“The unspoken poverty in our culture is a poverty of spirit, a real hunger
for what the West has forgotten: that not just individual life but all of
creation is sacred. This connection to a sacred Earth always made us feel
and know we are part of the great mystery of creation, of its rivers and
winds, its birdsong and seeds. How could it be otherwise? And how can
we now regain this simple but forgotten element, this ingredient as essen-
tial as salt?” ~ LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE, Sufi teacher and author
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Recently, Sally and I went to the Sacred exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which explores the people, places, ideas and values we human animals choose to bestow with special power or divine status. And I’ve been thinking about sacredness ever since.
Sacred sites, sacred rites; sacred vows, sacred cows. What do you hold sacred? How do we decide what’s sacred to us? And what does “sacred” even mean?
YEARNING FOR MEANING
Do you sense, as I do, the deep yearning many people are feeling for something more profound in their lives than the common pursuits of success, recreation, social connections and even some aspects of family life? Despite the considerable appeal of the status quo, most people are hungry for meaning. Some of us are starving.
But we’ve lost touch with so many of the quiet, natural places and unhurried moments we once enjoyed in which real meaning so often dwells—those moments of discovery, of curiosity and wonder, in which our true capacities for contemplation, reverence and gratitude feel safe to come out from hiding.
The door to the sacred is not one leading
out of us; it’s one leading into us.
I find such places—I call them my divinity vicinity—nearly everywhere, but especially in Nature. You don’t have to become a reclusive Buddhist monk or go on an exotic vacation to do that. For those precious times and places exist as much in one's spirit as in real time and space.
In other words, the way to connect with what’s sacred is not through a door leading out of us, the one we take when we're seeking something; it’s the door leading into us, the one we take when we're learning. And it’s our consciousness, our openness of spirit, that opens this door and makes a place for things transcendental.
Problem is, the more complex and “wired” the world becomes, the greater a challenge it becomes keeping that door open. Just as there remain fewer and fewer tangible Edens on the planet, so are we losing those spiritual Edens. Marketers and ideologues fight over every imaginable surface, every second of silence, every blink of our awareness, like hyenas on a fresh kill.
Have you noticed how easily we fool ourselves into thinking we're always so busy? At least for me, if I take an honest look, it’s often things of very little consequence—futzing with unnecessary perfection, taking care of all the stuff I accumulate, watching TV...
Sometimes I wonder if I'm simply trying to fill all those empty times and spaces with something—anything—before someone else does. The shame is that it's exactly those empty, silent spots where anything worthy of becoming sacred to us most often settles and takes root.
So, how do we keep those fertile spaces open for such inspiration? Whether it's a quiet place in the forest, true intimacy in one's marriage, or a new Porsche, even if we already know what’s sacred to us, where is there any time, any room, any quiet corner of consciousness left to tend to it and be fully present with it?
Very simply, we must choose to make that "soul space." We've got to clear at least some of the trivial, albeit more certain, things out of the way. And then we have to maintain and defend that space.
When it comes to the sacred, faith is
the essential bridge between symbol
and substance, intention and conviction.
EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE
The notion of the sacred can be intimidating, at least in the abstract. We tend to think of it as pretentious, too perfect perhaps, for a mere human to comprehend. But isn’t sacredness, after all, a completely, uniquely human concept, one which, like the proverbial sound of a tree falling in the forest, would not exist without some form of consciousness to experience it? Nothing pretentious about finding and using a capacity that already exists in each and every one of us, right?
So what about all those odd things people seem to worship—celebrities, places, institutions and objects which may seem silly or even downright bizarre to someone else? Still, no matter how busy or broke we may be, we still manage to honor such things with our time and resources.
Can anything tangible really be sacred, or do such things just represent the sacred? Aren’t they all, in the end, just symbols, devices to help us visualize the invisible, perhaps distill incomprehensible ideas and powers down to a manageable scale?
Whether the symbol's profound or profane, the more difference there is between its crudeness and the depth of meaning it represents, the more investment our belief demands of us. That investment is nothing more or less than faith, the essential bridge between symbol and substance, intention and conviction.
AN EMPTY VESSEL
This all reminds me of something I used to tell my graphic design clients when I developed a logo for their organization. I counseled them that our goal was to create a mark that would be engaging, unique and memorable. Beyond that it could not, by itself, be expected to convey every nuance of their organization’s purpose, values, mission or reputation.
It matters less the icons we choose than
the fact that we worship anything at all.
It would be, I explained, an empty vessel, one whose ultimate meaning and value would come from what the organization chose to fill it with: constant, consistent associations with the quality and value of its products and services; the way it dealt with its customers, employees and vendors; the manner in which it gave back to its community.
In other words, the power of the logo lies less in itself—its appearance, its symbolism, its promotion—than in something it taps into in the life experience of the beholder.
Isn't this the way our perception of the sacred works? Why two people can witness the very same object or event and experience two completely different realities? Why one of them might find it spiritually stirring while the other barely notices?
Whatever symbols we might devise to represent the sacred—and some of them, I must say, escape me—it matters less the icons we choose than the fact that we worship anything at all. Still, even if some symbols are inane, I wish more folks could at least find the humility to have them represent ideals bigger than our own self-absorbed, cosmically inconsequential interests.
It helps to acknowledge that, even beyond the company of our fellow human beings, none of us is alone. It becomes clearer by the day that every one and every thing in creation is part of one interconnected reality. Everything we do, for good or for ill, affects that entire reality. I know that’s a hard concept for many to get their minds around. But that belief alone is something I hold sacred. For me at least, it is a good place to start.
So let us choose wisely what we worship and adore. It may be a precious few things…or it may be... everything.
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Of course, this is all just my take on things; nothing sacred about that, I guess.
I just hope I haven't offended too many more than one would expect when the
topic is as personal and deeply felt as spirituality. In any case, I'd like to hear
what you think.