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Los Angeles, California, United States

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What Is Sacred?

After attending a memorial service for someone I used to work with, I was feeling the weight of mortality. I listened to people telling stories about this person... how they had impacted their lives... some funny... some touching... and began to think about life in general, and how fragile it is. No one was expecting this person's passing two years earlier. They went from being the epitome of vigor and deteriorated quickly. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. Watching the process... listening to how this person was memorialized, I felt the need to reflect... alone... on the meaning of life and to draw close to God.

I drove to a little coffee shop in Los Feliz (that's in California for those of you who don't know), sat down and began reading a book by Richard Rohr called, “What The Mystics Know: Seven Paths to Your Deeper Self”, because reading Richard Rohr has a way of calming my soul. I read Immortal Diamond at exactly the right time in my life and it confirmed so many things for me. It was an absolute gift from God. But this time, when I got to page five of “What the Mystics Know” I was struck by one word that stopped me cold, and I have not gotten past that one word since. It has taken me on a quest, to see if I really understand that word, if we as a society understand that word, and how our collective understanding of that word has changed over time... and how it's changing now.

The word in Rohr's book was “holy”, which I quickly looked up and the first word I found used to define holy was “sacred” and that's the word I have been investigating. I chose “sacred” because it seems to be more readily accessible to the religious and the non-religious. We use the phrase “Is there nothing sacred?” in common speech to express a feeling of violation... that something was touched that should not have been. That a thing or person or institution has been altered in a way that is not “good”, that it has been defiled.

As a recovering Catholic (honestly, I don't think I'll ever recover completely, and there are days when I'm kinda happy about that) and former choir girl, I have a fair understanding of things that are “holy” or “sacred”. I come from a church with sacraments, which are sacred rites in the Roman Catholic Church. The Eucharist is sacred, the monstrance used to hold the Eucharist is sacred. The Altar is sacred. And the way all of those things are handled is important. There is a way to behave when you're on the altar. For a long time in the Roman Catholic Church, there was a short fence or railing the kept the common parishioner off the altar. They could kneel and pray there, but they couldn't come onto the altar unless summoned by the priest. In some of the older churches, this railing is still there. That's just how sacred the altar was.

As a choir girl at the age of 9, I knew how to behave (and that I had to) on the altar. Our girl's choir was seated on the right side of the altar, not in the choir loft, (that was for the boy's choir). I would watch how carefully the priest and the altar boys (there were no altar girls back then) handled Holy Communion. How purposeful every move was... and being on the altar, I had a really good vantage point to see.

When I left the Roman Catholic Church and joined a spirit-filled, charismatic, non-denominational church, my definition of “sacred” was altered and expanded. The altar was still handled with care, but it, and everything and everyone on it was alive... and lively! The minister sang and jumped and danced and shouted, as did the rest of the congregation, and all of this was sacred. People wailed, sometimes in gratitude, sometimes in pain, as they brought their hearts to the altar to be restored by the Great Physician... to lay their burdens down at Christ's feet... to give their hearts to God... to ask Jesus into their hearts to be their Lord and Savior.

I learned that Christ was alive and interested in the minutiae of my life... that He numbered every hair on my head [Matt. 10:30] and saved every tear I've ever cried. [Psalms 56:8]. Even the crosses were different. In the Roman Catholic Church, at the center of the altar, there was a crucifix... Jesus is still on the cross and the focus is on Christ's suffering, his sacrifice for us. In my new church, there was an empty cross at the center of the altar. Christ has risen! He has transcended the cross, that instrument of torture, the place where he paid for our sins... He has conquered death and hell. He is our resurrected Lord! He is victorious and His suffering was so that we might have victory as well... those of us who believe! This is the Good News of the gospel and that news was and is very sacred to me.

For the first time as a believer, I had hope, not just for the life hereafter, but for life here. I learned that Jesus is alive and well, and willing and able to work and move in my life and in my heart here and now! That weeping may endure for a night... as in dark night of the soul... but joy does come in the morning! [Psalms 30:5] No longer a suffering soul, but victorious in Christ, the risen Lord. And it was this knowledge that caused me to ultimately leave my career in television, and work in ministry for seven years.

