What is sacred? Some would point to the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Sutra, the Vedas. Some would say the sacred resides in their churches, their temples, their synagogues, their mosques. Some would say it is located in Mecca, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, in the Ganges, in Lumbini, in stupas, in the moon, in the sun. Clearly, what is sacred is based on the particular religion and its attendant teachings, practices, values, beliefs, and history.
Sacred and Mundane
Religion is the assumed frame for addressing the question, as scared is associated with the holy, which, in turn, is defined and understood within a religious context. The term “sacred” is derived from Latin, meaning “to set apart'” a partitioning of the sacred from the mundane. The set-apart of sacred from mundane in most religions involves the separation of “this world” from a transcendental, supernatural world. The transcendental world is before and beyond this world and the source and origin of the sacred.
This partitioning is established and maintained by cultural-religious practices, worship services, dress, ceremonies, rites, and rituals that serve to mark the boundaries of the sacred from the habits and customs of everyday life. They also offer a well-worn avenue, complete with signposts, guides, and guardrails, for entry into experiencing the scared.
These states, sacred and mundane, embody two different modes of being: One of awe, reverence, fear, and humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of god (or gods). The other, in contrast, of concerns and experiences of the quotidian and the commonplace. One extraordinary, the other ordinary. One transformative, the other commonplace.
This World Sacred
The set-apart, however, need not require a supernatural presence or origin. The sheer overwhelming presence of the world, the miracle that there is something rather than nothing, that it exists, that we exist, evokes the experience of the sacred. There is another world and it is in this world.1 The sacred does not shine through this world from a source outside it—it is the world, itself, shinning.
This experience of the sacred shares much with the religious experience: It is not logical, not rational, not cognitive, but a state of being; of awe, reverence, fear, humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of the cosmos. The set-apart for this world sacred, however, is not found through established religious rites, rituals, and practices.
The experience of the mundane is the product of being socialized into a ready-made world of routines and habits, familiar meanings and cultural rituals, that render the world obvious, given, and straightforward. And it must be so, if we are to keep from being overwhelmed by the angst and terror of finding ourselves in a world that is beyond understanding; that beneath our feet, firmly planted in the habits and rituals of daily life, lies a yawning void. Experience of this world sacred, for those well secured to the “straightforward” world, requires breaking open the commonplace to glimpse the miraculous of this world that is papered over by the mundane.2
Experiencing This World
Whereas religion provides culturally established rituals and ready-made avenues for experiencing the sacred, no such sanctioned signposts or well-worn paths exist for experiencing this world sacred. The experience of this world sacred can come unbidden; surprising, shocking, disorienting, alarming, delighting, frightening us.
The encrustment of the mundane can also be punctured through science, which delivers head-spinning discoveries and mind-busting conclusions; our wildest dreams could not conger anything as bizarre, and contra the mundane, as quantum mechanics, black holes, or an infinite, expanding cosmos.3 Science teaches: The world is not only stranger that we imagine, it is stranger that we can imagine.4
Art, music, dance, poetry, theatre all, too, can shock us out of our mundane stupor. Seeing rather than looking; listening rather than hearing. A soup can, a splash of red, a face, a bird’s trill—anything, really—can be transformed to an experience of the sacred with the proper openness and reverence.5
Also, meditation— practicing to be present, alive to the experience of this moment without preconceptions—is another way to be present to the mystery, alert to the epiphany of the ordinary, alive to the holy and the numinous that is the world.
Some may object to this use of words “sacred”, “holy” and “numinous”, either because they fail to incorporate religious metaphysical referents, or because they reverberate with such connotations. But the power of these words does justice to the power of the experiences. No single religion owns these experiences. Indeed, their presence across religions underscores that they are fundamental human experiences resulting from our plight of finding ourselves alive within the Mystery of an unfathomable cosmos. And the challenge, for those of us for whom the sacred is This World, is to stand in the face of the Mystery, without explanation; astonished.