In Search of the Sacred

I wish we were better at secular ritual. I mean, we have them – weddings, graduations, some national holidays, but most of our rituals, including celebrations of life and death, are often tied up in various religious traditions.

A sacred space?

Our rituals used to be seasonal; tied to whatever was going on with the Earth and the skies at a given time – the first day of Spring, the longest and shortest days of the solstice, the planting, the harvest, and so on. Religion has so taken over these markers on the calendar that when you are without religion, it can make you feel adrift in other’s common experiences.

This has been on my mind this week as it was Ash Wednesday and every year I’m still startled by people who wear the ashes to work. I don’t come out of any proselytizing tradition, and to me religion is a private thing. I don’t really subscribe anymore anyway. I haven’t given anything up for Lent in years, and my reaction when it’s discussed like some universal, is pretty much the same one I had when my college classmates went to chapel without their parents dragging them – “Why would you do that if you didn’t have to?”  I often miss the ritual – the taking part in traditions with others. I haven’t found anything to replace them, but rituals are not going to make me a believer.

I miss the idea of the sacred. And yet the objects that we make sacred are strange when examined – bone fragments, a string of beads, plaster or plastic statues such as the one of Saint Joseph that I found buried upside-down in my yard. It was apparently put there by the previous owners who believed it would help to sell the house. I guess you could say it worked, but it was a particularly creepy find when I was trying to build a vegetable garden.  Are these objects sacred because they contain some spiritual essence of god or the universe, or have we humans decided to wear the cross or a crystal for a talisman, to ward off the evil eye?

There are myriad Biblical admonishments against idolatry, and yet, the Catholic Church would not be what it is without art. I think this is one of the reasons that other Christian denominations like to denounce Catholicism, but this is a line that the Church has long walked. We pray before a statue meant to represent a holy figure, not to it. But even then, sometimes miracles are said to be present in a statue that weeps, or bleeds, or materializes in unexpected places. All over Italy, artists and craftspeople performed their best work in honor of a God they believed in. You can feel the reverence when you enter these spaces, even if you are not yourself a believer.

As I watched friends and writers on social media prepare for the dance of decadence that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I remembered that this too has its roots in religion. I find myself wanting to know more about traditions that existed before Christianity came in and usurped everything.

And so; Lent. Giving up something for forty days never had much meaning to me. As a child, no real connection was made for me between this kind of discipline and closeness to God or any other experience of the sacred. It was, as so much of my experience of Catholic teaching, something you did without asking questions. At most, it meant Mac & Cheese on Fridays because my family didn’t eat much fish.

I guess envy those for whom it has meaning, like the rituals around Ramadan or the Jewish family celebration of Shabbat dinner. They are both community celebrations and meaningful commitments.

I am not looking for someone else, or something else to worship. I guess what I am looking for can best be described as connection or culture. That feeling of being grounded and the confidence that goes with it. Recently one of my sons was asking me about family traditions that made him who he was. Beyond making malasadas while we decorated the Christmas tree, we both drew a blank. Although we attended an Episcopal church regularly when the boys were small, I was feeling increasingly disconnected from any faith. My husband, also raised Catholic was even less of a believer than I, and so there was no reinforcement of teachings or practice at home. Church gave the boys a familiarity with Bible stories, and a patient community who welcomed them, both of my goals, but probably no long term belief to identify with.

This sounds so cliché, but the closest I’ve come to that feeling of the sacred is the twenty minutes or so of calm and serenity I feel after a yoga practice. This is hard to explain since I am neither experienced with yoga or very good at it. It was a real surprise the first time I noticed it, but it was pretty consistent while I was going to yoga classes. I need to go back, but in my current state of health, I’m not sure I can keep up.

What helps you feel grounded and safe?

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