Transcendence – The Virtue
Transcendence is one of the many mysterious attributes of God. The Catholic Catechism teaches: “We must purify our language … if we are not to confuse our image of God — the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable, the transcendent — with human representations. Human words always fall short of the mystery of God.”(CCC 42)
How can we understand transcendence — one of God’s attributes — as a human virtue? The virtues are part and parcel of God’s attributes. They originate with God — and are perfectly carried out by Him. We can only hope to imitate God in this life — albeit imperfectly. But try we must! And so, we strive to put on virtue in order to love better, to be good, to act with mercy and forgiveness and more. Transcendence is one of these less-well-known virtues.
Transcendence should be understood as our ability to recognize and realize that the source of everything we desire and yearn for in this life and the next (authentic goodness, beauty, love, being home, and truth] comes from outside of ourselves. And that outside Source [of everything we yearn for) is God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is closely associated with the theological virtue of Faith.
Others define transcendence this way. It is “the possibility of existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level.” Synonyms for transcendence include excellence, supremacy, and magnificence. That definition or its synonyms are not helpful in any discussion of the virtue of transcendence for obvious reasons. The definition infers that God’s existence is a mere possibility. Faith and reason tell us that God is not a possibility — He is a reality while acknowledging that He remains a mystery.
Why is transcendence attractive to us? We naturally yearn to know the Source of all that is good. We also yearn for God’s perfect goodness, justice, beauty, love, being and truth — here and now! However, the effects of original sin have partially blinded our hearts, minds and wills to God and His laws and so we end up being disappointed or let down by our own sins, choices and behaviors and those of other people as well. And so we yearn for more because we innately know that more is possible!
Accepting our human imperfections should not give us excuse to give up on virtue or to act even more imperfectly. That path only leads to more unhappiness, loneliness, wounded-ness and short-sightedness. It dissuades us from putting on the virtue that purifies our understanding about God. St. Paul writes in a letter to the Romans, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law [God’s] is good.” (Romans 7:15-25)
The virtue of transcendence helps us to understand that we are completely dependent on God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. St Paul continues (in the letter to the Romans and us) with this: “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.” Paul draws on the virtue of transcendence to acknowledge his theological and philosophical points. Paul clearly realizes that he needs God. Paul understands that God is the only legitimate Source of all possibilities capable of satisfying his yearnings and desires. Only God can know what is hidden within each of us. Why? Because He made us in His image and likeness! And because of that we naturally yearn for our original state at home with God.
Let’s think about these matters on a natural level. Parents readily identify with their children in part because they are genetic copies of ourselves — for better or worse. They are also like us because of the way we raise them, love them, and share our lives with them. We get their yearnings, desires, personalities, and even their outbursts and disobedient streaks because of these shared experiences and genes. We were like them once upon a time!
And, so it is between us and God. Not one of us had the power to call ourselves into being – He did that. Not one of us could have asked for the genetic pool – He gave us that. Not one of us had the power to breathe life into us – He did that freely and lovingly. We are made in His image and likeness and that is why we yearn for perfect justice, goodness, beauty, love, truth, and being one with Him. That is our rightful heritage. That is who we are. This present life is just a foretaste of what is to come.
Transcendence helps us to reflect on the mysteries of God and our relationship with Him with open minds, hearts, wills, and intellects. Transcendence helps us look forward to the time of perfect happiness while being rightly dependent on God now.
Different arguments, psychologies, and philosophies have arisen out of arguments and philosophies that discredit God as the Source of our being, and yearnings and happiness. They teach that discovery of self comes from and by oneself. They teach that God remains detached, aloof, disinterested and indifferent to mankind. Or doesn’t even exist. This is all contrary to Catholic theology and illogical. What loving parent acts aloof, disinterested, and indifferent to the children they co-create? Why create human beings if God cares less about what happens to them?
The virtue of transcendence allows us to see through these phony arguments and heresies. If not, we will pay a steep, personal price. “I am the Lord your God; you shall not have any other gods before me.” And so, our Church urges us to avoid practices that trade in the virtue of transcendence for secular-based transcendentalism, transcendental meditation, self-centering yoga, paranormal activities or visioning, séances, man-centered meditation, and psychedelic experiences. None of these faulty forms of spirituality will get us to authentic transcendence.
St. Augustine captures the virtue of transcendence as he wrote this love poem to God.
Late have I loved you,
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
And upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong — I misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you
those things which would have no being
Were they not in you?
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped and I pant for you
I tasted you and I hunger and thirst
You touched me and I burned for your peace.
You have already learned that a virtue fully supports and promotes other virtues; they do not override or conflict with each other. Specific virtues are the most effective antidotes to vice. For instance, transcendence fights off transcendentalism. Virtues are part and parcel of God’s purview. Think about the ways that the different virtues (and vices) are inter-related and help us! The human virtues are naturally grouped under the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Love); the four Cardinal Virtues (Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence and Justice)] and the Seven Gifts of Virtue from the Holy Spirit including Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge Counsel, Courage, Fear of the Lord, and Piety.
In my opinion, transcendence (a human virtue) is a direct descendent of the theological virtue of Faith, the cardinal Virtue of Fortitude, and the Holy Spirit’s gift of Wisdom or Knowledge.You are probably familiar with the Periodic Table for Elements (from chemistry classes) which organizes the 118 elements known to scientists! When planning this article, I hoped to create a Periodic Table of Virtues that would imitate the purpose and form of the Table of Elements.
Guess what? A Table of Virtues had already been designed! “Father Fred Galgia, a biologist who taught science to young people for many years, has written a new book bridging science and faith entitled, “Periodic Chart of Virtuous Living for Teens: One Element at a Time” (Outskirts Press, $14.95). In the book, the retired priest seeks to build on students’ interest in science and the periodic table of elements to draw them deeper into the spiritual life.”
How many human virtues are there? Experts disagree about the exact number but suggest that there are between 64 and 121 virtues — depending on the source. It will be interesting to see how many virtues are included in Father Galgia’s Table of Virtues. While the exact number of virtues seems elusive, at least we know they have better names than those assigned to the 118 elements found in the Periodic Table of Elements. (Element 118 bears two names: Ununoctium and Oganesson!)
“Virtuosity is one’s habitual and firm disposition to do good. Virtues allow us to perform good acts and to give the best of self to others. The virtuous person tends to do, say, and act toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers. The virtuous person pursues and chooses the good in concrete ways. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (CCC 1803)
Let’s make the study and the practice of the virtuous life our number one Lenten Resolution this Season. My you all have a blessed Lent.
Questions to ponder
- What is transcendence?
- Were you surprised to read that self-centering yoga is problematic? Do you know why?
- We are obliged to give rightful praise only to God our Creator. What does that look like to you?
- Teach your children about transcendence — the ability to give God our undivided hearts, minds and souls.
- If you want to learn more about transcendence and happiness, study the series entitled Happiness (also a book) by Fr. Robert Spitzer.
- Consider ordering the book by Father Galgia.
Copyright 2018 Linda Kracht