THE NATURE OF THE SACRED
by Alireza Nurbakhsh
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
The term sacred comes from the Latin sacer which means “set off, restricted.” In ancient Rome the word sacer came to mean that which was restricted to the divine domain. Eventually, the sacred came to be identified with the divine and the pure, while the profane became identified with the mundane and impure.
The first point to observe about the sacred-profane distinction is that it is subjective. Things, places and people are not in themselves sacred or profane. They become sacred or profane because we conceive them as such. This is illustrated by differences among religious traditions and their conceptions of what is sacred. In Hinduism, for example, cattle are thought to be sacred and are deeply respected. No doubt this is because cattle are a source of milk, fuel and fertilizer in India. However, no such reverence exists in most of the rest of the world where cattle are merely a source of meat. Another example of the subjectivity of the experience of the sacred is evident when we see sacred artifacts in a museum. In such an encounter, we do not experience the sacred in the way people from the culture that created the objects would have experienced them when those people encountered the same objects.
Although the experience of the sacred is subjective and differs from one culture to another, it is possible, to borrow the terminology of Carl Jung, that the notion of the sacred is part of our “collective unconscious,” and is common to all human beings, existing in us innately. In this context, the subjectivity of our experience of the sacred has to do with the particular and varying manifestations of this archetype (to use another of Jung’s terms) in each of us, for the sacred can take a wide range of forms in different cultures and religious traditions.
Although the worldview, religion, or tradition that we adopt determines what sorts of things are sacred, the experience of the sacred also differs from one individual to another and can be intensely personal. It stands to reason that if the worldview we adopt does not include anything which is sacred in the original sense of being restricted to the divine, we cannot have a sacred experience. Here I use the term sacred experience as synonymous with mystical or religious experience.
In sacred or mystical experiences, we escape our mundane existence by coming face-to-face with something much greater than ourselves. The religious traditions, by and large, dictate where and when one should have such experiences, namely, in sacred spaces such as churches, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples or Hindu ashrams and while engaged in contemplation of the divine or in prayer. Each religious tradition prescribes what is sacred and in doing so creates an acceptable pattern of what constitutes a sacred experience. An Anglican Christian, for example, may experience the sacred at Westminster Abbey upon seeing the icon of Christ and relive the experience of Jesus’ sacrifice for one’s sin. But to a Japanese tourist the space will have no more than a historical or artistic significance.
There are, I believe, three main features common to all mystical experience. The first is that we feel we are in the presence of something greater than ourselves, be it God, nature or even an encounter with another human being. The second is that such an experience is usually outside the realm of the ordinary. The experience becomes increasingly ineffable; we find it hard to describe it in language without the risk of sounding absurd. The third and the most significant aspect of the mystical experience is its transformative nature. The experience is not an end in itself; one who undergoes such an experience is not engaged in a voluntary or self-serving exercise. The encounter with the sacred has always been a transformative force in all traditions. The result of such a transformation is a desire to reach out to others in order to help and love. Those who experience the sacred become more inclusive and loving especially to those who have been marginalized in society.
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