Spiritual Places · Touching Transcendence · Uncategorized

The Search For Transcendence: The Experience of War

37 mm gun crew in battle, Saipan, 1944
37 mm gun crew in battle, Saipan, 1944

In his book What It Is Like To Go To War (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011) Karl Marlantes describes fighting in the Vietnam War and the actions of men he served with. Marlantes steps back to reflect after watching a comrade charge into the heat of battle, seemingly oblivious to the danger.

Why? Who was he doing this for? What is this thing in young men? We were beyond ourselves, beyond politics, beyond good and evil. This was transcendence.

War is transcendent? Marlantes describes how war calls out of warriors qualities that feel mystical: awareness of your inevitable death, concern for others above yourself, feeling part of a community, and focus on the moment.

I’ve had many family members in military service. My dad served in the Army during the Korean War. Aunts, uncles, cousins served; some were “lifers” or married “lifers.” I do not pretend to adequately discuss the sacrifice of our warriors. But can we look at a bigger idea: our desire to touch transcendence. I don’t know if any military recruit enlists for that reason. But once they find themselves in the heat of battle, in the middle of a moral or ethical dilemma, or completing a successful mission, do they experience a moment, a feeling they will never forget? That changes them forever? Is that why loyalty to comrades is so strong and something civilians envy?

But we haven’t paid the price for that moment of transcendence. We haven’t undergone the rigors of training, serving, separation from loved ones, or war. It’s a price often paid with a life.

We want that transcendence too, but look for it in ways that aren’t so costly or fraught with peril. That search seems to be built into every human being.

Do you search for transcendence?

4 thoughts on “The Search For Transcendence: The Experience of War

  1. Nice appreciation of his steps in spiritual experience! It seems that the searching is a key part of dealing with transcendence, often cited by those wondering why the drive to do so is so strong. I like the use of the transcendence term in that context, especially with respect to encounters with death/eternity. It has other contexts and this is a nice summary:www.baylorisr.org/wp-content/uploads/levin_transcendent.pdf

    Marlantes is very good on the need to complete initiation and finish recovery from transcendence. We do owe our returning warriors the recovery and healing he discusses. Two other practitioners have been tilling the field for a long time and write well on it: Edward Tick and John Shay.

  2. Great comments all. I think we can touch transcendence anywhere but we have to be willing to pay the price for it. That “price” might be dumping self consciousness, or taking a risk, or daring to trust. Somehow those special moments let me think I’ve touched transcendence: God.

  3. So interesting! I appreciated your comment, Jo Ann. Is transcendence reachable in the ordinary context of our daily life? I certainly would not jump out of airplanes or go to war with the intent of achieving transcendence. It makes me wonder if the experience of transcendence is achieved in many ways. When reading this I thought about courageous martyrs for their faith–Maximilian Kolbe, for example. What did he experience during the nine days he spent in a cage, waiting for starvation to take his life. How does the experience of transcendence relate to ecstasy, such as that experienced by Teresa of Avila? Is it the same sort of experience as the awareness of God’s presence with us, only heightened because of circumstances?

  4. Perhaps it is true. Perhaps those who go to war experience transcendence—even if they were not consciously looking. However, it seems that many of us do not go to war. We stay home and life happens and…we too experience that moment different from all past moments and we know things will never again be the same. To live without searching is not something I can imagine.

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