In Search of the Sacred

“. . travelers cannot find deep meaning in their journey until they encounter what is truly sacred.  What is sacred is what is worthy of our reverence, what evokes awe and wonder in the human heart, and what when contemplated transforms us utterly.”     The Art of Pilgrimage, p. 358, ebook

It was a year ago that we were on our journey around South America and I took up the challenge to engage that journey more as a pilgrim than as a tourist.  My guide in this endeavor is The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau.  Interestingly enough, my bishop has chosen this book for his Lenten reading.  It’s a good one to contemplate.  Isn’t all of life a journey on this planet?

Part of my initial comments from last year:    “It seems to me that a Tourist travels to learn more about the world, to experience the culture, to bring home something of it (whether pictures or artifacts), expecting to have their outer horizons widened.  And, in fact many of our journeys have done just that.  It’s a good thing to do.  And has helped me learn how different cultures shape different perspectives.  A Pilgrim travels to discover the sacred.  In pilgrimage there is an intention and ongoing attention to that intention.  According to Cousineau, pilgrimage is derived from the Latin peligrinus, “the journey of a person who travels to shrine or holy place” (p.528 e-version. . .   In Pilgrimage there is both an inward and outward journey – a discovery of the other who, it turns out is ourselves.”   

This year, as we once again undertake cruising to foreign lands,  I find myself in a different kind of space, more wondering about the dichotomy between tourist and pilgrim, and even more the one between sacred and what we usually call secular.  What makes something or some place or someone more sacred than something else?  According to Cousineau, “What is sacred is what is worthy of our reverence, what evokes awe and wonder in the human heart, and what when contemplated transforms us utterly”

We all have had those moments in our lives when we have felt reverent.  Perhaps it happened in a designated holy place, like a church or synagogue or mosque, or a site of ancient pilgrimage, like Jerusalem, Ankor Wat, the island of Iona, or Stonehenge.  Perhaps it was in the midst of a forest, or an encounter with animals in the wild, or on a mountain top, or on a clear, dark night when the sky was brilliant with stars, or the moon rose over the mountains.  We feel differently inside, more open, more grateful, more loving, perhaps.  We might feel insignificant and important at the same time.  We are in a state of awe and wonder.  Those are the easily identifiable sacred places and experiences.

But what about everyday occurrences, the people we meet, the food we eat, the fabrics and wood that surround us in the furniture we use?  As I write this, the Tasman Sea is roiling outside our stateroom and we are rolling around quite a bit.  Isn’t the sea sacred?  It is full of life and a crucial part of our planet.  And we are increasingly worried about our pollution of this part of our life.  And what about the ship that carries us and the captain, staff and crew who keep her running?  And the carpet on the floor that was designed and made by people who are skilled in such things?  What I am wondering about has to do with not what we encounter, but how we live in the midst of our lives, no matter where we are and who we are with.

One of my teachers, Cynthia Bourgeault, puts it this way:  “Wisdom is not about knowing more, but about knowing with more of you.” What and how we see and experience our lives and our journeys has to do with our inner presence in the present. And that depends on the engagement of not only our mind, but also our hearts and our bodies.  Being fully awake and present with all three systems takes effort and practice, and produces a quality of aliveness that is not to be missed in this life.  (Check out Cynthia’s book:  The Wisdom Way of Knowing for more on this.)

Our word sacred comes from the Middle English word, sacre, meaning “to consecrate”, which means to set aside for special (holy) purposes.  It is a word that indicates separation from other more mundane things, like water, bread, and earth.   But didn’t Jesus change water into wine, and share bread and wine with his friends and followers?  Using the simple available elements potentially indicates that nothing is beyond the purview (seeing!) of being “sacred”.  It depends on how we see and treat those elements and beings around us.

I’m not arguing with Cousineau for being intentional about finding the sacred in our journeys through life.  I’m simply suggesting that as we work on ourselves through contemplative practice we are able to treat each encounter as a holy one, even when we are not traveling a distance to have that encounter.  It all has to do with intention and presence.

Yesterday we were in Hobart, Tasmania.  The wind was quite brisk as we walked into town to visit The Anglican Cathedral of St. David.  We like to visit churches as they contain the historical spirit of a community and express the intention of presence and prayer.  There is much that is similar about them:  an altar, a pulpit, often an organ or other musical instruments, windows that might honor certain people or “saints”.  What was different about this one was the greeting we received when we walked in the door.  A lovely older woman greeted us and encouraged us to look around, even turning on lights so we could see a special hallway with artifacts of importance.  This was the moment we had come for and carried with us even as we walked among the wild Spirit/Wind to get back to our ship.  

St. David’s Anglican Cathedral- side entrance

Such is the daily opportunity all around us.  What/where will you see the “sacred” in your life today?

Tasmanian devil – actually kind of cute!

3 thoughts on “In Search of the Sacred

  1. Rev. Patricia,
    Thank you for sharing your perspectives between being a tourist and a traveler who is on a pilgrimage. Helene and I are reading “The Art of Pilgrimage” in preparation of our Fall pilgrimage along the Via Francigena in Italy. We will walk from St. Bernards Pass in the Alps to Rome a distance of 595 miles. We will seek what is truly sacred!


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