In a recent scientific study,1 Dollahite and colleagues aimed to explore how sacred, religious experiences can lead to stronger family relationships. Specifically, these researchers wanted to know how transcendent religious experiences during times of adversity can positively impact personal relationships within a family setting.
There are two core terms to understand. The first term, transcendent religious experiences, refers to moments where an individual experiences a “deepened sense of joy, peace, comfort, insight, harmony, purity, or purpose.” Transcendent experiences are associated with God and consequently spark a deeper desire for personal and religious growth. Experiences can include practice like prayer and religious study. The second term, relationship-enhancing religious experiences, are religious experiences that lead to a change in individual thinking, feeling, or acting towards loved ones. Using these terms, the researchers examined how such experiences can change an individual's understanding, feelings, actions, and ability to connect with loved ones during times of hardship.
After analyzing interview responses from 198 families, the researchers discovered four ways that these transcendent experiences benefited individuals and families.
1. Provided Relational Meaning: Interviewees reported that transcendent experiences amidst hardship gave them “increased awareness of the sacred nature of family relationships.” That is, after experiencing transcendence, individuals saw relationships with their loved ones as having a higher, more dedicated, and holy purpose. Individuals were able to draw closer to God and view their families in a divine perspective.
2. Increased Relational Depth: Not only did participants report that transcendent experiences increased the meaning of their relationships, but they also reported that the experiences deepened their relationships. The interviews of many participants revealed that when experiencing adversity, transcendent experiences helped strengthen relationships with their spouses, their children, and God. Participants felt more unified in their relationships, closer to their loved ones, and connected on a deeper level.
3. Healed Relational Hurt: Transcendent experiences helped participants to forgive loved ones that had once caused them pain or sorrow. Additionally, these religious experiences helped individuals recognize their own wrongdoings and areas of their life where they could improve. Because of these sacred experiences, participants were able to self-reflect, find humility, and admit their own relational shortcomings.
4. Encouraged Relational Action: Lastly, participants reported that transcendent experiences during adversity helped them to take “specific actions in their relationship” and make life decisions that would best serve their families. Likewise, some individuals experienced divine inspiration, feelings of new knowledge or guidance from God, leading them to spend increased amounts of time with certain loved ones, end relationships with others, and, in one instance, pursue a new relationship.
Usually, the findings sections of academic articles are pretty boring and too complicated for a non-academic to understand. However, this study was interview-based, and the findings section is full of amazing quotes from real people about their sacred experiences and how they impacted their family relationships for good. We recommend reading the “Findings” section here.
In addition to leaning in to your own religious practices and experiences, here are 3 other ways that may help you have a transcendent experience of your own and feel the benefits that come with such experiences:
Try experimenting with yoga and meditation. These practices offer a form of transcendence that does not necessarily involve religion, allowing you to alleviate stress, achieve mental serenity, and become grounded in the present. Personal moments during yoga and meditation may also become transcendent; greater clarity, increased desire for a goal, and improved confidence or guidance may come and help you find a more positive perception amidst hard times.
Consider meeting with a clinical psychologist or therapist who can help you work through current crises. Mental health professionals often incorporate spirituality into their practice, as it can be a very beneficial tool for clients while they navigate traumatic experiences. Many social workers and certified counselors have the ability to help clients recognize the positive changes and relational healing that can stem from adversity, bringing a sense of clarity similar to that of transcendent experiences. In addition to this, health professionals can help patients make sense of their own transcendent experiences and act as a guide when it comes to interpreting them.
Find a safe space and help create safe spaces for others. Too often, individuals are afraid to speak about their traumatic and transcendent experiences, in fear of being judged or dismissed. A safe space to share, or a safe person/group of people to share your experiences with, is a key part in seeing the benefits of transcendent experiences. As family members, friends, religious leaders, and clinicians, it is important to foster a warm, judgment-free environment so that individuals feel free to share how transcendence has influenced and blessed their life.
Adversity is an experience every individual will encounter in their lifetime and one that can severely affect the quality of important relationships. However, by understanding transcendence and its resulting benefits, individuals can view crises in a new light. People can create positive meaning from these sacred experiences and transform their realities by improving their relationships and their perceptions, even amidst adversity.
1Dollahite, D. C., Marks, L. D., Banford Witting, A., LeBaron, A. B., Pearl Young, K. P., & Chelladurai, J. M. (2020). How relationship-enhancing transcendent religious experiences during adversity can encourage relational meaning, depth, healing, and action. Religions, 11, 519. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100519