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The Sense of the Sacred

Man by nature is a believing person, aware of the sacred and the supernatural. As G. K. Chesterton famously said, a human being cannot believe in nothing: believing in nothing inevitably leads to believing in anything. If man does not worship the true God, he will honor false gods like Mammon or Baal or deify man himself as a god. Wonder is the beginning of knowledge and leads to a sense of the sacred and transcendent, a consciousness of spiritual realities called “transcendentals” (the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful) by philosophers like Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas. Man’s natural religious sensibility recognizes the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the worldly and the otherworldly, the material world and the spiritual realm. The ancient Greeks honored the Delphic oracle and built temples for their divinities. The laws of Zeus prescribed the sacred rites of hospitality for men to honor the gods and to offer kindness to fellow human beings.

The Romans also erected monuments to their divinities like the goddess Fortuna whom they petitioned for success in war and thanked for their victories in the battlefield. In primitive cultures, the crossing of a threshold like the entrance into the home from the outside world marked the transition from the profane to the holy, from the outer world with its crassness, vulgarity, and crime to the inner sanctum where purity, peace, and peace reigned. The Commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother” sanctifies the family.  Roman custom reveres the household gods which families honor in their homes and carry with them to new habitations. The Church’s description of the home as a “domestic church” also acknowledges the sacred nature of the home and family.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAEven though the sense of the sacred is a normal aspect of human consciousness identified with the holiness of religion, divine commandments, and spiritual realities, the secular world desecrates holiness in many ways. First, it blurs the distinction between sacred places, times, and events and ordinary business days. Sunday is just another shopping day at the mall and a continuation of Saturday, not the Sabbath to keep holy. To the irreligious, Sacraments are perfunctory rituals, mere façade and appearance. Nothing miraculous happens in the Sacraments, and transubstantiation is merely a word. Many do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church is not one, true, holy, and apostolic but simply another organization, business, or cultural institution rather than God’s presence, voice, and authority in the world.

The secular world also relegates the sacred to the private sphere and removes it from the public forum in multiple ways such as banning school prayer, removing the Ten Commandments from buildings and monuments, forbidding the Christmas crèche for display in civic centers, ignoring religious convictions and the rights of conscience in legislation such as the Affordable Care Act that demands health care provisions for contraception and abortifacients. Appeals to the inviolability of conscience and religious freedoms carry no weight and cannot override the decisions of judges who decree that all businesses without exception honor same-sex marriages to prevent discrimination. The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony as a divine institution ordained by God to unite man and woman in an indissoluble union holds no special status in a secular world that redefines marriage as same-sex genderless unions in the Obergefell decision.

Secular society also dishonors the sacred by the technique of leveling, flattening all distinctions into the lowest common denominator. There is no sacred and profane, no holy or sacrilegious, no beautiful or ugly—only freedom of expression or freedom of speech to rationalize vulgarity like the performance of Vagina Monologues or to justify blasphemy or desecration like the black mass. Only the mediocrity of the average determined by majority opinion or the result of polls forms the standard of judgment. If over fifty percent of the population upholds no-fault divorce, euthanasia, abortion on demand, and funding of Planned Parenthood, then polls and votes decide policies—not the consensus of ancient religious or moral traditions. When majority opinion fails to trivialize the transcendent to the banal—the compromising and lowering of the sacred to accommodate the whims of fickle multitudes—government policies and arbitrary court decisions render the sacred irrelevant. Two thousand years of the accumulated experience of the entire human race and the norms of civilization amount to nothing in the view of five Supreme Court judges who reinvent marriage.

The secular violates the sense of the sacred by dehumanizing human beings and divesting them of personhood. They are “tissue” in the mother’s womb, “vegetables” in a state of coma, “biological matter” in stem-cell research, and commodities in the trafficking of the human organs of aborted babies. Babies deemed “unwanted” and the terminally ill designated as “unaffordable” lose their human status and dignity as persons deserving of kind treatment and care. Fetal harvesting, stem-cell research, and cloning reduce human nature into animal status subject to experimentation. Even the innocence of children holds no special status as deserving of special protection or sensitivity as sex education indoctrinates the young in public school to the mores of the sexual revolution.

The sense of the sacred suffers when great art that illuminates the transcendent does not inform education. When sacred music or chant are not sung in churches, when spiritual classics like The Imitation of Christ and The Introduction to a Devout Life are never taught in religion or literature courses, or when art courses never introduce students to the masterpieces of religious painting or iconography, the spiritual aspect of beauty does not form the mind and heart or inspire wonder. The radical agenda of political correctness in universities that breeds the ideology of relativism marginalizes everything sacred and religious as superstition, bias, or subjective opinion. It reduces the venerable wisdom of Western civilization to sexism, homophobia, racism, and Eurocentrism. Dante’s Divine Comedy is too Catholic, Shakespeare is sexist, Mark Twain is racist, St. Paul is homophobic, Jane Austen’s idea of marriage is patriarchal.

An experience of the sacred depends on an atmosphere conducive to contemplation and silence that cultivate the awe, recollection, and stillness needed to know God and sense the Transcendentals of the true, the good, and the beautiful. The demands of work, the busy pace of modern life, constant travel, and the attachment to technology all compete for the time available to cultivate a sense of the sacred that leisure, worship, prayer, and beauty nourish. In the words of the Psalmist, one must “be still” to know God. Yet often, even in religious settings, those in attendance interrupt worship with the noise of conversation, the sound of cell phones, and the misbehavior of unruly children. The aura of the sacred inhabits only a few places in modern culture.

The experience of the sacred should not be a rare experience but a natural part of human life. Beauty, goodness, and truth abound and have inexhaustible sources. The Psalmist writes that the heavens declare the glory of God, St. Paul teaches that the invisible things of God are known by the visible, and Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” “Glory be to God for dappled things,” and “Christ plays in ten-thousand places.” But the eyes, mind, and heart are diverted to the multiplicity of distractions, noises, advertisements, and entertainments that direct man to look down rather than up, to be frantically busy rather than to experience quiet contemplation, and to look for entertainment rather than beauty or truth.

Without a sense of the sacred, the whole moral level of a culture suffers decline, and the standards of a society lose their noble ideals as the cheap and tawdry, the utilitarian and the profitable, and the sensationalistic and the prurient reduce man to an object, animal, or slave without a soul for anything higher than pleasure, money, or entertainment.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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