A Sense of the Sacred: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
It seems to me that we have lost a sense of the sacred. What I mean by this is that those who identified themselves as Christians through most of the history of the Church retained a sense that the totality of life itself was sacred. Owing to this, one’s interaction with the divine could occur in many ways. There were the formal interactions of the sacramental life of the Church, such as baptism and the Eucharist. The Church Year, with its regular rhythm of seasons and festivals such as Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, allowed time to be made sacred and to carry a meaning that surpassed the mere passing of minutes, hours, days and years. Holy Matrimony extended the sacred into the realm of relationships and family. From the earliest times of the Church, art and music were part of the worship of the Church and allowed the sacred into the orbit of the senses. The sacred nature of signs and symbols at one time permeated the life of believers as they would make the sign of the cross in church or in private, or bow their heads when the name of Jesus was uttered. For much of the history of the Church, one did not have to look for the sacred as it made itself felt and known in almost every aspect of life.
I fear, however, with perhaps a few exceptions, that this world of the sacred has been greatly diminished, if not altogether abandoned by most modern believers. Instead, we have chosen to live our lives within a mechanistic, if not profane, world in which sacred mysteries have no place and/or little value.
Whereas once we measured the meaning of our lives and work in terms of our singular identity as Christians, we now measure ourselves by societal norms which are far removed from the pages of the Gospels. Even in our conversations with each other, we shape our identity in terms of politics, or our position on vaccines, or a myriad of other societal identifying factors. In this mechanistic universe, devoid of mystery and the sacred, every encounter becomes a zero sum game in which proving oneself to be “right” is the ultimate prize. Learning and conversation are no longer paths to discovery in which questions are asked and answered, but instead are tools (or weapons) with which we do battle with others. That such attitudes have become commonplace within much of the Christian community is simply a measure of how far we have fallen and how much we have lost a sense of the sacred.
Yet, we do not, or will not, acknowledge the fall and the loss, for part of the zero sum game is that one never admits to being wrong, or ill-informed, even if it is shown to be true.
Once, as Christians, we could invite others to experience a sense of the sacred as they entered the life of the Church. It was a life that was unique and “wholly other”.
Catechesis and baptism provided entry into a world in which the mechanistic values of society were abandoned in favor of the values found in the Gospels. Even a cursory reading of Church history will show this to be the case especially in the early centuries. Yet, despite such evidence we abandon the sacred in favor of the profane, thinking, it seems, that by parroting one political view or another, or styling ourselves to be public health experts, or using the tools of secular management and marketing, we will show ourselves approved to the society at large. Meanwhile, as we await the societal approval that will never come, we argue among ourselves asserting the doctrinal distinctives of our particular tribe as being superior to others.
It is said that when the Goths and Vandals were at the gates of Rome, the senators of the empire held a formal debate in the Forum as their response…
Only a recovery of a sense of the sacred will do. It may show itself in a different manner than in the past, but one thing is certain. Unless and until we offer more than words, we will simply be seen as a pale imitation of what people see on their news feeds day in and day out. I believe that there is a longing for the sacred, but are we willing to model what that might mean…