“Is nothing sacred anymore?” asked a friend. We were having a discussion about the state of the world. I felt chagrinned. I knew she was headed to a blistering critique of the disrespectful language, attitudes, and behavior that seem to abound in public now that we have 24/7 news and social media posts forever popping up on our phones. Not wanting to retreat into the shadows on this beautiful sunny day, I searched for a way to elevate the conversation by asking what she meant by “sacred.”
Blessed. Graced. Pure. Divine. Unmarred by sin and decay. Held in high esteem. These are a few of the definitions she verbalized. Examples? Newborn babies, faith, love of country, religious practice, family, God, selfless acts of service. “What about the natural world?” I queried. She seemed a bit nonplussed but conceded that creation certainly was a source of wonderment but did not really fit into her definition of sacred. The planet, in her estimation, is inherently neutral, created for our consumption and survival. Citing Genesis, she believes that humanity was given “dominion” over the earth and was commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Human life, on the other hand, is ontologically sacred, having been made in the image and likeness of God.
I know many sincere religious people who hold the same beliefs. Unfortunately, this perspective perpetuates the division between what is considered sacred and what is secular or even profane. To me, therein lies the answer to the age-old problem of why many do not concern themselves with environmental issues. If the planet is not fundamentally touched by the divine, then there is no pressing reason to reverence or protect it.
Fortunately, many people a lot smarter than me have been writing about this topic for thousands of years: Sts. Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, Duns Scotus, St. Catherine of Siena, and more modern writers such as Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Johnson, Raimon Panikkar, Philip Newell, Ilia Delio, and today, Pope Francis in his encyclical, “Laudato Si.” According to them, there is no separation. Everything is sacred and as our knowledge of the universe evolves, this becomes more and more clear. We humans, endowed with intellect, free will, and self-reflection have been given the choice to act in sacred or profane ways in our care for creation. This discerning gift begins and ends within and not somewhere outside ourselves.
Two books I am currently reading have amplified these thoughts and I recommend them both: The Hours of the Universe by Ilia Delio and The Book of Nature by Barbara Mahaney. Both paint an exquisite picture of the taproot at the heart of all creation: Love (aka God), a unifying and powerful force.
If there is a slipping away of a palpable sense of the sacred, it needn’t be, shouldn’t be, according to Mahaney. “It is an extravagance–indeed, a firey one–pressed into the pages of the Book of Nature, the ancient theology that insists God’s first revelation was spelled out in the alphabet letters of every leaf of every tree, in the sound and silence of every trill of birdsong, from the tiniest of caterpillars to the dome of heaven arced across the star-threaded sky.” (10)
In her book, The Hours of the Universe, Ilia Delio writes, “God is at the heart of cosmological and biological life, the depth and center of everything that exists. God is within and ahead, the field of infinite possibilities; God’s invitation (grace) activates or motivates our choices. . .Our nature is already endowed with grace, and thus our task is to be attentive to that which is within and that which is without–mind and heart–so that we may contribute to building up the world in love. Every action can be sacred action if it is rooted in love. . . (41)
Living as though the universe is the original blessing, the first Incarnation, embued and sustained by the Beloved, is up to each of us. Difficult as this may be for some personalities and those wounded by the vicissitudes of life, perhaps a shift in perspective is the balm needed to soothe our hurting world. If all is sacred, there is nothing to fear and everything to embrace.
At the end of our time together, a flock of robins descended from the sky and perched on nearby branches. Their distinctive bird songs were boisterously loud. “Is that the Holy Spirit trying to tell us something?” asked my friend. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind.