The Ordinary as Sacred

The Ordinary as Sacred October 19, 2015

By John A. Johnson
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Penn State University

 

Reading a draft of Alice Andrews’s The Sacredness of Relationship gave me a huge rush of recognition. As Alice says, sacredness is a matter of the heart, akin to love. In the presence of the sacred, I am filled with feelings of awe and joy and gratitude. I can hardly believe that I am privileged to be in communion with something so extraordinary, something so special. In contrast, encounters with the ordinary are—well, ordinary.

 

sun in trees

 

I never experienced sacredness in my parents’ Presbyterian church. Not just because the décor was in the typically drab Protestant style. On rare visits to my grandparents’ Polish Catholic church in Hamtramck I was exposed to plenty of exotic and foreign sights, scents, and sounds. But neither church inspired a sense of the sacred; instead I experienced just formality and stuffiness. And members of both congregations seemed to me to be sleep-walking and going through mindless motions. There was nothing special in either allegedly holy space. Just ordinariness.

 

The first experience that I can recall of encountering something sacred happened when I was a young teenager at summer boy scout camp. Our troop, unlike troops who camped in walled, platform tents near the dining hall, showers, and other civilized areas, set up our trail tarp tents on the ground in the “wilderness camping area” at the outer edge of the scout camp. At least we thought we were at the outer edge of the inhabitable world. We didn’t really know what lay beyond in the woods. At least not until the day that my friend Greg came running from those woods into our campsite with a look of abject fear on his face. Breathlessly, he exclaimed, “Guys, I just saw something out there that I think we are not supposed to see!”

Only a few of us dared to follow him back to the spot that had startled him so. On the hike there, all he would say is that the place looked like some kind of “garden of the gods.” Finally, I caught a glimpse of what he was talking about in the clearing up ahead: a set of concentric circular railings on posts, all constructed of white birch. Set apart from the other dark trees, the area practically radiated an ethereal, white energy. We did not know what this place was for, but we knew that it was something secret and extraordinary, not meant for our eyes. After trembling silently in awe of the structure for a few moments, we all ran from the site, swearing to never speak of it to anyone.

Several years later I learned what we had stumbled upon when I was inducted into the Order of the Arrow. The site was a ritual circle where those who are tapped into the Order are brought for their initiation. It was indeed a special place, an exclusive place, where a privileged few were brought each year. But you know what? The area did not have the same impact as it had when I had encountered it the first time, uninvited. The second time around, the site was still beautiful, but it lacked the sense of mystery I had experienced the first time.

 

forest

 

Reflecting on this experience, I learned that, for me, the sacred is all the things that Alice mentioned: it is still, quiet, set apart, pure, special, extraordinary, beautiful, full of light, and—most of all—magical and mysterious. There was something otherworldly about that circle in the woods, something beyond my understanding. It evoked a longing for escape from my ordinary, mundane existence. Although frightened and confused, I was nonetheless thrilled in that moment by the possibility that magic could be real. And I still feel that way. Like Mulder, I want to believe.

 

Over the years since my encounter with the ritual circle, I have noticed that the awe and wonder from every new experience with the sacred eventually waned with familiarity. New natural wonders, new lovers, new music, new secret rituals; all became less mysterious with repeated encounters. Many of these people, places, and things remained very dear and precious to me—special and irreplaceable. And there is tremendous comfort in their familiarity. But as familiarity replaced mystery, my sense of otherworldly sacredness faded away.

 

As much as I still long to discover other worlds and transcend the ordinary, it seems that reality keeps slapping me back to the truth: There is no sacred beyond this ordinary world. There are emotional highs in this ordinary world, to be sure, but they do not point to a transcendent, sacred beyond. Such feelings are simply a part of humankind’s evolved psychology. So what does this imply about the future of the sacred for me?

 

One possibility is to simply dispense with any concept of the sacred altogether. Since I have been able to live quite happily without belief in any of the gods of traditional religions, why not give up the idea of sacred experiences? While this idea makes sense to my head, my heart votes against that one. I like to feel like I am in the presence of the sacred, even if the experience is short-lived and illusory. That brings me to a second possibility, which is to be a fictionalist about the sacred. Just as I can suspend disbelief during stories in books, movies, and plays, I can certainly pretend once in a while that I am in the presence of sacred phenomena that are not of this world. This is, in fact, something that I indulge in from time to time these days.

 

But there is a third possibility that I have been contemplating recently. Instead of denying the sacred or pretending that certain, specific ordinary experiences are sacred, what if I considered every single person, place, or thing I encounter to be sacred? This is a radical idea, essentially opposite from the idea that the sacred is special and set apart from the ordinary and mundane. Instead of considering sacred events to be special or denying that anything is sacred, this third route represents a transcendence of the opposites of sacred and profane.

