Does “Sacred” Have Meaning in the Twenty-first Century?
Deep inside, most of us have a desire to connect with something beautiful and pure—something we might call sacred. Is there a place in our twenty-first century lives—so crammed with information, busy-ness and conflict—where we can connect with the sacred?
I realize the word “sacred” might sound a little old fashioned. What do I mean by “sacred”? In the Video I created for Spirited-Thinking, “Three Ideas for Centering Your Life, ” I wrote the words, “All Life Is Sacred.” This was meant to be a poetic statement, not a dogmatic claim. I think the word “sacred” expresses that special something that lights up life. In this article, I use the word loosely as well. Please allow “sacred” to have any definition that appeals to you. Here are some dictionary definitions you might like: holy; unassailable; related to God; related to worship. Or you could assume no definition at all. To me, “sacred” is also a paradox—it adds a serious quality to our days and at the same time a wonderful lightness.
Let’s see what it might mean for us to think of all life as being sacred. First, for a little context, let’s have a brief look at the Christian tradition.
The Space Where We Touch the Sacred: From One Place to Everywhere
From early in the history of Christianity until the present there has been a special place for the devout to experience the sacred—the church building. During the middle ages, in addition to building smaller churches, the Roman Church built great cathedrals. Within the walls of the cathedral, the faithful could see the story of God’s relationship to man told in stained glass. The believer could hear the music of choirs, so heavenly that he or she felt for a brief time as though they were in heaven. Each person could receive into his body the Eucharist, the very body of God offered by the priest, God’s earthly representative.
Access to the sacred—that which lifted people out of the miserable and ordinary (and out of their sin)—was found within the walls and within the institution of the church. Outside was strife, poverty and often disease, but inside was a taste of heaven itself.
The world of the middle ages is long gone and many of us no longer look inside a cathedral or church to find the sacred or the holy. We probably believe we can decide for ourselves where to find it. We just haven’t thought much about looking for it.
If we decided to seek the holy—the sacred—where would we look?
Let us start with the space we live in. The most common life experiences are vessels of the sacred. Think of the young man at a factory machine, creating products so he can support his family. Imagine the older woman caring for her grandchildren. Watch the third-grade girl penciling arithmetic answers. Aren’t all of these holy?
Every day, everywhere we look, we encounter life’s astonishing complexity and beauty. What cathedral nave could be more holy than a kindergarten classroom. What hand is more sacred than the hand that reaches out to the suffering—or for that matter, the hand that receives relief? What sacristy is more holy than a mountain lake? Are we ever closer to God than when we hold a newborn child?
Whether we look to the great outdoors or in our kitchens and living rooms, we see the sacred. The sacred is not in one special place; it is everywhere.
Sacred Texts: Discovering Reality
Another place people have long looked for the sacred is in special books.
Since the advent of the printed Bible not long before the Protestant Reformation, Christians have felt a more direct connection to the sacred. The Bible—and preaching based on the Bible—began to take precedence over the institutional church and the Eucharist. The “New Testament,” a collection of books written by early followers of Jesus, was the passionate testimony of men hoping to change the world, or at least people’s hearts and minds. Combined with the creation and exodus stories from the “Old Testament,” they offered a sort of spiritual road map of how the world works, and how humans might be saved from the problems of life on earth. For hundreds of years the texts of the Bible were believed sacred and studied by the devout.
Some of us still read those texts, but most do not. Why not?
The words of early Christians are worth pondering even now, butthe road map they drew of the world has been surpassed by growing knowledge about reality. The story of a world built in seven days has been replaced by the fourteen billion year history of the cosmos. The forming of the first man from a lump of soil has been supplanted by the astonishingly complex evolution of humans from simple life forms. The imminent arrival of heaven on earth has been over-run by 2000 years of spectacular and often calamitous human history.
We see the world differently now. Knowledge about life has expanded far beyond the rudimentary guesses of two thousand years ago. Whether in times of calamity or peace, humans have made a science of learning how life works. It is no wonder that we have less interest in the old sacred texts.
We now know we live in a vast and rapidly expanding universe. We have measured the size of the universe in billions of light years. We have learned about basic particles of life that are billions of times smaller that one atom.
What once appeared simple, we now know is amazingly complex. A blade of grass is a marvel of creative energy, processing sunlight, minerals and water to build life itself. The tiny ant is a machine as intricate as any man-made robot.
We have learned much. There is so much more to learn, and yet more we may never learn. We can only stand in awe.
The Direction for Seeking the Sacred: Here and Now
On Fifth Avenue in New York City, the twin spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral tower 330 feet above the street. Viewed from the street, I am sure the towers seem to point to something majestic and out of sight. The ancient message of the spires, repeated in towers and in arched windows and doorways was that the holy is found above. All around the world, cathedral spires and church steeples testify to the ancient belief that that which was holiest, God himself, was far above. And that the best place to be was not here, but in heaven which was also above. All that was below was “mundane,” and of only passing interest.
We now know that above us is not really “above.” Above is out—out of earth’s atmosphere, where there is space—lots of it—then planets and the sun, then billions of more suns in our galaxy, and beyond our galaxy billions of more galaxies .
In the past century we have begun to learn about “out there”—the rest of the universe—but what we have learned about “here” in the same time span is mind boggling. The space we live in and the books we learn from offer an ever-expanding treasure of sacred discovery. Those who built beautiful cathedrals and those who wrote what are now sacred texts were expressing what were wonderful new realities to them. We surely do not dishonor their words or their architectural wonders when we seek the sacred in our own space and time.
Instead of following the steeple which points far up and away, let us cast our eye on all the life around us. In every direction we will see miracles. Most of all, let our eyes fall on the human individual. Each human being we meet is a wonder of thought and creativity, each with his or her own life story. The journey of growth, learning and love born in every person means there are seven billion epic journeys—just on our earth.
The amazing human individual is the clearest example that our most immediate access to the sacred is not far above. It is here and now.
From Ordinary to Extraordinary: The Sacred Whole
Life on earth, once considered mundane, turns out to be spectacular. There is no reason to miss out. Walt Whitman expressed it this way:
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come forever and ever.
Let us look for the sacred every day. We do not have to look far.
“Introducing Article Series: Three Ideas for Centering Your Life“
“Now Is Where We Live” (second article of this series)
“Everything I Do Is Spiritual Practice” (third articel of this series)
“Thank God for Evolution,” book review
“Window Epiphany,” poem