Now that I have discussed my understanding of the word, “sacred”, I want to look at the place of the sacred in society. Do we, in the 21st century still find anything sacred anymore? I think a lot of people are asking this question and I decided to ask a number of people that question myself. I started with the baristas in that coffee shop in Los Feliz and here's what they said... 

Both the man and the woman at the coffee shop touched on an important aspect of what sacred means,  that we... people... designate what is as sacred.  That whatever people call sacred, actually becomes sacred and the woman takes it a step further by saying that the human spirit is intrinsically sacred, meaning that it's "sacredness" exists without the need for human designation.  I completely agree, although we arrive at this conclusion coming from very different places.

Neither the man nor the woman at the coffee shop are believers, yet they seem to know intuitively what some churches and nations have periodically forgotten... that we as individuals and as a society have both the right and the responsibility to designate what is sacred and I believe we should take that duty very seriously, in part because of what the woman said... the human spirit is intrinsically sacred.  

In John 1:4 & 1:9  Jesus is referred to as both life and light and we are told that this light illuminates everyone that comes into the world... and that includes the non-believer.  I believe that this light is our human spirit.  It is what God breathed into Adams' nostrils [Genesis 2:7] and because it is "God-breathed", it is self-existent and therefore it is sacred. I believe also that is why what we designate as sacred, becomes sacred... because the breath of God in us declares it so.

In March of this year, I attended a panel discussion at St. John's Cathedral, an Episcopal church here in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Guibord Center.  It was called, "Beyond the Veil: Life After Death" and in addition to some of the mainline Christian dominations being there, some of the major, Non-Christian faith traditions were represented there as well. 

I was able to speak with four of the Non-Christian panelists pictured above.  Swami Sarvadevananda of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, Nirinjan Singh Khalsa, Executive Director of the California Sikh Council and a cultural intelligence educator and advisor to the Department of Justice, Imam Dr. Ahmed Soboh, Religious Director of the Chino Valley Islamic Center and Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels from Temple Beth Shir Shalom.

Swami Sarvadevananda's answer to my question, "how do you define sacred?" was very short but to the point, Swami Savadevananda Interview.  Noringin Singh Khalsa's answer was longer and more complex, and it actually echoed what the baristas mentioned.  That anything could be sacred... Niringin Singh Khalsa Interview].  Imam Dr. Ahmed Soboh had this to say, from the Islamic perspective... Imam Dr. Ahmed Soboh Interview .  Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels said... Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels Interview. What I found most interesting in Rabbi Comess-Daniel's answer is that everything in creation is waiting to be made sacred.  This was something that I hadn't heard before and really resonated with me.

For the traditional Christian perspective, I decided to ask the senior minister at my current church, Dr. R. Scott Colglazier at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.  Dr. R. Scott Colglazier Interview.   

Dr. Colglazier's primary focus is on three aspects of the sacred, time places and ritual, however, what resonated most with me was his statement that almost anything can be made sacred when viewed in the right way.  This confirmed what Rabbi Comess-Daniels said, that everything in creation is waiting to be made sacred.  By the way, I visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of The Angels in downtown Los Angels after our talk and personally, I didn't find it cold, but solemn.  The edifice itself wasn't what moved me, but the way light flooded the space did, and that's what made the space feel sacred to me... as if God Himself was illuminating it.  The building was merely the backdrop for the His Light.

After speaking with Dr. Colglazier, I decided to present this question about the sacred to a coworker of mine, Dave Suchanek.  Dave is a Millenial, that much talked-about, ever nebulous demographic that, according to Bloomberg and the U.S. Census, is quickly becoming the largest voting block in our country.  As I, a Gen Xer, gets older, this group is going to have a greater say in what is deemed sacrosanct in our society. Dave and I have had a few conversations about faith and politics and although we don't always agree, we do however find points of agreement, so I thought getting his perspective for this would be useful.  Dave Suchanek Interview  

Dave believes that there are certain things that in the depths of our souls, everyone knows are sacred.  He believes that everyone knows on some level that human life is sacred.  I wish he were right about that, but with recent events in Paris, London and Manchester, not to mention the atrocities committed throughout history, I don't believe he is.  I wish I could say that religion is the perfect way to cause people to know that life is sacred, but we all know that religion has been, and for some, remains the reason for taking human life... that religion has been the vehicle for many of the atrocities committed throughout history, but religion is not God.  It is merely man's flawed attempt to access the divine. 