 

I remember seeing this third attitude exemplified in the image of Seymour’s Fat Lady toward the end of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Franny is going through an existential crisis and does not see the point of trying to impress people she looks down on, especially one of her professors. Her brother Zooey responds with a story about how he was once reluctant to shine his shoes before appearing on the radio show “It’s a Wise Child.” What was the point? Nobody would even see his shoes, and, furthermore, the studio audience, the announcer, and the sponsors “were morons.”  But his older brother, Seymour, told him to shine his shoes anyway, “for the Fat Lady.” Zooey imagined the Fat Lady to be a lonely woman, suffering from cancer, sitting on her hot porch, swatting flies, and listening to her blaring radio. Out of compassion for her, he shined his shoes and went on with the show. Franny says that Seymour once told her to be funny for the Fat Lady. Zooey then tells Franny what he finally realized about the Fat Lady:
“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

 

Striving to see the face of Christ in every single human being is a difficult task for Christians, yet Tony Rossi notes that it is a task required of persons of that faith. Rossi notes that Christians are commanded to see Christ “not only in the innocent face of a newborn baby or in the eyes of a beloved spouse or in the touch of an elderly parent, but also in the people who make our lives difficult in one way or another.” As a sacred naturalist rather than a Christian, I am considering the analogous task of seeing the sacred in absolutely every aspect of the cosmos. It is easy for me to get weepy and overcome by awe in the presence of uncommon natural beauty. I’m not saying I can muster the same kind of deep emotional response in the presence of every event in my life. Seeing absolutely everything as sacred requires me to use my head more than my heart, although I suspect that seeing everything as sacred will have emotional rewards.

 

The ability to see the sacred everywhere is hardly unique to Christianity or any kind of theism. Despite the reference to Christ in Franny and Zooey, Salinger was actually a Zen Buddhist, and he writes from that perspective. Taoism, like Zen Buddhism, is a non-theistic worldview that teaches universal respect and compassion. In chapter 27 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu states that the sage does not abandon anyone or anything. A “good” person is the teacher of a “bad” person, and the “bad” person is the resource of the “good” person. “Those who do not value their teachers and do not love their resources, although intelligent, they are greatly confused.” (p. 55, Derek Lin translation). Lin (p. 54) comments, “Most of us do not value everyone equally. We develop likes and dislikes, preferences and aversions. We shower some with attention while ignoring others. We favor certain individuals while finding others barely tolerable. Most of us pay lip service to the concept of universal love, but few of us actually practice it. Lao Tzu would definitely see us as ‘greatly confused’.”

 

What would it take to love absolutely everybody and everything? Perhaps one would have to encounter the end of everything in order to appreciate the unique preciousness of every transitory being. In David Bowie’s Five Years, the singer describes his thoughts upon hearing that the world would end in five years:

 

I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people.

 

While a non-theist might be willing to accept the messages in Franny and Zooey, the Tao Te Ching, and David Bowie as possibly wise proposals about seeing value in every human being, he or she might object that this is a far cry from seeing the divine in everyone and everything. How could a non-theist regard everyone and everything as sacred? Isn’t this is a form of pantheism in which everything is God?

This might be true, but how different are pantheism and atheism? Some would say that they are exact opposites; pantheism says that everything is God, while atheism says that nothing is God. But consider this: concepts attain distinctive meaning by contrasting what is with what is not. Hot has meaning only in contrast to what is not hot. If everything were exactly the same temperature, hot would have no meaning. As chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching says, “being and nonbeing produce each other. Difficult and easy bring about each other. Long and short reveal each other. High and low support each other.” (Lin translation, p. 5).

 

If concepts attain meaning only by contrasting being and nonbeing, then God as a concept has meaning only by contrasting God with what is not God. Thus, the pantheistic notion that everything is God is no different in meaning from the atheistic notion that nothing is god. “Is there a difference between yes and no? Is there a difference between good and evil? Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20, Feng and English translation).

 

Therefore, when I say that “everything and everyone is sacred,” I am not saying that some kind of supernatural force necessarily resides within every material object. Rather, I am simply appreciating the amazing uniqueness and complexity of each person and event in my life. As I grow older, I become increasingly aware of the end of life. Not just the end of my own life, but the end of the Fat Lady’s life as well. Maybe even the end of untold numbers of species of life on the planet, if humankind continues to ignore its impact on the environment. I never thought I would need so many people.


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