Tussles with Transcendence


“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour”

William Blake

 

‘You have set eternity in the hearts of men…’

Ecclesiastes

Derek writes:

To infinity and beyond…

Believe it or not infinity is a regular subject of conversation in our household. My kids seem to have latched onto the notion and throw it nonchalantly into arguments. One will claim to be a billion, million, squillion times better at something and the other will slap down the trump card of “well I can do it infinity times better than you!’ Not sure they’ve grasped the enormity of the concept but they find it very effective in the playground!

It was certainly an idea that used to fascinate me as a kid. I can remember laying in bed trying to get my head round the thought of travelling endlessly in one direction. What could possibly be beyond the edge of the universe? Was it just empty space going on for, well, infinity?

I still find the immensity of the universe endlessly fascinating. Apparently scientists have recently increased the estimated size of the observable universe about 10 times. It used to be estimated to contain about 200 billion galaxies each containing on average a 100 billion or so stars (and who-knows how many planets, moons, asteroids etc.). Nowadays the estimate is around 2 trillion galaxies. And, of course, the universe is estimated to be around 13.8 billion years old and the furthest things we can see are about 46 billion light years away. Scientists don’t actually know how big the actual universe is, just the observable one. And it could be infinite for all we know…

Homesickness

The concepts of infinity and eternity are not just philosophical conundrums or mathematical hypothesises. There is something deep within the human soul that resonates with these endlessly fascinating mysteries. Even in my everyday life I am often brought up short by a craving for something beyond the bounds of the ordinary and possible. I can be listening to a live performance or walking along a beach at sunset and there is an almost physical ache for the experience never to end. It feels like it oughtn’t to end- it feels wrong that it should. Likewise, I simply adore being out of doors and under a clear blue or clear night sky; I feel that the immensity of space is bearing down upon me and calling me upwards and outwards. No wonder Star Wars and Star Trek have so many devotees: we are made of stardust and something out there is calling us home.

Richard Rohr speaks of the desire for the transcendent as being like a homing device, implanted by the Infinite himself. Rohr says ‘Most of us cannot let go of this implanted promise. Some would call this homing device the soul, some would call it the indwelling Holy Spirit, and some might just call it nostalgia or dreamtime… It feels like grace from within us and at the same time beyond us. The soul lives in such eternally deep time’. Our longing for transcendence draws our attention both inwards and upwards.

Modern man seems to suffer from a deep homesickness or a ‘desirous dissatisfaction’ as Rohr puts it. We will often experience it, so Rohr suggests, as ”loneliness, isolation, longing, sadness, restlessness or even a kind of depression”. I wonder whether much of the angst that permeates our art and culture isn’t, at root, a cosmic dissonance: we have been told that the universe isn’t enchanted and our souls can’t bear it.

Hitting the sublime sweet-spot

Here are some ideas to help bridge the ‘transcendence gap’:

  1. Standing in the middle of infinity.

I owe this idea to Greg Boyd who describes this exercise in his book ‘Present Perfect’. I find myself a comfortable chair in a quiet place and try and become aware of my surroundings and God’s presence. In my imagination I start to picture myself travelling away from the earth, rather like on Google Earth as you zoom out from your postcode. In my mind I see the solar system retreating into the distance and I become aware of the immensity of space and the beauty of endless suns, planets and whole galaxies stretching into the distance. I allow my imagination to roam and be awed by the majesty of God’s creation and that He fills all time and space with his loving presence.

Boyd also encourages us to see ourselves zooming down into the sub-atomic world of the infinitesimally small. This, I find, is not so easy to do as the zooming out. I try to picture the universe of the unimaginably tiny and remind myself that God is gloriously present whether I ascend into the heights or the depths, the immeasurably tiny or the incalculably huge. As Boyd puts it: “The awe-inspiring vastness and small-ness of created reality should be viewed as a symbolic pointer to the even more awe-inspiring magnitude and intensity of God’s love”.

