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Pre-Transcendent and Transcendent Presence (Part Two)

June 18, 2012

Our potential for distinctively human presence is realized within the transcendent horizon of our personality.  As we have seen, it can be expressed in three modes of self-transcendence:

  • Self-presence: Self-awareness and self-knowledge. It includes our pre-transcendent levels but is more about being in touch with “what we are going through” in the depths of our being, and with increasing contact with our deeper spiritual identity vs. the functional, or already-known, aspects of our identity. St. Teresa of Avila emphasizes this mode of presence in describing prayer as inclusive of “what we are going through.”

  • Presence to others: This is physical presence and may involve functional skills – parenting, teaching, etc. However, the essential “formative” elements go beyond the physical to include spiritual attunement to and care for the other.

  • Presence to the Mystery: Openness to inspirations, to the call of God to be more. . . This is a call to embody our deepest potential for form-receptivity and self-donation.

     That transcendent presence is the central dimension – i.e. the distinctively human dimension – becomes evident when we consider the affects of experiences of pain, absence and grief, which involve but call us beyond our pre-transcendent fixations.  Human trials inevitably become spiritual or existential in nature, challenging our vital and functional assumptions about our life.  Such trials also join us to the human community, creating spiritual connection through bonds of suffering and empathic communion.

     We grieve on all levels of human embodiment. If we pay attention to our experiences of pain and grief and loss, we may find that we can identify something of each level coming into play, for example, in grief: we grieve for place, for bodily, physical endowment, for ego diminishment. In these words from a review of Joan Didion’s recently-published memoir of loss, John Banville (“NY Times Book Review,” Nov. 3, 2011) observes that

The author as she presents herself here, aging  and baffled, is defenseless against the pain of loss, not only the loss of loved ones but the loss that is yet to come: the loss that is, of selfhood.

Losses in the physical, material realm point inevitably to the inner subjective realms – i.e., to our very sense of selfhood .

     Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, a journal on “scraps of paper” he kept after his mother died in the late 70’s, provides a timely testimony of grief’s power to penetrate to the inner depths of a personality .

Everyone (knows) bereavement’s intensity.  But it’s impossible to measure how much someone is afflicted. (10)

Struck by the abstract nature of absence:  yet it’s so painful, lacerating.  . . . the pain of absence – perhaps therefore love? (42) 

I write my suffering less and less yet it grows all the stronger, shifting to the realm of the eternal. . .  (215)

     Human experiences of suffering and loss refer us to the central dimension of spiritual transcendence.  This is the primary locus of our spiritual life, of prayer, meditation, our deepest reflections, and our relationship to God, or the Mystery.  Simone Weil wrote that “contact with human creatures is given us through the sense of presence.  (But) contact with God is given us through the sense of absence.”  (The Notebooks of Simone Weil, Volume I, p. 239.)  This is why the spiritual traditions view negation as an essential means of inner flourishing.  Absence draws us to the Mystery.  Hence a teaching such as the following from the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing:

Leave aside this everywhere and this everything, in exchange for this nowhere and this nothing. . .  A person’s affection is remarkably changed in the spiritual experience of this nothing when it is achieved nowhere. . . .   (Quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism, p. xix) 

     Our presence is capable of being spiritualized.  Our affections can become transcendent, overcoming prior determination by pre-transcendent motivations.  This “transformation” effectively recreates our presence, even in the midst of absence, pain, and loss.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.