Sermon given by Joshua Goulet, May 6, 2018.
As I prepared to write this sermon I wrote the word “transcendence” on my computer. I looked at it for a little while. I couldn't help but be stuck trying to find a way out of the irony: I am supposed to be talking about something which is beyond talking about. I am supposed to be using words to describe something that cannot be described with words. This feels like the ultimate Catch-22.
What is even more amazing is the amount of people who have done this, and succeeded. The list is a little weak, though. Only Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Socrates, Guru Nanak, Baha’u’llah, Rumi, Gandhi, and a few other totally forgettable names. These people all experienced something and couldn’t put it to words perfectly. They found that language failed them. Their drive to share the experience, however, was incredibly strong. This means that they attempt to defy logic and continue to tell others what couldn't be told with words.
Our Unitarian she Universalist forbears discussed something called the “Prophethood and Priesthood of all believers.” This is the belief that no one has a special line to God. No one has the only two-way walkie-talkie. Everyone, so the logic goes, can experience that awe and wonder directly. This is where we get our First Source: “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.” Notice, there is the word again, “transcending.” It is funny how often the word comes up when discussing it. It’s like when I have a young piano student trying to describe what purple looks like to me, a colorblind person. They eventually end up saying something like, “Purple looks like a redish blue or a blueish red. It kinda looks a little like violet, too. Do you know what I mean?”
So, I hate to disappoint you, but I am not going to try and describe the transcendent. However, I am going to tell you how some people have come to know it through: experience, experience of awe and wonder. Listen to the different definitions that Joseph Campbell gives for “transcendence” again. First, he describes transcendence as “to go past something.” This is a pretty standard definition. Nothing too complicated about it. But it doesn’t speak to that deeper feeling we get when we read our first source.
It’s the second definition which really gets me: “that which is beyond all conceptualization.” Being beyond all conceptualization is what many people who believe in God would describe God. There is something interesting lacking from this definition, however. Notice how there is no mention of “God” or an “Ultimate Being.” Transcendence is not something that theists get to claim a monopoly on! While they can claim a slice, agnostics, atheists, and non-theists can certainly understand and experience this as well. So how do these different types of people come to experience the transcendent? They all seem to come down to two things in no particular order: openness and practice.
The UU minister Dennis McCarty is an atheist. He wrote an entire blog post about what transcendence means for atheists. He starts his post with: “The finite human nervous system can only absorb about ten percent of the information around us. The other ninety percent goes unprocessed: unseen, unheard, untasted, untouched, unfelt - unimagined.” McCarty eventually puts forth the idea that “science, experience, poetry...are all ways to help us touch that ninety percent of reality that our nervous system can’t reach…[transcendence] expresses the gift and challenge of exploring beyond the automatic, beyond what we think we already know.”
Rev. McCarty is calling us to a radical openness. An openness which extends to us an invitation to hear, smell, taste, and imagine that which is beyond our capacities. Poetry seems to be a very common way for people to explore this. Joseph Campbell and Rev. McCarty point to poetry in their writings. Poetry is a great way to connect to that which is beyond. Many of us, here, love both writing and reading poetry. Some may even love memorizing it. Poetry, when done right, should not be just a bunch of words on a page. Poetry should allow you to marvel at the words, yes. But with poetry there needs to be something beyond the words. Something else needs to come with them.
If you have ever read mystic poetry there are tons of these catch-22 moments. It was in poems that the great sufis expressed themselves and their encounters with the transcendent. Attar wrote The Conference of the Birds, a massive poem which spans over two hundred pages. Rumi’s Mathnawi comes in several volumes, each over two hundred pages. These poems were the mystics attempting to preserve and pass down their encounters with the transcendent in all of its confusion and catch-22s.
Some of these poems even served as guides for others on their paths to encountering the transcendent. According to sufis, there are different valleys or mountains that have to be traversed in order to reach the ultimate merge with the divine. Attar has seven valleys he outlines in The Conference of the Birds. They are first, the valley of the quest. Second, the valley of love. Third, the valley of understanding. Fourth, the valley of independence and detachment. Fifth, the valley of unity. Sixth, the valley of astonishment and bewilderment. And lastly, the valley of deprivation and death. Each of these valleys describe in poetic and beautiful details what Rev. McCarty discusses. These valleys ask the seeker to perceive the rest of the ninety percent. Attar says that, if this is done right, the perception of what we miss can be overwhelming at first to say the least. In fact, he says that it can be totally disorienting, like a dream which is so real and so amazing that when you wake up only to be just amazed again, you can no longer tell if you are awake or asleep.
This ability is not special to certain people. It is available to all of us. In fact, I am certain that a good amount of us have experienced something like this at some point in our lives. Maybe you were by the ocean, or a lake, or any body of water and you looked out and felt something. It could have been on a mountain top, or in a field. Maybe it was in a city. Perhaps it was the first time you held your child. Maybe even at a funeral service. Or at this church service. This moment felt like it lasted forever and that it was over too quickly. It may feel like you can remember everything and nothing all at once.
I believe that it is possible to trigger that feeling. Rev. McCarty hints to it when he makes it sound so easy: just pay attention to the other ninety percent we are missing! But there is more to that simple sentence. From my experience, to seek contact with the transcendent is different from when the transcendent seeks contact with you. Rev. McCarty is totally correct, though. So how do we get the see the ninety-percent of the painting at the museum that we cannot see? One of the first things we can do is stop trying to take a picture of it. Stop looking up information about the painter on your phone. Stop trying to look at other paintings by the person on your iPad. Don’t even read the blurb right away next to the painting. Simply be in awe of the details. Recognize the brush strokes. Marvel at the colors chosen. Actively give your attention to nothing but the details.
Actively paying attention to details is not easy! Our attention can be sucked away at a moment’s notice, sometimes by things which we think of as good for us. Sufis have been fighting this same problem for centuries. It is written about quite often that a sufi mystic would ask a follower to desecrate their prayer rug with wine. The prayer rug is used every day, five times a day, to pray to God. This is the same God which forbade consumption of alcohol. So why would a sufi willingly pour something which is deemed to be impure onto the rug upon which they are submitting their will to their God? Because the rug got in the way of them finding God. If that rug, if those prayers, become more important than what they are pointing to, they need to be gotten rid of. For the sufi, nothing is more important than finding God, not even God’s commands.
So how do we interact with the world? What do we praise? Do we hold up something in our way to meeting the transcendent? My phone is a wonderful thing and it can bring me so much information all at once. I can learn about almost anything in a second. I can find out what type of tree is next to my car. I can read about the flowers. I can find pictures of it all over its natural habitat. I can look up the animals which live in those trees. I can read about them, see pictures of them, memorize facts about them. But by doing this, am I engaging that ninety-percent? Am I actually looking at the tree? Do I see the details I am reading about? I need to put down my phone, put down my information, and just be in awe. I need to let myself see the tree, hear the wind, feel the warmth, smell the fresh air. I need to simply be present to invite an encounter with the transcendent.
So let us be more open to the world around us. Let us invite the transcendent into our lives. Let us find that ninety percent.