There is a wonderful video (here) on Facebook that tries to capture this journey in a 3-minute clip. Try watching it and using it as a catalyst for this meditation. When we return back to earth our own troubles seem minute, relative to the vastness above and beneath.

  1. Poetry, music and literature.

Poetry can help us connect with the numinous far more intensely than a philosophical treatise or scientific theory. I love trying to get my head around the paradoxes of quantum theory or the conundrums of space-time but it doesn’t hit the soul-spot like these lines by Henry Vaughan:

I saw Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright;

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,

Driv’n by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.’

And great music isn’t really about relaxation or entertainment. Its source is from ‘out of this world’ and its impact should take us back to that cosmic Home. I want music that lifts me into the heavens and brings me trembling with joy and awe before, what Rudolf Otto called, the ‘mysterium tremendum’.

There is also an unbridgeable chasm between a good book and a truly great one. Before I had kids I would read about 30-40 books a year. Nowadays it’s nearer 10-20 but I am always looking for books that do more than entertain, inform, or impress with great writing or even profound insight. Truly great books are rare because deep spiritual reality can only be passed on first hand: an author can’t lift the reader to a height he hasn’t himself been lifted to. Even imaginative genius can’t do the work that only the Infinite Spirit can perform. “Deep calls to deep” is how the Psalmist expresses it.

We all have a unique divine imprint, so each of us will resonate with different books and different authors. For myself my faith came alive thanks to C.S. Lewis, and his poetical and mystical bent still has the mojo to connect me with the sublime. Novelists like Tolstoy, Hugo, Tolkien and Dostoyevsky to name a few all seem uniquely gifted to elevate me from South West London to the ‘sanctum sanctorum’, the Holy of Holies. I also find that spiritual writers such as Richard Rohr, Agnes Sanford and Henri Nouwen have travelled ‘far beyond the sun’ and I get the hankering, when I read them, to follow in their steps.

3. Worship

If you were wondering why you’re on the planet then here is the place to start. William Temple provides the classic definition:

“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

There are two soul cravings that follow us from cradle to grave: the longings for both transcendence and imminence, for the infinite and the intimate. The paradox is resolved supremely in the act of worship. “The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms” says the writer of Deuteronomy: we are held in an eternal embrace and we feel it most acutely in an act of single-minded abandonment to, what Francis Thompson, refers to as our ‘tremendous lover’. In worship what we believe in our hearts and give assent to in our heads becomes a transformative experience felt deep down in our ‘inmost being’.

4. Nature

Being both a modern and a city dweller I seldom experience nature with the immediacy that our not-very-distant ancestors would have done. Our comfortable homes, our snug cars and our light-drenched cities all insulate us from almost any hint of the awesome or overwhelming. If our forebears of a few generations ago stepped outside at night it would be into immediate darkness with their eyes drawn upwards towards the only light available of moon and countless stars. Whether inside or outside the home the elements couldn’t be shut out; fire, ice, wind, rain and sweltering heat would be regular reminders of our fragility and vulnerability before the irresistible elemental powers. There is an existential thrill in being submerged in un-tamed nature whether it is a howling gale, a blinding snowstorm or the preternatural darkness of a moonless night. It reminds us of our mortality and of the sheer other-ness of creation.

In scripture the Holy Spirit is often depicted as raging wind, consuming fire, an intense light or rivers of living water. To be submerged in the vital elements of nature is akin to being dipped in the Eternal Spirit himself. If we are heeding, it can become a taste of the transcendent.

Finding our way home

 Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, once said: “I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.”

Most of us experience some degree of what Rohr describes as ”loneliness, isolation, longing, sadness…even depression.”. Almost by reflex our culture supposes that all we need is another holiday, a more meaningful relationship, more sex, another drink, a social media fix, a trip to the shops or almost anything that we can pay for, attend a course on or search for online. What we so often need however, as Jung suggests, is to become quiet long enough to hear the deep cry of our souls which longs to return to its timeless, undying home in the arms of the ‘Everlasting Father”.