Searching for the “sacred” including the notion of the ‘divine’ within each person, is much more complex than an archeological ‘dig’ into the relationship between humans and a/the deity.
Karen Armstrong writes: (N)early all the scriptures present us with the final product---the human being who has achieved the transformative and become divine. These people have not been possessed by an alien force; rather they have aligned their lives fully with the ultimate something that pervades all things. The scriptures insist that this is not the attainment of a few exceptional people but is possible for anybody, even the man in the street, because you cannot think ‘human’ without also thinking divine. In some traditions, divinity is presented as a third dimension of humanity, that mysterious element that we encounter within our selves and in others that constantly eludes our grasp.(Karen Armstrong, The Lost art of Scripture, Rescuing the Sacred Texts, Knopf, 2019, p. 13-14)
Even the word “sacred” in the title of her latest work, ‘something related to religion or something treated with great respect (such as holy water, or a prized collection. And yet, ‘sacred’ is not a synonym for religious. The notion that life is ‘sacred’ is a phrase fraught with both personal meaning and ideological/political implications. It infuses every debate over the question of the state’s legal right to permit a woman to choose to have an abortion. The pro-life, versus the pro-choice sides are so vehemently divided that in the U.S. the survival of Roe v Wade hangs in the balance, not that a vacant seat on the Supreme Court has emerged, on the death of Madame Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. And we all know that all of the various and multiple political arrows will be deployed by both sides, to implore Senators to confirm a ‘pro-life’ or a ‘pro-choice’ replacement on the bench.
The battle, regardless of its timing, duration and outcome will, undoubtedly and paradoxically, disclose such venomous contempt for the other side, that a visitor from space would wonder about the contradiction between the ‘value’ and the steps to which some will go to achieve their desired/even required outcome. What shoots up in any consideration of the concept/notion/application of ‘sacred’ and holy is also the question of capital punishment for criminal offenders. Some who fight strenuously for the pro-life side of the argument also fight for the re-instatement of capital punishment, (abolished in Canada in 1976 and from the National Defence Act in 1998, and currently operative in some 28 U.S. states, abolished by New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012, Maryland in 2013 New Hampshire in 2019 and Colorado in 2020.)
Attempting to render an act or a place as “sacred” is a process deeply revered by ecclesial authorities, historians, theologians, and liturgists. The imprimatur or blessing or consecration by words, in the name of God, is also deeply embedded in the ecclesial life of many faith communities. And the intimate and complex connection between sacred texts and their liturgical commemoration redounds in many faith communities. Chanting scripture, repeating scripture, praying scripture, singing holy word and writ are all processes by which many faith communities learn the belief systems of their people, inculcate those beliefs into their ritual lives, and pass those traditional sounds and meanings, transforming them into outright meaning and purpose for many. Especially are these liturgical experiences dedicated to such significant human events as birth, baptism, bar and bat mitzvah, confirmation, marriage, and death. Ceremonial state events like coronations also fall into this liturgical experience, presumably as a way to ‘sanctify’ the moment, the person being crowned, and the memory in the participants.
To sanctify, or to declare holy, to consecrate is an act that can apply to a process (baptism or marriage for example) or to an event/substance like the water used in baptism.
And along with all of the many instances in which the words and the concepts are used, (a frequency dropping like a stone in the lake), there is little if any real conversation, discussion, contemplation or conscious awareness of when and how the sacred appear in contemporary western life. Formerly religious ceremonies while still being observed in many families, often morph into perfunctory social, political and even transactional events. Or, perhaps, from a different perspective, the faith/sacred aspect of many of these ceremonies is embedded in the connectivity among and between the participants and the congregants.
History is filled with ink poured over the reflections of those who consider deity a noun and those who consider deity a process, or a place, or a condition or a relationship. And how we individually and collectively conceptualize God plays a significant role in our personal and communal notion of how any relationship between our lives and God might evolve.
