The Vision of Transcendence


 My experience is that if in some way I fail to connect with the Highest, with the Ultimate, with God, that if I begin to drift away from a sense of communion with Him, that something of a downward spiral begins. 

 And I don’t like it. I don’t like the sense of separation. The loss of vitality. The loss of enthusiasm. It feels like a terrible loss.

 Left with a sort of sluggish feeling, I cannot stand it for long and make efforts to come back home. Back home to myself. Back home to God.

 That is for me, how it goes, or the way things go. I am either ascending towards the Highest, or beginning a descent into lower regions.

 I often meet people who cannot identify with either the language of ascent or descent. Theirs is a less precise language, reflecting perhaps an inner condition of agnosticism, which amounts to, I think, some kind of attempt not to have to choose. 

 But my sense about this is that the agnosticism is actually a choice as well. It is a choice to inhabit the grey zone, a sort of nebulous state . 

 And I think that trying to remain on the fence in this way leads inevitably downwards. 

 For the fact is that there is no inspiration in the agnostic state. You are undecided and merely drifting. And if drifting, you will eventually be found somewhere downstream.  

 Isn’t this what truly happens all the time? 

 Perhaps, for example, there was a dream and determination early in your life to to go for the Highest, but, alas, the years have passed, and you have become a friend of shabbiness.

 You once had high ideals but have now settled for lower ones. You’ve become, in other words, passive and tolerant, having now fully conformed to the mediocre spirit of the age.

 You now act in accordance with the spirit of the age, accepting its soul sapping norms of behaviour. 

 Now when I speak about going for the Highest, for the Absolute, I am talking about heading towards an experience which we were made for.

 Which is that were made to be in relation to the Absolute.

 If we fail to find and affirm that relationship, the chances are very good, that we will make an absolute out of some lesser god.

 For nature abhors a vacuum, as does your heart.

 We will find some way to fill up the gnawing sense of emptiness. For we need to feel that our life is about something.

 The crucial question is whether one’s life is about the pursuit of the Highest, or about something less worthy?

 Now if we are in relation to the Highest, we will know the experience of what I have elsewhere called the great shattering. Which is that life transforming experience of when your ego is pulverized by the power of grace, as in the experience of the meditation master, Gurumayi.

 Gurumayi writes of when she found a sense of meaning through identifying with images of herself seen in a thousand mirrors. (Gurumayi Chidvilasanda, Ashes at my Guru’s Feet)

 But then grace struck, and one by one the thousand mirrors, her thousand  points of identification, were smashed. Until only one mirror remained.

 The one remaining mirror was that mirror of herself that had to do with her identification with herself as an ego consisting of its multiple demands. A posture of defiance.

 But grace won out and that last point of identification was purged. Gurumayi, then as a young woman became a fully transparent channel of grace. No ego remained to block the Divine force.

 The effect of being in a relation with the Divine, with the Absolute, is to find that one is now in a posture of humility before Reality. 

 You are now on your knees instead of defiantly raising your fists towards heaven.

 Gurumayi's experience parallels that of other seekers who have finally said to themselves, enough is enough - enough of passively drifting along. Enough of being a nowhere man or woman.

 The journey begins with a confession: ‘I know that my life has been descending into the lower regions. I am now determined to ascend towards God, towards the Highest, towards the Absolute.’ 

 Determined to ascend to the Highest, one then begins to take in philosophies, psychologies and activities that are elevating instead of disfiguring.

 Now on the upward path, you begin to look for sources of inspiration, such as St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." Philipppians 4:8

 With a new resolve, you think about such things, filling your life up with the contemplation of what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable.

 Increasingly filled up with what you have been contemplating, you then make a habit of rejecting those things that you know will take you down.

 You begin to practice a kind of blessed intolerance for any possible obstacles to spiritual realization.

 So, for example, for this year’s vacation you decide to head for the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane Monastery, in Kentucky, instead of Vegas! 

 "Every year, thousands of people travel, as I did recently, to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a monastery set in the rolling hills of Kentucky, and here’s the key to their motivation - to immerse themselves in a world wholly at odds with modern life.” (Emily Esfahani Smith, Fetters and Freedom - On Thomas Merton’s Vision of Transcendence through Faith, The New Criterion, October, 2016)

 By making such a journey, you are countering the culture by immersing yourself in a world wholly at odds with modern life.

 Which is to be drawn to “a life defined by silence, constraint, and meditation."

 Your new life is being defined by silence, constraint and meditation.

