As we celebrate the holidays, now and ahead this month, for many, the word “Sacred” enters into our dialogue. The term Sacred is used in our speech, often poorly defined, as in “oh that art is sacred to him” or “my morning ritual is sacred for me,” but what do we mean…? And why do we seek a Sacred experience? Because whether theist, agnostic, or atheist, we all are in search of access to what feels most precious and most worthy of honor and protection. So how do we access this?
Not only during the holidays, but also during times when there are no established rituals, what does Sacred mean in the context of culture, in a secular society? How do we reconcile what SACRED means to us, beyond a purely religious definition? And how is it impacted by our sense of our own identity- as a member of a religion, as a member of a gender, as a member of a culture, labelled. And how does our personal and societal concepts of Sacred reflect biases and unconscious judgements? It is interesting to revisit and reclaim what this word, and the concept behind it, means to us, now, in 2020.
Here are some contemporary definitions of what “sacred” means. According to the Princeton text, three of the definitions are specifically refer to Sacred in the context of religion
sacred(adj) concerned with religion or religious purposes "sacred texts"; "sacred rites"; "sacred music"
consecrated, sacred, sanctified (adj) made or declared or believed to be holy; devoted to a deity or some religious ceremony or use "a consecrated church"; "the sacred mosque"; "sacred elephants"; "sacred bread and wine"; "sanctified wine"
hallowed, sacred( adj) worthy of religious veneration "the sacred name of Jesus"; "Jerusalem's hallowed soil"
And another two are more secular definitions:
sacred(adj) worthy of respect or dedication "saw motherhood as woman's sacred calling"
sacred(adj) (often followed by `to') devoted exclusively to a single use or purpose or person
"a fund sacred to charity"; "a morning hour sacred to study"; "a private office sacred to the President"
In general use, the word Sacred can refer to both spirituality or to reverence. The unifying concept is something that is to be cherished. Many pundits on the subject claim that we live in a secular age, but “Sacred forms – whether in ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ guise – continue to shape social life in the modern world, giving rise to powerful emotions, polarized group identities, and even the very concept of moral society”. In other words, they are collective beliefs that are powerful enough to sway people’s actions. So if we strive to make sense of the societies we live in, it seems critical to reflect on the concept of the sacred in our lives for good or ill.
Robinson Jeffers, a poet, gave a beautiful and succinct view of a holistic, humanistic moral philosophy:
It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending — I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)
Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth
Gordon Lynch, in his book, “THE SACRED IN THE MODERN WORLD” (Oxford University Press. Feb. 2012.) lays out a theoretical framework for analyzing the sacred in the modern world. Here he defines sacred as “taken-for-granted societal norms that hold a moral claim on what is held as ‘good’“. Yet sacred forms can have both positive and negative consequences. Lynch points out that, while sacred commitments can offer a moral code for social behavior, these same commitments can be used to legitimize and justify collective evil. This, by extension, provides opportunity for oppression, bias and judgement. To explore the potential power of “sacred” further, Sociologist Edward Shils (1970) argued that society has enabled the elites to lay claim to an affinity between the sacred and their own values, symbols, beliefs and actions, making themselves in effect the custodians of the sacred. Thus the sacred, in theory, is associated with what is considered profound, valuable and a superior good. It therefore becomes an elitist expression of collective morality.
So much of who we are and how we operate has come into question over the past year. The need for intentionality and deliberate choice (in language, action, and behavior) has become a priority. It is a powerful prompt to identify and actualize what one holds sacred in our lives.
"I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.”
For many of us, and drawing from my own experience, during the many months of Covid life, “Sacred ritual” activities have been encouraged as ways to produce a space separate from the more mundane activities of daily life, for meaningful social transformations. Media has come to provide technologies for participation in extended communities. These ritualized experiences provide a sense of purposiveness, the experience of autonomy, and identity enactment. We can also realize the sacredness of relationships and community: the ability to share thoughts, experiences, sensations so crucial to our being. How has this extended time in isolation, with our families, whatever your situation, impacted your belief of what’s important. And what you live for? What are our sacred beliefs we want to impart on our children and community?
If we reflect on the many ways we feel about the idea of "sacred," consider, for example, how has the cultural wars, and the rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide affected your attitudes toward "Sacred"? On a personal level, do you feel ambiguous about what you've been told about certain things considered sacred that you no longer believe in? And, alternatively, do you feel you have the right to name what is sacred to you even if it is not sacred to others?
Find a place or time that is particularly peaceful or meaningful and softly raise these questions: What's sacred? What inspires awe? A feeling of protection? Reverence? A sense of something holy? And what would a conversation be like, or what would your day be like, if you did it with a sense of something that's sacred to you? How do you guide your attention and intentions, within the sacred space you define? And how do you spend your time and other resources? Consider examining the unconscious judgements or biases you may bring with you. The expression “oh, she is holier than thou” may take on new meaning.
Perhaps, during this time of celebration, in this new configuration of our social sharing, you can look for ways to define a shared “sacred” place with yourself, and those you love that defies moral superiority, judgement, or entrenched biases, and is simply a place created to cherish.