The theme for May at All Souls is transcendence. The word comes from the Latin roots of “trans” meaning across, beyond, or on the other side and “scandare” meaning to climb. In modern English, transcendent refers to something beyond or above everyday physical experience. When I was a child, I associated transcendence with God and spirituality. I remember believing that although God is immanent, God also transcends this world and that my soul, like God, would survive my body and go beyond this world after I died.
But my views of God have changed dramatically since I was young. In fact, my perspective has become a bit more Earth-bound. I no longer believe in a deity in the sky that is transcendent. And I am not quite certain about the existence of a soul, spirit, or essence that exists without a body. That idea seems to contradict the reality of my lived experience as well as science. Such contradictions keep me from finding comfort in the idea that someday my soul will transcend all the suffering of life on Earth and return to my true home in heaven.
Notwithstanding my changing views, I still believe in the possibility of transcendence. What has changed is my understanding of transcendence in the context of my life. Like everyone, I have experienced sorrow and pain, both emotional and physical. I have had moments of doubt and anxiety over the future. Anger usually accompanies these emotions. During these times, I feel constricted and confined, like I am being pressed down with a great weight. I want to break free of these feelings. I want to get out of my head and shed my skin to transcend the current moment. Yet, the more I want to escape, the more I suffer.
Sitting in the Pit
My work as an intern chaplain taught me, however, that when it comes to suffering, “the only way out is through,” in the words of poet Robert Frost. One of my peers would often encourage me to “sit in the pit” with patients and family. He was referring to the Book of Job where the friends of Job gather around him after he has lost his home and family. They don’t do anything initially except to sit with him in the dust as he wails over his misfortunes. It’s an apt analogy not only for chaplains, but for any of us dealing with loss or those who are facing loss.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of “cooking one’s anger” which captures this idea of sitting in the pit. By that phrase he means that we need to sit with our anger, to focus upon it, and to be present with it. Through this process, we become aware of the causes of the emotion. In the warmth of our mindfulness, the anger softens like boiling potatoes and is ultimately transformed into compassion. Ultimately, it is through compassion that we are able to transcend ourselves and connect with something greater.
Strangely, I feel the most alive in times of pain. As I sit in the pit of my emotions, I become aware of the extraordinary gift of my body. Without it I could not feel anything, not even joy. Indeed, suffering is the flip side of joy, and the only way to transcend the suffering and cross over to joy is by going through the pain.
The beauty of this practice is that transcendence is always available. I don’t need to wait until death to transcend the suffering of life. Robert Frost was correct: “The only way out is through.”
Karyn Bergman Marsh is All Soul’s intern minister for 2020-2021. Since 2008, Karyn has been an active member and leader of Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, in Maryland, where she’s served many roles including the Membership Committee Chair, Bylaws Committee Chair, Lay Worship Associate, Board Secretary and Trustee. Raised Catholic, Karyn found Unitarian Universalism in her 20s. Prior to seminary, she was an attorney and geologist specializing in environmental restoration, both of which influence her theology. Karyn’s final day with us is May 31, 2021. Learn more about Karyn in this post.