metaphors of in and out do work for us. For a modern imagination, the spiritual realm is best conceived of as a parallel dimension that interpenetrates with our experience in space-time.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d been to the mountaintop, no one assumed he had actually climbed a mountain. The mountaintop now becomes the metaphor for the possibility of a different order of experience, one that challenges our acceptance of the absence of the spiritual – in lives given over to a preoccupation with our small self.

Our God is no longer the Hebrew God who inhabits mountaintops and sacred places, who is physically present in climate events – flood and drought, wind and fire. We no longer look for God on the physical mountaintop in quite the same way as our Biblical ancestors did, because we now must look within where we discover God emotionally and experientially available to us.

The Mountaintop as paradox

The paradox is that while we reject enchantment as superstition, no generation craves with greater intensity a desire of self-transcendence than we do. Magical realism, heroic superhuman sagas abound in Hollywood’s works. Opioids, marketed as a solution for physical pain establish a hold on society as a solution to the increasing levels of our spiritual pain.

Meg Wheatley speaks of joy as an example of a transcendent experience because joy is able to encompass both delight and sadness. Joy is not happiness, which is a very one-sided experience. Happiness is easily destroyed because it is the product of self-preoccupation. Joy radiates outwards, opening new pathways for interconnection and relief from self-preoccupation.

So here is the clue. For us today, transcendence is found in the web of interconnectedness with one another. God inhabits the relational spaces between us as well as the internal spaces of the heart -mind-spirit connection. We transcend the limited confines of self not into the emptiness of bliss, but into the joy of being fully present for one another. Wheatley quotes from the great 19th-century Bengali poet and spiritual teacher, Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

Rabindranath Tagore

The Transfiguration story is a halfway point in Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus. It marks the transition point from his preaching and teaching in the Galilean countryside to his final and eventful journey to Jerusalem.

The Visit of the Magi and the Transfiguration bookend the Epiphany season. From here on, we move into a different section of the spiritual journey. The landscape becomes rocky and desert-like as we journey down the mountain into the Lent of our lives.

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