Or don't you matter?
The controversial English journalist and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote:
Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.
Why did Muggeridge make this statement? I think it was because when he was in India he met Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa created havens for humans who’d been left to die on the streets of Calcutta. Lepers, paupers, and babies found in dustbins were her brothers and sisters. In her eyes the poorest of the poor and the richest in the kingdom were equal. She showed the shunned as much respect as she showed Pope John Paul II. To her, everyone was God in the flesh. Everyone was sacred. She bowed to their sacredness.
Muggeridge was moved by her selfless work, and came to the same conclusion:
Life is always and in all circumstances sacred.
The term sacred means holy, blessed, set apart, consecrated, deserving of veneration. We usually use it to refer to places, things or events that move or change us in intangible ways.
Places: Religious buildings like Machu Picchu and St Paul’s Cathedral contain sacred spaces. The monolithic rock Uluru, Mt Fuji, Whanganui River and lake Lhamo Latso are revered as sacred.
Things: Ancient books, objects such as bowls, symbols like the cross and circle, incense, water and the fire used in rituals are considered sacred.
Events: Life events like births, baptisms and burials are sacred happenings imbued with deep, out-of-this-world meaning.
The effect sacred places, things and moments have on us can’t be put into words. Although a part of, they are also “out of”, this world. They are beyond comprehension.
That’s what sacred means to me: beyond comprehension.
Writing about the sacred reminds me of two events in my life that were beyond my comprehension, events that really can’t be put into words, but I’ll try.
The first event happened in my twenties. Early one summer morning in Big Sandy, Texas, I was walking briskly along a path, my thoughts, as usual, chasing one another like tumbleweeds in the desert: breakfast, work, classes, assignments, a possible romance. As I rounded a corner I came to an abrupt halt. In front of me, standing in the middle of the path, barely two metres away, was a great horned owl.
We took each other in. My look was startled. The owl’s was the unblinking, mesmerizing stare for which they are famed. My thoughts stopped. The scenery faded. There was just the owl and me and the distance between. Then that disappeared too.
I don’t know how long we gazed, lost to everything else but each other. I was held in timeless space, arrested by a wild, knowing presence in the middle of the path that brought me face-to-face with itself, with myself, in the stillness of a moment.
The encounter changed the day. It changed the rest of the week. It changed me. I kept trying to recapture the feeling the owl gave me in the spontaneity of our encounter. Its unerring contemplation of my presence had somehow touched my heart and taught me a precious truth I too often forget:
The owl wasn’t just a being. It was being.
I’m not just a being. I am being.
The second event happened in the romantic city of Venice when I was fifty-one.
It was late afternoon. I wandered the maze of stone-paved streets Venice is famous for, my footsteps shadowed by tall buildings on both sides. I peered into shops packed with carnival masks, Murano glass and handmade leather shoes, sniffed longingly at the tantalizing aroma of pizza drifting from ovens and tried to keep out of the way of more purposeful tourists.
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, I stepped out of the shady maze of streets and found myself standing at the edge of St Mark’s Square. Sunlight dazzled me. A blue, unclouded sky curved overhead. Live orchestral music, carried by a light breeze, floated across the huge square from outdoor cafes. Festive flags fluttered. Pigeons flapped and cooed.
I stood there, transfixed, my aching feet and empty tummy forgotten.
After that, just silence. The music faded. People drifted past soundlessly, as if their feet didn’t touch the ground. Their mouths moved but I heard no words. My body dissolved, and what welled up in its place was timeless presence. I was part of all things. I didn’t exist and yet I was everywhere, everyone, everything.
When I came to, my eyes were filled with tears. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to move. I had nothing to say and nowhere I needed to go.
In his book The Exquisite Risk, the poet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo wrote:
Often, the unplanned and unexpected appearance of what is authentic jars us from our self-created sense of things into the larger order of life that we are all a part of.
These two events were grounded in the physical world, but they opened my awareness to the wider, deeper, boundlessness of all that is. I stepped into . . . no — became . . . no — realised . . . I was — sacred.
But my mind can’t grasp the sacred. When I step into a sacred place I’m enveloped in an invisible embrace. I’m moved in mysterious ways by ancient spaces, timeless rituals and numinous events. But I can’t really put it into words because the sacred is unknowable by the mind.
When I’m open to the sacred, I become aware, at a level deeper than the everyday me, that if one thing is sacred, then everything must be. Otherwise, sacredness — the timeless, immeasurable, invisible presence forming and un-forming the known and the unknown — has a line beyond which it cannot go. It ends. It only goes so far and no further. It’s here but not there. It’s in this but not in that. It is limited.
This leads to endless subjectivity and judgement, which Muggeridge warned us about:
This is sacred, but that is not.
Life experiences have shown me that the sacred is everywhere. It dwells in places, things, events and people, and the space that holds them.
You are sacred. The chair you sit on, the earth beneath your feet, the sky above your head — all are sacred, holy, blessed.
Mother Teresa was sacredness walking the sacred streets of sacred Calcutta, succouring the sacred sick.
If, like her, we live in a way that honours the sacredness in everyone and everything, the world is transformed.
This article has an air of rambling about it. Disparate places, things, events and people litter the pages. Malcolm Muggeridge, an early morning, a horned owl, thoughts of romance. Mother Teresa, a late afternoon, St Mark’s Square, the smell of pizza, soundless music, tears.
But that’s the point.
Life is always, and in every circumstance, sacred.
You are sacred. Your life matters.
Be open to the moments that tell you so.
With love, Marlane