Sacredness… sanctity… what is it, where is it, how does it work… practically speaking?
Occasionally, not because this is the way the brain works, but because of the way it makes my mind feel, I wonder if there is a special part of the brain that processes sacredness. A place, perhaps in the front of the cortex, on the outside, and then also deep in the middle, where, between the two, the deep tremors of awe and the new light of understanding reach out across the mind from both directions… and miss… and keep reaching, like a searchlight… not in anxious and fretful straining, casting back and forth as for a forgotten telephone number or that noun on the tip of your tongue – but like a light-show or a broadcast or receiver, outward facing and open… the way our eyes and lungs seek to inhale and open up to a long awaited view on a mountain-top… open wide and drinking it in, without ever filling up.
Awe… I have, for many years had a subscription to popular science mag ‘NewScientist’ – a habit inherited from my father, who used to work in the field of computer science and AI, and whose copies of NewScientist I used to trawl through avidly, sitting underneath the desk in the study, full of exciting innovation and discovery and research- and stuffed full of new ethical and philosophical discussion points… anyway a couple of months ago, there was an article about ‘awe‘ and how helpful the experience of awe can be to our minds…
I know the positive quality of awe shouldn’t seem like news to a priest, but I’m all for the search for more knowledge of a bit more Truth from every angle and I think it’s helpful (vital!) to approach knowledge from the bottom-up, practical-measurement, field of Science… (always taking into account how fleeting scientific ‘knowledge’ is, regularly changing shape: when an old scientific theory or law is corrected or disproved or improved or superceded); as well as approaching Truth from the top-down, ancient-revelation, direction of religion and spirituality, (which can trickle off into odd experimental theological detours and get sidetracked unhelpfully in peculiar cultural eddies: according to what’s going on in people’s lives at that time in history)(… Don’t talk to me about theoretical physics, which does weird wibbly things somewhere between the two and occasionally simultaneously and equally in opposite directions).
Anyway – back to awe, and the sense of sacredness or sanctity… apparently it’s big enough or widespread enough or repeatable enough to study scientifically and apparently it’s good for us.
Well I don’t know if this is true for all priests, but I certainly find that awe is one of those things that I experience a lot… good news according to NewScientist… as it apparently ‘boosts creativity’, ‘lowers stress’ and can make us ‘nicer people’. But whilst they admit one does not need to be religious to experience awe -[though perhaps it helps]- I think it is certainly one of the main things that actually moves me to respond with prayer.
Actually I would say that at times the sense of sacredness or awe is synonymous with prayer – as though awe is an inner motion of one’s spirit, actively lit up by the numinous and already responding, like a flower unfolding in sunlight… radiance begetting radiance, beauty begetting beauty… awe, sacredness, sanctity is participatory.
It is certain that one can ignore all awesome things . Just as one can deliberately choose to ignore the sacred, or even, in a motion that strangely acknowledges the sacred just as strongly and powerfully as religiosity… one can choose to deliberately respond in a negative way, to profane it.
But I do believe it comes from beyond ourselves just as it comes correspondingly from within, and I think that when we respond together to the awesome, the sacred… we truly connect with one another in a way that reaches beyond ourselves and interconnects us… not like a mob temporarily formed in reacting to a gunshot, responding to something baser than reason or thought, but more like a gathered choir, united physically and experientially and in intent focus…in harmony and linked by an intentional involvement or acquiescence above ordinary reason.
I guess I’m kind of waffling on. But I am fascinated by the way in which we can feel the awe, the numinous in many situations, and without a word – be united with others in something beyond ourselves – sometimes over great distances, sometimes over different times in history. Not always in something joyous, but sometimes in grief or loss or passion or concern- with a comprehension beyond words, and an emotional involvement that, at least for me, moves me to compassion and empathy, to prayer – of thanks or pleading or hope or simply questioning.
Very occasionally it even happens in church.