Several people that I interviewed for this post have stated that anything can be sacred... that we have the power to make times, places and rituals sacred... that the human spirit is sacred... that life is sacred... and that all of this "sacredness" can exist, divorced from religion, which implies it can exist divorced from God, but I don't think so.  

Maybe our concept of God is just too small, especially for those of us in religious communities. We get caught up in doctrine and dogma and religious tradition and our church culture and forget that God is bigger than all of that.  I'm not saying that religion is bad in and of itself, it isn't however, it is only as good as the people who practice it.  It is our imperfect attempt (which accounts for all the wrong that's been done in the name of religion) to access God... to experience His presence... to please him... to keep ourselves "in" with God. It is not God.  I believe we have to be willing to look past our own religious background, our narrow view, and open ourselves up to new ways of experiencing the sacred.

A few weeks ago, I decided to take myself out to dinner.  I hadn't had a night out in quite a while and I decided to go all out... dinner and dessert at a nice restaurant... live music... the whole works.  This practice for me is sacred.  It's "me" time... a time to feel relaxed and pampered, however, my evening did not go as planned.  The dinner wasn't that great.  The live music wasn't great either and I decided to leave the restaurant early because I just wasn't comfortable... I didn't even stay for dessert.  As I walked out of the restaurant, I decided to walk down the street to Cafe Figaro, a little French bistro in Los Feliz, CA, for coffee and dessert to try and salvage the rest of my evening.  At least I knew the dessert would be good.  Seated at my table, waiting for my waiter to come back and thinking about how disappointing my evening had been, I looked across the room and recognize someone I hadn't seen in a very long time.

Victor Hugo Zayas is an Artist... a sculptor, painter, and art educator, who I met in, of all places, South Los Angeles, an area not known for its trendy arts scene.  I lived there my last two years of college and worked there with my mother, who founded a church there in an area called, Hyde Park, a high crime, under served community... the stereotypical "South Central L.A." community you hear about in rap songs.  When either I or my mother wanted to take a breather (a mental health day we called it) and escape the stresses of the ministry and that environment, we always had to go out of the community... the Marina, the Westside... because there was no place safe or attractive in the community to do that.  So you can imagine my shock and joy when I stumbled upon Victor Hugo Zayas and his cafe in the L.A. Design Center on Western Ave. between Slauson and Gage, in the heart of South Central Los Angeles.  It was like finding water in the desert.  I could get a bite to eat, a good cup of coffee, read and study in a creative, stimulating environment and he even had a little library!  Art everywhere... paintings, sculptures, drawings hanging from the ceiling!   And he taught classes!  He even had live music there some nights.  And all this within walking distance of where I was living, and believe me, in "the hood", that is rare.

I hadn't seen Victor in over ten years, but we had kept in touch through social media. I facebook messaged him, we waved and he came over to my table and we greeted each other as old friends. As we were catching up, I realized that I hadn't talked to an artist yet, and it would be great to get his thoughts on what he finds sacred, and for him, it's art... Victor Hugo Zayas Interview.

Victor's idea that intuition and self-exploration are sacred, and that he could achieve the sacred through art was profound and I completely agree.  One of the reasons I love art and earned a degree in Visual Communication is because I've always been able to access a deeper part of me through art.  It's one of the reasons I find painting, especially abstract painting challenging, sometimes bring me to the point of tears, because it allows me to tap into what is real in me... my truth... and God is the Spirit of Truth.  It allows God to speak to me, through me, paint and canvas, and ultimately brings me closer to Him because paint doesn't lie.  Art doesn't allow me to hide truths from myself... what I'm really feeling... and forces me to articulate my feelings visually and really look at them and gives me the opportunity to bring them, and my heart before God in truth. I find the process engaging, emotional, exhausting and incredibly fulfilling, especially when I produce something that I like.  

My chat with Victor ultimately brought me back to what Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels said, that everything in creation is waiting to be made sacred... every thought... every action... every deed... waiting to be made sacred by us... by God in us.