I’ve decided today to explore my take on the sacred. What is sacred to me, how I decided what I found to be sacred, and to cast in relief those things which are definitely not at all sacred to me. The process of articulating what is sacred is one that should be on-going. How I defined sacredness ten years ago is not how I define it today. Refining my understanding of it is also refining my understanding of my spiritual self.
Herein, I give three definitions, and an explanation for each. I do not expect these to be universally applicable, but perhaps the process will prove to be an illuminating read.
1. Sacred (Adjective): In Alignment With Deeply Held Values
“I reject any religious doctrine that does not appeal to reason and is in conflict with morality.” — Ghandi
Much of what is sacred to me has to do with my deeply held values. I believe in consent culture. I believe in personal liberties for all people. I believe in equality. I believe that one important measure of a person, and a requisite I have for a friend, is kindness. I believe that leadership is good leadership only when it does not rely exclusively on power and authority. I believe in the nobility of the un-ending search for truth. I believe that trying to control others through fear is wrong-headed — foolish, in fact, since fear is hatred, and your influence over people who fear you will only hold so long as you are holding the bigger stick. I do not respect people simply for holding the bigger stick… or political office, for that matter. Resisting tyranny, choosing love over fear, choosing persuasion over violence, fighting for the liberty of other people, fighting for equality and being kind to other people is sacred to me.
These core values are a part of who I am. I would stand for them regardless of what I thought was or was not true about the metaphysical universe. I would not violate them because of what any religion taught. If I happened to be a part of a religion, and learned that they, for example, deeply valued some form of de-humanizing bigotry, I would quit that religion.
If I was working with a deity, and discovered that they are desecrating what was sacred to me, I would stop working with them. To continue to work with a deity who desecrates what is sacred to me is destructive to my spiritual essence.
As a Polytheist of some years, I understand the connection between veneration and sanctity. I used to be a vegetarian, but then I took up with gods of shepherding. Because the eating of meat and the drinking of milk was sacred to them, by extension, it became sacred to me. Though I never sought out and specifically venerated Hermes in his aspect as the Prince of Thieves, I notice that I have softened my tongue on the matter of theft after working with him for many long years.
A deity is not a buffet. I cannot pick and choose parts of them to have a relationship with. I either have a relationship with them or I don’t. And if I do, then I must accept that venerating them is venerating ALL that they stand for.
By venerating a deity who negated my deeply held values, I feel that I would be destroying a part of my soul. For me, veneration of a deity who stands for things I am committed to fight against in the world is not only inadvisable, it’s emotionally impossible.
And when deities I do want to work with ask me to do things that are contrary to my values? I am certainly respectful, but I definitely hold my ground. I believe that my spiritual health depends upon my integrity. This facet of my spirituality has prompted many debates with deities, ones which not only helped me to refine my beliefs and convictions, and have as well helped me to understand the deities I was arguing with. Sometimes, the deities persuade me to abandon things — such as what happened with my vegetarianism. Other times, my convictions are only deepened, and through that process, I become more deeply grounded in myself.
If I know the purpose of my life, it’s only because I debated my life’s purpose with a god. Or, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, what we wrestle with defines our greatness, and the one who wrestles with the divine gains greatness of the very best kind.
2. Sacred (Adjective): The Marriage of Devotion and Meaning
“Man cannot live without joy; therefore when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.” — Thomas Aquinas
I just spent a lot of time talking about what is sacred to me, and to someone whose idea of the sacred has exclusively to do with religion, I must sound a bit like an atheist. But for me, there is spiritual fulfillment in knowing that the gods I choose to venerate are fighting the same fight.
I choose Apollon because I choose Truth. I choose Hermes because I choose hospitality, cunning, persuasion and kindness. I choose Ares because I choose courage as my weapon against the evil impulses of my soul. I choose Hephaestos because I choose to see past false ideals of perfection and into the value of a piece of art, or a person.
Why devotion to Hermes is the same as my devotion to seeing the value in people. My devotion to Ares is the same as my devotion to honor. My devotion to Hephaestos is the same as my devotion to my craft as a potter. Our relationships are built around our common values. From this common effort springs mutual regard, affection, respect and love.
I cannot imagine what these relationships with deities would mean to me if I did not share core values with them, if they meant anything at all. And if a relationship with a deity means nothing to me, how can it be sacred to me?
When my ideals and the ideals of a deity are in concert, we move together, harmonize, are more powerful together. It is two hearts beating together as one, in the name of a common passion, and the terrestrial power of humanity joined in harmony with divine wisdom. In this, there is peace and spiritual joy. Without that harmony, I am in disarray.
3. Sacred (Adjective): Done Out of Love, Having Rejected Fear
“The purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others” — Dalai Lama
Fear is hatred. Anyone who has ever been discriminated against knows this intuitively. When we talk about “homophobia” or “transphobia” we are talking about hatred. I understand that when I feel hatred, it is rooted in fear, and when I feel fear, it can and will turn to hatred at the drop of a hat. Consequently, I refuse to fear the gods, because hatred is not sacred to me.
Fear is the root of all anger, too. Anger is what we feel when we’ve lost control, when we feel powerless, when our place in the world or our identity is threatened. For human beings, fear and anger have their place. They are a part of the fight-or-flight response of our baser nature. It keeps us safe. It lets us know when we are in danger. It’s a part of our animal nature.
By itself, raw fear and anger are not sacred. When harnessed to right injustices in the world, they can be. The animal nature can be elevated to the realm of the sacred when it is brought under the will of a spiritual person.
During those times when I let fear rule my spirituality, I have been miserable. I remember living for three years with a chronic stomach ache because I let fear guide me, spiritually. I learned nothing, made no progress, and was frequently cranky with my friends because of it. There was nothing spiritual about that time, though one could argue that I was a great deal more religious than I am now. I was less than true to myself and I was less than true to my values. The moment I decided that a deity’s laws and a deity’s potential anger would no longer rule my life was the moment I embraced Polytheism.
Rather than prostrating before the altar of Apollon, giving him incense and hoping he doesn’t smite me, I seek him out, giving him the gift of deep thought and philosophy. And incense, too. And tea. I connect with him over those things which we both love.
Rather than fearing Hermes as a chaotic being and having my practice focused around propitiating him, I turn my devotion to the streets, seeing his work as the same work as helping the homeless and the lost. My service to Hermes is the same as my service to humanity.
In order to hold onto myself while embracing the gods, I need to kick fear to the curb. Only when I choose love and reject fear do these relationships become spiritually fruitful for me. And it is this, I think, that is the distillation of the sacred, for me: that which is spiritually fruitful. It is in this headspace that I can gain insight without needless suffering. Grounded in my sense of self, I can engage in mysticism without losing me. Without fear of losing myself, I no longer get in my own way.
It is for this reason that allowing for diversity of thought on this subject is so important. With the freedom to explore and find what is sacred to us, we find meaning and what is most spiritually fruitful for us.