If Nothing is Sacred
If there’s a word I miss from my religious life it’s “sacred.” In my religious upbringing, God was the answer to every human need and every human joy. So when I left religion, it took some untangling to see that transcendence wasn’t something I had given up when I walked away from religion.
Natural Beauty. As a Christian I was taught to look beyond beauty to its Creator. When a flock of birds wheeling in unison and swooping under the bridge wasn’t God’s handiwork anymore, I wondered what it pointed to exactly. I know it sounds odd, but for a short time, I felt as if I couldn’t take the same pleasure in nature anymore. Until one evening as I walked there was a green tinted sky before an incoming storm and the white-blossomed crepe myrtles were bowing in the stiff wind. Its just-thereness was more than enough. It was incredible. All by itself. The scene didn’t need a subtext or an artist behind the scenes. All I had to do was drink it in and let it wash through my senses.
Family. I was brought up believing that family is the church’s domain, that our marriages and our relationships with our children were consecrated. Was my love for my daughters the same if they hadn’t been placed in my life by God? Well, that didn’t take long. Love is love. And our lives had been improved by loving each other through the babymoon days and the days that made me want to bang my head against the wall. If loving through the long haul isn’t transcendent, what is?
But there was one important difference. I’d been in a marriage that chewed me up and spit me out, and had been doing a number on my kids too. I no longer had to do any contortions of thought to define when God had decided we’d exceeded the worse meant by “for better or worse.” The door was open and we could leave.
Vocation. Can we be said to have a calling if there is no one doing the calling? It’s hard to say, but I know I feel “called” to write. At its best, it’s a mystical experience where the words become electric, and the story practically writes itself through my fingertips. Gift from the universe or hard won skill or both? Genetics and the ways my life has shaped me or an inescapable fate? I don’t have to put a name to it. All I have to do is embrace it.
Making the ugly beautiful. Finally, nothing says sacred like turning the gritty stuff toward some higher purpose. How do we deal with chronic pain, impending death or an assault if there is no God who sticks by us through life and death, height and depth and can turn all things to work out for good? It turns out in much the same way as people with religion do. I’ll admit it was hard not have a Bible to turn to when I felt beat. But then I discovered poetry, and started leafing through my old philosophy books. Unexplored reserves of wisdom and consolation were everywhere.
It was obvious, really. No sane person, religious or otherwise seeks suffering but most often when the inevitable happens and we come through on the other side, there is a silver lining. We develop depths of wisdom and empathy which strengthen us for the future and allow us to reach out to others.
I’ll be honest. I still miss the word “sacred.” I’m a word person and there isn’t a secular umbrella word for everything that is life-affirming, meaningful and transformative. But it’s a worthwhile exercise to break it down. Because once you take a hard look at it, creating goodness, transcending heartbreak, and seeking beauty is something humans have been doing all along, in or out of religion. You could say it’s what being human is all about. – RP