The phrase ‘imago dei’ (The Image of God) is a concept
and a theological doctrine in Judaism, Christianity, and Sufism of Islam, that states
that human beings are creatae4d in the image and likeness of God. The Hippocratic
Oath, taken by all medical doctors, implores them to “do not harm” in a direct
application to the notion of imago dei. However, the concept has few if any
other sociological, legal, historic, and especially ethical applications in
contemporary culture, outside of the sphere of bioethics.
From a theological perspective, do we have within us a spark of the divine? Or, does imago dei pertain more to the theological notion that God cares for humans in a manner emblematic of and incarnating an identical/empathic relationship? And, overlaying the different noun or verb (or both) characterization of God, in an evolving, changing, developing, and potentially transforming dynamic, how can/do/will/ humans enter into any meaningful relationship with the sacred?
When we experience a “sacrament” (baptism, confirmation, marriage, Eucharist., the last rights, penitential, funeral, do we think about what the meaning of that moment might be? Considered as an moment in which something we call divine grace is being imparted, do recipients think of these moments in this way? And if they do, what does that mean?
If grace is undeserved mercy from God, does our view of life include a perception, never mind a belief, that we have been given grace? We hear often the cliché, “there but the grace of God go I” when commenting on the fall “from grace” of an individual who has ‘sinned’ in the eyes of an institution, or the socially accepted behaviour of an honourable and respectable human, or more fatefully, one who has crossed the boundaries of the law, in the west itself founded on biblical writ. So somewhere, somehow, the concept/consciousness of grace lingers in the back of our minds and hearts, as a kind of ‘good luck charm’ that keeps us from veering into a ditch in our lives.
Do we consider a moment of sacrament akin to, or an actual incarnation of, a moment of grace? And if so, what is the import of such moments in our perception and evaluation of its import in our lives?
The phrase, aligning with the “ultimate something that pervades all things” has the potential to ignite sparks of intellect, of reflection and certainly of belief, in all cultures. Is there an “ultimate that pervades all things”? Are we attempting, whether consciously or unconsciously or both, to align our lives with that ultimate something? And if there is an “ultimate something” is it another way of ‘seeing’ and of envisioning, and of imagining and even of believing in a God?
And if there is an “ultimate something that pervades all things” and we are aware, both consciously and unconsciously of that “ultimate” does our life begin in alignment with that ultimate something? OR, have we “fallen” out of grace, through our “ancestors” Adam and Eve? OR was the Story of the Garden of Eden a metaphor for coming to mature consciousness about the difference between good and evil for which we are grateful and which we can celebrate in gratitude?
So many questions, not desperately begging for answers, but rather prompting more, especially after pausing to reflect on how our view of our selves, in the universe, seems to offer signposts, events, persons, poetry, music and encounters with nature….
Naturally, our pursuit of what we consider to be true is implicit in each of our reflections, and how we come to the truth, and whether that truth must be denotative, connotative, literal, metaphoric, archetypal, or symbolic or some combination of all of these will play a significant role in our notion of truth.
As we are all engaged in a process of attempting to “get to know” ourselves, to a greater or lesser degree, through our pursuit of goals, through our accomplishments and resulting from our mis-steps, indiscretions, mis-deeds, and failures, nothing remains static in any of our lives. We are all part of the nunc fluens (the flowing now) with sensibilities, and intellect, a heart, and an operative will. We make choices, depending on our perception of what is our need to grow and evolve and shed those aspects of our person we feel need discarding. And the question of “power” invades every single decision we make.
Rational thought, based on empirical evidence, has played a monumental role in the determination of millions of lives, whereas, right brain intuition, emotion, imagination have all undergone a kind of relegation to the sidelines, especially in the last century. Although it may now be considered a ‘dated’ and thereby outmoded text, having been published in the mid-nineties (1994 to be specific) Thomas More’s Care of the Soul remains instructive in discerning what warrant consideration of the differences between our ego/will and our soul. Defined in several sources as the principle of life, feeling , thought, and action in humans, the spiritual aspect of humans, the emotional or intellectual energy or intensity especially in a work of art, distinguishing soul from ego and will, might offer a glimpse into a transformative pathway to help to align our life with that “ultimate something that pervades all things”.