 You are becoming a radical who will be understood by almost nobody.

 In time, if you do well, you will become unrecognizeable to your peers, a great accomplishment.

 Instead of a lifestyle that merely replicates the various grunting sounds of the herd, you are living your life on another level entirely. 

 This is the quality of life that Thomas Merton chose after failing to find satisfaction in his various experiments. As Merton himself put it, “I became the complete twentieth-century man.” In other words, completely lost and confused.

 Merton, the complete twentieth century man,"fancied himself an intellectual and acted like it. In college, he dabbled in Communism, became a pacifist, wrote for literary publications, flirted with a lot of women, drank a lot of alcohol, and read a lot of D. H. Lawrence. But his freewheeling lifestyle failed to bring him fulfillment." 

 As Merton wrote: “If what most people take for granted were really true—if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now.”

 The reality was that Merton had become "a shallow young man with an inner life that was a mess of raging appetites and desires.” 

 This state, I am glad to report, did not continue, for "Merton felt the pull of a countervailing force to his libertinism.

 The transformation began with some kind of "transcendent experience” - a vision of transcendence. 

 And in the light of that vision, Merton now recognized his sorry state: “He was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul.”

 "He prayed to God to help free him from “the thousand terrible things that held my will in their slavery.” 

 Merton, too, like Gurumayi, could think of a thousand things that kept him from spiritual realization. And like Gurumaryi, when the thousand fetters were abandoned, freedom took their place.

 In time Merton would use his literary gifts to define "contemplation as an awareness of the Divine. Its province extended beyond the practice of religious ritual to saturate the course of everyday life."

 In his own way, George Harrison of the Beatles as well joined that band of brothers and sisters who decide to embark on the spiritual path. 

 For George it had to do with finally seeing through the emptiness of the  mania that he had helped to create and lived in. 

 As when, for example, he experienced at first hand what was actually going on at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, reputed to be where thousands were experiencing enlightenment. 

 As reported by Harrison’s first wife, Patty Boyd: "We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be special, a creative and artistic place, filled with Beautiful People, but it was horrible - full of ghastly drop-outs, bums and spotty youth, all out of their brains.” 

 Haight-Ashbury was more like a gutter of human depravity than anything else.

 As Patty Boyd writes in Wonderful Tonight"Everybody looked stoned - even mothers and babies.”

 George Harrison and company got out of that deadly sewer fast.

 In the last interview before his death, George Harrison reflects that he had attained everything the world had to offer and it meant nothing to him. He had had quite enough of the mania.

 His salvation was related to the discovery of the pure music of an Eastern Indian, holy man, Ravi Shankar, who has been described as the Eastern equivalent of Mozart.

 “Nobody," George exclaimed, "ever impressed me until I met Ravi Shankar."  Mr. Shankar, was the “first person who ever impressed me in my life.” (When Ravi Shankar met George Harrison, Margherita Stancati, The Wall Street Journal)

 George Harrison describes his breakthrough into spiritual life in this way: "During the days when there was the mania, the Beatlemania, well I got involved with the records, you know I bought some of Ravi’s records, and I listened, and although my intellect didn’t really know what was happening, or didn’t know much about the music, just the pure sound of it and what it was playing, it just appealed to me so much.

 It hit a spot in me very deep, and it was, you know I just recognized it somehow.” 

 Harrison in that final interview then quoted from Bob Dylan who once said, “he not busy being born, is busy dying.”

 George, tired of dying, opened the door towards a spiritual life.

 The inspired music of a holy man had hit the spot and changed everything for George Harrison.

 As Ravi Shankar says about that approach that so deeply impacted Harrison: "I try to give my music the spiritual quality, very deep in the soul, which does something even if you are not realizing it or analyzing it - that’s the duty of the music.” (Ravi Shankar)

 The experiences of Gurumayi, Thomas Merton and George Harrison have in common that vision of transcendence which has more precisely been called the experience of esthetic arrest.

 The state of esthetic arrest is a state of pure contemplation. It is a state of awe when the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing. It is a level of feeling that is beyond mere feelings or emotions. 

 Such a vision of transcendence, the pure state of contemplation, esthetic arrest, is the possible experience of those who choose to seek the Highest and reject the many lower options.

 For we are not "like cockroaches,” according to Richard Dawkins “who sprang spontaneously and meaninglessly, by sheer chance.

 No. We came from God. We were meant to exist in relationship to the Divine. 

 The realization of God, the vision of transcendence, will set us free.

thomas merton 2

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