What is Sacred?
“Anything that we can destroy but are unable to make is, in a sense, sacred, and all our ‘explanations’ of it do not really explain anything.”
So says E.F. Schumacher in his marvelous little book A Guide for the Perplexed (a book I recommend to all On the Exam? readers for its masterful weaving together of philosophical insight and clarity of expression).
I’m a fan of Schumacher’s definition of the sacred, in part because it blurs our usual distinction between the secular—as a “public space” supposedly devoid of the sacred—and the religious—as the privileged, and supposedly exclusive, site of the sacred.
What Schumacher suggests instead is that the sacred permeates the whole of our existence; it saturates our “everyday”, but does so in a way that invites rather than compels; and, in so doing, the sacred risks a kind of vulnerability.
Let me unpack that a little. If we approach the sacred as that which lies beyond our power to create, then what is sacred is what comes to us as a gift—as a good beyond our control and beyond our anticipation.
So we could become aware of the sacred through an experience of beauty (a sunset, a stanza, a scene).
We might encounter the sacred in the revelatory face of another (a child, a friend, a lover).
Or we might begin to see the cosmos as a “great chain of Being” (to use Schumacher’s language), in which we notice that there are qualitative leaps—from inorganic to organic being, from organic being to conscious and sensible life, from animality to personal existence—which reveal, each in their own way, a sacred new form of existence that did not exist before on the “lower” level of being.
Notice that the appropriate and spontaneous response to the sacred is first wonder (“how could it be that this is?”) and then gratitude (“how good this is, how grateful I am that it exists!”).
But notice, too, how the sacred risks a kind of vulnerability.
I cannot create a plant, but I can return it to mere, inorganic matter by neglecting to water it or by violently uprooting it.
I cannot anticipate the mysterious spontaneity manifest in the laughter of my child, but I can silence her with a cutting remark or with cold indifference, reducing her to a mere distraction or annoyance.
I cannot put the shine of the universal into a landscape vista, but I can be too busy to notice it, I can cynically refuse its value, or I can participate in a culture that wills the reduction of nature to what is useful for human projects.
This vulnerability is not a defect of the sacred; it is, instead, the secret heart of its meaning. For a genuine gift, if it is truly given, does not dictate the terms on which it should be received. Instead, a gift is released, trusted into the care of the recipient; and this runs the risk that the gift might be spurned, ignored, cast aside, or destroyed.
But it also makes possible free and grateful response on behalf of the recipient. It invites, but does not compel.
The sacred, then, is an invitation: to wonder; to gratitude; and to active care for what lies beyond our power to create, but is trusted into our power to honor.
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
“The Writer”, by Richard Wilbur
From the Pulitzer Prize winning New and Collected Poems, 1989
I love Wilbur’s “The Writer” for so many reasons. He captures the intertwined agony and joy that accompanies all genuine acts of creation. I return to this poem when I am struggling to write; I read it before I grade student papers. In both cases it reminds me of the need for profound compassion with the writer.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.
The poem speaks to me in a special way right now because my two oldest children (8 and 4 respectively) are both learning, in their own way, how good it is to create, and how difficult. There is such a distance between that first attempt and what it is they imagine and strive to bring to the page. Because we only see the final, polished result of our favorite artist, author, musician, we imagine that it somehow springs forth fully perfected, a work of singular and near-impossible genius.
The truth is that all excellence is the result of showing up, again and again: drafting, revising, removing, agonizing, editing, throwing away, pacing the room, scribbling, erasing, and starting over.
Song Exploder, which started its life as a podcast, and now has two seasons streaming on Netflix, is a deep dive into the process of creation. Each episode takes one song and picks it apart, interviewing the creator and walking through the process of making from rough beginning to final creation.
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