In the soul, power doesn’t work the same way as it does in the ego and will. When we want to accomplish something egotistically, we gather our strength, develop a strategy, and apply every effort. This is the kind of behaviour James Hillman describes as heroic of Herculean. He means the word in the bad sense: using brute strength and narrow rationalistic vision. The power of soul, in contrast, is more like a great reservoir or, in traditional imagery, like the force of water in a fast-rushing river. It is natural, not manipulated, and stems from an unknown source. Our role with this kind of power is to be an attentive observer noticing how the soul wants to thrust itself into life. It is also our task to find artful means of articulating and structuring that power, taking full responsibility for it, but trusting too that the soul has intentions and necessities that we may understand only partially.
Neither ego-centred will on the one hand nor pure passivity on the other serve the soul. Soul work requires both much reflection and also hard work. Think of all the ancient cultures that poured masses of money, materials, and energy into pyramids, megaliths, temples, and cathedrals on behalf of sacred play or holy imagination. The trick is to find the soulful perspective that feeds action with both passion and imaginal contemplation.
I am reminded here of Jung’s constant attempt in both his theory and in his own life to discover the ‘transcendent function,’ as he called it, a point of view that embraces the mysterious depths of the soul as well as conscious understanding and intention. This for Jung, was exactly what self means: it is a fulcrum of action and intelligence that feels the weight both of the soul and of the intellect. This is not a mere theoretical construct. IT can be, as Jung showed in his own soul work, a way of life. The power that comes form this relocation of the source of action has profound roots and is not destruct6ively caught up in narcissistic motives. The Tao Te Ching (30) says, ‘The good general achieves his result and that’s all; he does not use the occasion to seize strength from it.’ Tapping the soul’s power has nothing to do with the need to fill gaps in the ego or to substitute lamely for its loss of power.
What is the source of this soul power, and how can we tap into it? I believe it often comes from unexpected places. It comes first of all from living close to the heart, and not at odds with it. Therefore, paradoxically, soul power may emerge from failure. Depression, and loss., The general rule is that soul appears in the gaps and holes of experiencer. It is usually tempting to find some subtle way of denying these holes or distancing ourselves from them. But we have all experienced moments when we’ve lost a job, or endured an illness only to find an unexpected inner strength….
(Another path to discovering soul might come from an emptying out of our public identity)
More continues: Maybe we could all use an emptying out of identity now and then. Considering who we are not, we may find the surprising revelation of who we are. Again, the Tao Te Ching (ch. 22), that absolute testament of soulful emptiness, says, in words that echo saying of Jesus, ‘When twisted, you’ll be upright; when hollowed out, you’ll be full.’
Soulful emptiness is not anxious. If fact power pours in when we sustain the feeling of emptiness and withstand temptations to fill it prematurely. We have to contain the void. Too often we lose this pregnant emptiness by reaching for substitutes for power. A tolerance of weakness, you might say, is a prerequisite for the discovery of power, for any exercise of strength motivated by an avoidance of weakness is not genuine power. This is a rule of thumb. The soul has not room in which to present itself if we continually fill all gaps with bogus activities…….(Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 1992, p. 119-120)
Wonder how many executives, legislators, bishops, priests, and influencers are familiar with the paradoxical notion of the power of the soul? We seem enmeshed with the empirical ‘growth’ of our incomes, our sales and revenues, our office size and our titles, not to mention the ‘value’ of our investment portfolio. Are we consciously and willfully blind to the power of the soul, and to the implications that balancing our ego and will with its much more subtle, intricate, imaginative and ambiguous stimuli and utterances? And if so, are we paying an exorbitant price individually and collectively for our blindness?